Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 2, 1998
Joy and pain point us toward eternity
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In this life there is no such thing as a clear-cut, pure joy. Everything comes mixed. As Henri Nouwen once put it: Every bit of life is touched by a bit of death. In every satisfaction there is limitation; in every embrace, there is distance; in every success, there is the fear of jealousy; behind every smile, there is a tear; and in all forms of light there is knowledge of the surrounding darkness.
When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he or she will have to leave again, and when you are overwhelmed by the beauty of a sunset, you miss the friend who cannot be there with you. Joy and pain are born at the same place within us and we can never find proper words to capture our own feelings.
It is because of this strange paradox, the fact that joy is always mixed with pain, that all the joyful mysteries and events within Christ's life and within our own lives are experienced in such a mixed way.
For example, when the Virgin Mary, a young mother, comes before Simeon in the Temple, he looks at her and her child and says: "This child is destined for the fall and rise of many, a sign that will be contradicted . . . and a sword too will pierce your own heart."
An interesting thing to say to a young mother, deep joy and deep pain will come to you because of your child! We have our own experiences of this. Many is the mother who cries at her daughter's wedding, even though it is a joyful occasion. A sword too is piercing her heart.
Sensitive people often cry in the face of joy, not just because joy is often too gracious and raw to take, but because its light sends beams into many other places. Simeon understood this, revelation reveals pain even as it brings joy.
Why is this so? Why is it every time joy reveals itself something painful also pierces the heart?
Revelation means precisely to unveil, to pull off masks, to lay secrets bare, to reveal things hidden, as Scripture says, since the foundation of the world. Deep joy is a revelation. It uncovers things and lets us feel things hidden since the beginning of time.
Joy is a light and, as a light, it shines into everything, showing us both our glory and our limits. In joy, just as much as in sorrow, we experience what Rahner describes when he says: "In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we realize that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished." Like Nouwen, Rahner too understands that, this side of eternity, there is no such thing as a joy that comes pure and complete.
But again a series of questions arise: Why? Why does revelation, the truth -- which is supposed to set us free -- bring pain? Why does the Gospel of Christ not bring us what we really want, joy without pain?
These are important questions because how we understand the relationship between joy and pain helps determine how we understand ourselves, happiness and the Gospel.
Too often we have the false idea, very prevalent in our culture, that joy and pain are incompatible and that Christ came to rescue us from pain. Our culture tends to believe that if you are in pain, you cannot be happy and to be happy you must avoid pain.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Joy and pain are not incompatible and Christ does not, as poor preaching sometimes wants us believe, promise us less pain. The reverse is closer to the truth, though any formula linking joy and pain must be carefully worded since masochism is always a danger.
Careful wording aside, in this life, joy always comes with pain. Joy and pain both lie at the heart of what it means to be human. In terms of a biblical definition, the human being might well be defined as a being of joy, living in pain.
And in the end that is what separates us from the rest of creation. The paradoxical connection between joy and pain, ultimately, points us towards eternity.
By revealing to us our limits, it points us towards something greater, God's kingdom, a higher synthesis of love and communion, within which, as the vision of Isaiah has it, there will be satisfaction without limit, embrace without distance, success without jealousy, smiles without tears, reunions without separation, joys without missing your loved ones, and life without death.
What Christ promises us is not a life on this earth without pain, but an eventual joy that will be clear-cut, pure and which no one or nothing can ever take from us.