On Holy Wednesday this year, I attended a local Catholic book club meeting on The Book of Joy, a so-called guide to happiness built on a week of mostly cheerful conversations between the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama and the South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, hosted by a Jewish literary agent named Douglas Abrams. I asked the chatty group, “Did anyone find anything in this book to which a Catholic should object?”
The answer from the group was no. Then someone turned the question back on me.
“Well, since you asked, yes.”
At first, I admitted, I had been much taken by the brain science interjected by Abrams, which corroborated the natural moral law. I had learned that mirror neurons, “special empathic brain cells,” make us “tingle” when we are in the presence of other human beings, especially good ones. As the Angelic Doctor taught as a self-evident axiom, we seek good and avoid evil. When we “send up our sighs in this valley of tears,” don’t we echo the Buddhist first principle that life is suffering? Both claims in turn find a corporeal analog for the unity of body and soul: Biological stress is needed for stem cells to differentiate, so that we can become ourselves. We have one entirely independent brain circuit devoted to charity, through which we are elevated by joy-producing hormones when we help others, are helped by others, or even witness others being helped. Even our sorrow quickens us, improving our judgment, memory, motivation, sensitivity, and generosity. Just thinking about generosity “significantly increases the protective antibody salivary immunoglobulin A, a protein used by the immune system.” The Dalai Lama spends five hours a day in meditation, developing what St. Thomas would have called simply (but profoundly) virtuous habits—located, according to Abrams, in the middle prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions and morality. Brain science thus confirms the virtue theory of ethics proposed by Aristotle, developed by Aquinas, and called by the Catechism “self-mastery.” So what was my objection to this tutorial on the organism built for compassion and joy, laced with wise Tibetan proverbs and telling African anecdotes, so much in conformity with the Thomistic natural law claim that we seek happiness as an ineluctable natural end?
I wasn’t aware that I had an objection, I said, until Archbishop Tutu gave the Dalai Lama communion. I bristled at this. It was Tutu’s and his church’s business, maybe, to share the Lord with a decidedly virtuous adept of reincarnation, but I wouldn’t like it if my priest did it. This exclusionary impulse got me thinking: Why should I mind who breaks the most intimate bread with me? What were these teachers of joyful compassion missing?
I stretched for common ground. Reincarnation affirms the immortality of the soul. In Buddhism as in Christianity, virtue is rewarded and vice is punished in the next life. Our saints in heaven, like theirs, intercede for the living. We pray for the souls of the dead to be purged of bodily attachments. I couldn’t shake the crucial difference in our beliefs, however: For Christians, our destiny depends entirely on this one single unrepeatable moment in eternity; whereas the Dalai Lama thinks he has an infinity of time to get things right. No wonder, I joked with the group, that angst and worry were so easy for him to overcome. He played a game with no time clock.
My atheist friends often challenge me: Isn’t the notion of God’s grace in the form of a divine savior also a pie-in-the-sky easy out? I answer that salvation is no picnic, because it requires our cooperation in a cruciform pilgrimage, and here the power of Calvary comes tumbling out: original sin, the demonic tempter, the passion, sweated blood, the crown of thorns, the stations of the cross, spiritual warfare, the five wounds, the dolorous mother, crucifixion. Yes, the Dalai Lama says that all religions preach love, but agape is a drama of love that is often no fun. The Lord’s Supper and the Sacrifice of the Mass are not the same.
To compare ridiculous things to great, in the atmosphere of communal confession that is a liberal Catholic book club, I shared a story that I used to tell my catechetical students to demonstrate the difference between Gospel love and Hollywood love. Once I was on a camping trip with my family near Chautauqua in New York—the now nearly secularized summer camp begun for Methodist Sunday school teachers. In the middle of a rain storm, which they had been groaning through with mysterious bellyaches, my wife and daughter finally fell asleep. Then my three-year-old son crawled up on my belly. I thought he wanted to give me a goodnight kiss, and I started to oblige him. Immediately he groaned like an adult who had hit his head on an attic rafter and projectile-vomited right down my hatch.
