The oppression of joy


Photo taken by my son, Andrei.

A while ago, I was stopped on the campus’s streets by some young college students. There were two girls and a boy, dressed very casually, like anyone else on campus, but who asked with an air of importance that only a life or death question can give you: “What do you think will happen to your soul when you die?” They belonged to some Christian organization and they clearly had in mind that they were responsible for the salvation of my soul–that is, that they had the power to save me.

Back then, I was writing my dissertation on Aristotle’s notion of soul, so I could not resist the temptation to begin a dialogue with them. “Tell me what you mean by ‘soul’ and I may tell you what I think will happen to what you call ‘soul.'” To my regret, the conversation was very short. I think they may have written me off as one of the lost souls of the philosophers that are mentioned in the Bible, so my young interlocutors excused themselves and looked around for another victim.

I remembered this scene because of a comment that I have received today on a recent blog entry, titled The Canon of Joy.  The person who commented, a fellow Orthodox, said,

“There are many sayings of the fathers I see tossed around by Orthodox in the ways that Protestants toss Bible verses around. Many of these “Orthodox memes of encouragement” seem like vipers to me. 

“They say things like “Once one has experienced Christ then they know nothing but joy!” – Some Elder of Some Famous Monastery.

“But I can only read such things in reverse… since I know much that is not joy, I must not have experienced Christ.”

It seems to me that the experience he described, that “these memes of encouragement seem like vipers” to him, was very similar to my own feelings of despair whenever people stopped me on my path to ask me whether my soul was saved. Such “events” come always as a nuisance. And even more, what does it mean to tell people that they must rejoice? Or that they must consider that status of their souls?

Truly nothing! My online acquaintance was, after all, right. Words do not do anything. Words about joy are just moral encouragements to be in a way in which you may not be able to function at a certain moment. They miss the point. You can compare them to this situation: you burned your hand in the fire, come to me for help, and I respond, “Once you have experienced Christ, you know nothing but joy!” If this answer is the expression of joy, then joy can only be an oppression, and you would rightly not want to do anything with it.

However, I’ve been in the presence of people whose joy was oppressing, but it was not oppressing to me, but rather to my shortcomings. In the presence of such joy, about which these people did not speak, because there was no need for them to say words to make it present, any kind of oppression for me was disappearing. And this is because their joy could fill the emptiness of my spiritual weakness. They were not out to save me, but they were living life as if already in the Kingdom, so in joy.

But don’t get me wrong: they were not people on drugs. They were not dancing in the rain, nor were they singing praises to the Lord–at least not outwardly. They were rather caring for someone whose hand was burned, were making coffee for someone who was tired, or were cutting firewood for winter.

The miracle was that I was also in the Kingdom because of their joy. Me, the one without joy, already embraced by the Joy that lived in them.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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