“He remembered as though it were but a few days ago that winter night, himself too young even to know the meaning of beauty, when he had looked up at a delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars: suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him. He had wanted to tell someone, but he had no words, inarticulate in the pain and glory.”
—Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy
Have you ever been so happy it almost hurts? It’s a very strange feeling. A few times in my life, I’ve known that kind of happiness. Once, it came on a drizzling morning run, with the trees drinking in green and the rain on my face. Another time, I felt it while going on about four hours of sleep, sitting in a van full of mostly-asleep friends with Rich Mullins on the stereo and the sweep of the countryside rolling past the window. I’ve encountered it in church services, mountaintops, and quiet living rooms. I’m talking about one of the strangest and loveliest of human emotions, if you can call it an emotion. The best thing I can call it is joy. It’s an unexplainably piercing, near-painful happiness that is almost too much to take in.
I think about those times months and years later, trying to understand what it was I encountered and what it meant. The experience of joy looks different for every individual, but if you pay attention, it will often raise difficult questions. Joy changes you. It is a glimpse of something different, startling, extraordinary. It makes you want more, so that even in its presence there is a sense of absence. It reminds me of a passage in The Road when the man and his son stumble upon a food cellar, a priceless treasure in the wasted dystopia where they struggle to survive. The food gives them strength and they feast for days, but when it is time to move on again the man has misgivings: “Even now some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge.” Once you have tasted joy, how do you go on the road again?
I have wrestled with this question again and again in my time at Hillsdale, and part of the reason is because I can honestly say I have found joy here. To be fully at home in the midst of difficult coursework, constantly encouraged toward excellence by my fellow students, finding opportunities to share what little I have with others—these are gifts I can’t begin to measure. And perhaps this is only the voice of an overly-nostalgic senior, but I can’t deny that there’s a shadow of sorrow in these joys, and now more deeply than before.
As it turns out, the question of mixed feelings is by no means a new one. Many authors and thinkers have wrestled with the problem of sadness or pain in our most joyful moments. Kierkegaard believed that despair finds its way easily into those places; he wrote in The Sickness Unto Death that “the most cherished and desirable place” for despair to exist is actually “in the heart of happiness.” In writing that, he spoke to the common human experience of encountering pain where you least expect it. Sheldon VanAuken, author of A Severe Mercy, began to understand this paradox when only a little child. His experience of seeing a tree’s branches up against the night sky moved him in a way that would forever shape his life and thinking. VanAuken called this phenomenon “the pain of beauty.” He would only find explanations much later, under the tutelage of C. S. Lewis.
I don’t claim that there is any new way to resolve these questions, but others have shed light on them in the past. A Christian and specifically incarnational understanding of joy can bring greater clarity to the conversation. Our faith offers room for understanding the dichotomies of sadness and joy, the earthly and heavenly, time and eternity even when those boundaries become blurred in our daily experience. Christ’s coming to earth, and His presence in our lives, helps to reveal the greater significance in the shadow of joy.
To begin with, we might ask what mixed emotions really are. Paradoxical emotions are a surprisingly frequent part of our daily experience, even to the point of entering our vocabulary. You only have to look at a few common expressions: she “cried tears of joy.” He “laughed so hard he almost cried.” Why does a mother smile so proudly when her son graduates from high school, and then reach for a Kleenex? These confusing tangles of feelings are an intrinsic aspect of the human condition.
During the best times of our lives, we remain conscious of the passage of time. I think of the Irish songs I sing with my friends on Saturdays. The old ballads are famous for their easy mixture of merriment and melancholy. There is one that wishes “a health to the company” because “we may or might never all meet here again.” I think that even in our happiest moments we have an underlying sense that it does not last, it cannot last. No matter what it is that we love, it is fading. The same exact group of people may never again gather; the sun may not shine in this particular way on that old brick house; your little brother won’t be little much longer. The world is growing old; it is dying, and even in the freshness of joy we cannot escape that truth. And still our hearts cry, why can’t this last forever? In other words, beauty hurts us because it is transient.