So there I was. The camping trip had been my bright idea for family solidarity, and I was now, against my will, following through on my loving impulse. Once I had collected myself, I could have spewed it out like a baleen whale, but I didn’t. The poor females had settled finally into a peaceful rest, and my son was now doing deep regular breathing. Agape requires that you keep your mouth shut sometimes when you most want to open it. It is patient and kind. It does not seek its own way. It bears all things.
It took me a few minutes to tuck my son back into his sleeping bag, slip out into the cold and wet, put a decent distance between me and the tent before discharging my burden, then tip-toe back to dry off with my Columbia waterproof shirt, all without waking them up. I can’t say I did it cheerfully for the greater glory of God, either. I’m not sure mindful Buddhist meditation would have prepared me for this moment. Catholics are philosophical realists, and the self is not so easy to think away—much less a mouthful of some other self’s upchuck. The more I thought about what I had done, the hairier and more confusing it got. I still don’t understand my absurd act of self-sacrificial gift-love. I do know this: I didn’t get a single drop of joy out of holding my firstborn son’s vomit in my mouth until my entire family had fallen into a needful sleep.
I wasn’t being selfless, but I was doing a bizarre corporal work of mercy. I didn’t care at all whether enduring this trial would make me stronger for the next. Nor is it anything but pathetic to compare my calamity in the woods with the sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe or the French cop who exchanged his life for a jihadist’s civilian hostage. Mine was such a silly little martyrdom. Nowadays on camping trips I make sure to sleep in a different tent than my grandkids, who love the Chautauqua story around the campfire.
Agapic love, though it seldom requires holding someone else’s vomit in your mouth for three minutes, truly is the kind of love that can make you gag. When the Chinese authorities came for the Dalai Lama in the middle of the night, he escaped in disguise. I don’t blame him in the least. It was the human thing to do. Being the fourteenth Dalai Lama, he couldn’t leave his people. His life was not his own. He has lived in exile from his beloved homeland ever since. The Lord, however, didn’t run from the Romans, even though he wanted to. His life wasn’t his own, either. He didn’t know from brain science that crucifixion would improve his memory, judgment, sensitivity, motivation, and generosity. Anyone would jump at the chance to hold a half-pint of puke in his mouth for three minutes instead of what he suffered on the cross and on the way to it.
The Resurrection without Holy Week would indeed be pie-in-the-sky and cheap joy. Fortunately, we have four books of the whole story of dear joy, and they all include the Passion. When I think about the Passion at the Sacrifice of the Mass, I bristle at the thought of my own reception of the Holy Eucharist. I bristle knowing my sinfulness and my inability to meditate into a state completely ready for the suffering required by agapic love. I bristle at receiving it in my hand and standing, I bristle at humanity’s ingratitude, and sometimes I tremble, and I see why the confession lines ought to be long, and I don’t want a priest turning it into a quick symbolic inclusive lunch for his best friend forever.
Why do my grandchildren ask to hear my silly story over and over again? What is the value of mediated pain? Why did I read Henry James’s The Ambassadors for the fifth time this Lent, that story of self-sacrificing love told in tortured sentences that imitate, in one critic’s comparison, “an elephant picking up a peanut,” after which a failed American editor sees only that a young polished trust baby is still a cad and his adulterous lover is a sinner if also a dolorous Marian figure? The interminable story is a workout; the joy is in its being over; it has, however, the bizarre quality, as Chesterton said, of authentic truth. Aristotle’s answer was that tragedy provides a catharsis for the emotions of pity and fear, and I don’t doubt that human beings’ brains benefit from the empathic hormones created at such moments, especially since at the moment of acute suffering I’ll bet we get the brain fog that made it so difficult for me to find the zipper on that Coleman tent. Love is not only the fruit of suffering; it is also its seed. Easter joy without Holy Week? I couldn’t stand it, and I don’t want it trivialized.
Kenneth Colston's essays on literature have appeared in LOGOS, The New Criterion, New Oxford Review, Crisis, St. Austin's Review, and First Things.
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Photo by ampersandyslexia via Creative Commons. Image cropped.