This past Sunday was Laetare Sunday, the just-past-midpoint of Lent at which we are given a glimpse, through the penitential gloom, of the rosy dawn of joy ahead. The name comes from the old Latin introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, from Isaiah: Laetare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in trististia fuistis (Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her; rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow). In an old tradition newly popular with young clergy, the violet vestments of Lent are lightened to rose; “#realmenwearpink” our archdiocesan vocations director tweeted. “Joyful, Joyful” sneaks into the hymn repertoire amid “Take Up Your Cross” and “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.”
Sigh. Laetare is the toughest part of Lent for me, because I have such a hard time with joy.
I’m not alone in this. Coincidentally or not, the CBS Sunday Morning show for Laetare Sunday featured a piece on the record high numbers of Americans diagnosed with depression. Deacon Greg Kandra also talked about depression in his Laetare Sunday homily. And Max Lindenman takes the persistence of melancholy and the elusiveness of joy to eloquent extremes of Eeyore-ishness in his latest blog post.
My own lifelong wrestling with the noonday demon of depression (and its conjoined twin, anxiety), mostly self-diagnosed, has only infrequently required intervention, thank God. It’s like a chronic low-grade infection that mostly goes unnoticed, until the scriptural mandate to Rejoice! reminds me how crippled my joy function has become, how far I am from the condition of spiritual fitness that joy demands. I spent Laetare Sunday, perversely, weeping.
The truth is, I weep a lot. The truth is, sadness is my default mode. The truth is, I am afraid every minute of every day.
I have had enough therapy, on and off, and know enough about my family’s genetics, to understand that I am predisposed to anxiety and depression both by nature and by nurture. “Sing before breakfast, cry before supper!” is an old folk maxim my mother drummed into us. In its intended sense, the proverb simply illustrates the parental observation that children who are overexcited early in the day will melt down by naptime. But my mother used it as a prescription against happiness, which, in her reverse form of magical thinking, always had a causal link with tragedy. The most memorable confirmation of my mother’s theory occurred when I was 12 and appeared (against all possible odds, and with not a bit of the talent required) in a musical theater showcase staged in an old vaudeville house on Hollywood Boulevard. The whole family came to see me in this unlikely triumph, and we went out to dinner afterwards. I was on top of the world. We weren’t home 10 minutes when the phone rang with the news that one of my mother’s brothers had died, suddenly and young, from the complications of a botched minor surgery. “We shouldn’t have gone to that damn show,” my mother sobbed. “If we weren’t out watching you have a good time and being so happy, this never would have happened.”
I know. I know. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s wrong to believe it. But I never again invited my parents to anything I cared about doing. And if a great song comes on the radio before I’ve broken my fast, I limit myself to lipsynching.
But this Lent–again, coincidentally or not, but my money’s on the nudgings of grace–I am starting to wonder whether my self-diagnosis hasn’t been off base. Meaning no disrespect to those who suffer from clinical emotional illness, I’m starting to suspect that in my own case we might be talking sin and not biochemistry. Specifically, I might be the poster child for sloth.
I began to suspect my own complicity in my joy deficit earlier this year, when I read my friend Matthew Levering’s terrific book on the seven deadly sins, The Betrayal of Charity. Drawing on Aquinas, Matthew explains sloth, or acedia as it is known in theological terms, as the deliberate refusal of joy. I’d always just dismissed sloth as laziness (I suffer from that, too), but in its deadliest form it’s a specific kind of laziness–an unwillingness to do the heavy lifting it requires to believe God loves me enough to want joy for me.
And it is heavy lifting. As Matthew Levering notes, in a broken world we are all of us predisposed to melancholy and fear. It is fairly easy (easier for some of us than for others, maybe) to believe that no matter what I do I can never be good enough–so why not give up now? Why not fall into the sinful trap of remaining a child with her nose pressed to the toy shop window of other people’s happiness? Why not persist in the pride (the sin at the root of all the deadlies) of wallowing in my unique unworthiness? Why not cry while everybody else is singing the Ode to Joy?
Sloth is laziness because it’s the easy way out, spiritually. Perpetual sadness and fear anesthetize us, not only against joy but against the suffering of others, and eventually against all feeling or caring. That’s the message of another reflection on sloth I received this week from my friend The Hermit, part of a series by Rob Marsh, SJ on the seven deadly sins as seen in popular films. This entry from Thinking Faith, the blog of the British Jesuits, makes some fascinating observations about sloth as seen in the film American Beauty.
Marsh posits desire as a medicine for the melancholy of sloth. Matthew Levering, citing Aquinas again, prescribes active charity enlivened by trust in the Resurrection–a leaning on the everlasting arms. “If charity were easily experienced as ‘its own reward,’ then sloth would not be a real temptation; we would all go joyfully about loving God and each other,” Levering writes.
Sloth is a real temptation because it may often seem that sin and death, not love, ultimately conquer. To learn the joy of charity in the midst of suffering entails not simply relating to God and neighbor here and now. Rather, experiencing joy and avoiding sloth involves an apprenticeship or formation in God’s steadfast love. (The Betrayal of Charity: Sins that Sabotage Divine Love, p. 59)
What excites me about both reflections is the good news that sloth is not incurable. The regimen is both exacting and terribly simple. It begins with a shift in rhythm, a deliberate silencing of the internal voice that repeats death death death in a relentless monotone, a deliberate cultivation of the freedom to sing before breakfast. That song is always an Easter hymn, so Lent seems an especially appropriate time to set about apprenticeship Matthew Levering describes, the openness to desire that breaks like breeding lilacs through the dead land of acedia.
I’m under no illusions that I can make significant progress toward Laetare in the handful of days that remain in Lent. I may still be mourning and weeping. I may always be afraid. But for my soul’s sake and in my mother’s memory, I will get off my lazy spiritual ass and, as the 12-steppers say, act as if this Valley of Tears might also be the School of Joy.