We’re often told that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). An easy conclusion, then, would be to say that the pain is here to remind us not to love this world too much. In one sense that is completely true; as George Herbert writes in “The Pulley,” our restlessness, our anxiety in the face of joy, is meant to draw our focus toward heavenly things. And yet the complexity of our experience, and the character of our God, demand more than a pat answer. Earthly joy has real, inherent goodness to it. God is the one who created joy in the beginning, and He is its true source. As Christians, we are called to rejoice in His time-bound creation, because He loves to see us doing that. The psalms describe how He made the earth to give us food, not only to sustain us but also for our sheer enjoyment:
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle,
And vegetation for the service of man,
That he may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine that makes glad the heart of man,
Oil to make his face shine,
And bread which strengthens man’s heart.
This passage is not only describing creation; it is also describing its purpose. God causes the vegetation to grow “that he may bring forth… wine that makes glad the heart of man.” When God made grapes, He intended our gladness.
A Christian response to joy will take into account both its earthly reality and its heavenly significance. Joy is not only for joy’s sake—it is a taste of something to come. There is a reason for the language of feasting here. The God who invented bread and wine for our enjoyment had another purpose for them, too. He came, took on flesh and blood, and chose these same common, gritty, earthly, everyday elements to represent a feast that is beautiful beyond our comprehension. He let the flash of red in the cup and the soft crumbles of the loaf in our hands signify treasures beyond this world. He chose to robe Himself in flesh, and in doing so robed this world in His eternal glory, something which still shines despite our fall. Because of His incarnation, His overflowing love for this cosmos, the world He made is full of gifts and symbols that point beyond themselves.
Christians have hope that beauty is not for nothing. If earthly joy does not last, it is no less beautiful because of that. It’s as if a curtain was pulled aside for a moment, and you see beyond, and that sight is beautiful beyond compare, beautiful enough to hurt us, beautiful enough to take our breath away. In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis describes it as “news from a country we have never yet visited.” The strangeness and otherworldliness of joy is precisely because, in a Christian sense, it is out of place. When we experience something beautiful, we grasp death and eternity in the same moment. It’s no wonder we find these moments so hard to grasp.
But we also anticipate a day when joy and sadness will be put asunder. When the Lord of Life reigns, our laughter and our sorrow will finally be severed. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelations 21:4). In other words, there are no mixed feelings in Heaven. One day the pain of our joy will be gone, and we will laugh and hold nothing back. Moments will not be made precious because they are passing. Instead, they will always be new, and always perfect. For Kierkegaard, this is the place where we come to rest in the God who made us. In the blink of an eye, despair is banished forever.
When we consciously grasp the true meaning of joy, our earthly experience is not trivialized but actually deepened. VanAuken wrote of something he called a “moment made eternity”—the point where the boundaries between time and timelessness seem to blur. I remember seeing this so clearly one night when our chapel was being built. It was about eleven o’clock when a few of my friends and I emerged from the library to go and pray. We looked up at the blue glow of new stained glass, saw a hand shadowed there. Someone was polishing it from the inside. The stars overhead shone, and we were all laughing about something, and tears stung my eyes because it was so good. Times like these matter. They are worth noticing, remembering, and giving back to God in an open hand.
God knows, none of us have done anything to earn happiness. Joy is a gift, coming unexpectedly and often unsought. It makes our hearts warm and tender, and leaves us with a hungering for more. But that hunger is not without hope. Sometimes when I walk in the evening, the sun’s cast on the road makes it look like it could be paved with gold. When we sit down to fellowship at an Easter table we are thinking of, even participating in, another table which lasts forever. And the sound of our singing reaches one warm line out from this room out into the dark night. Our joy, this meal at the roadside, is only one stop on the way. Yes, we are still hungry. Sometimes so hungry that it even hurts. But a taste of true joy, if we know it for what it is, can give us strength to go a hundred miles.
At the end of the journey there is a great feast, and all who go on this road are invited.
Mary Caroline Whims is a senior studying English.