September 11th was my 64th birthday. Yes, 9/11, but we’ll leave that for another time. What I want to explain here is why for most of my life I found birthdays and most occasions for celebration meaningless and maddening, and why that’s no longer true.
After drifting away from the Church in my late teens, I was regularly mystified, and sometimes even annoyed, by birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and most such occasions. I avoided them when I could and endured them otherwise. These times called for joy, but I rarely felt joyful. Instead I found such times empty and meaningless. The best I could do was pretend, and often I was not even up to that. I also had become the sort of person who was unwilling to express gratitude to anyone for anything. You could call these problems symptoms of depression, or a personality disorder, and that might be true, but not the whole truth. A person is more than a personality, and my personality was not the problem; the problem was my soul.
Having returned to the Church and immersed myself in her teachings, I have in time have come to better understand the spiritual roots of my unhappiness. Throughout his writings, but particularly in Happiness and Contemplation and In Tune with the World, Josef Pieper teaches that if a man is unable to love, and most basically to affirm that the world is good, true joy is not possible for him, however desperately he desires it. So, how did I come to withhold my love from God and his Creation?
By the time I was 30-years-old I was a left-wing sociology professor. I had by then used sociological relativism to liberate myself from the Catholic Church and its’ teachings, and had adopted atheist humanism as my philosophy. And so, instead of loving the world with God, I fell in with those devoted to changing the world with Marx.
No self-respecting utopian leftist can permit himself to take joy in the world so long as there is injustice in it. For such people there is little about the world worth celebrating. God (or evolution, or history, or some bad men—how they became bad was something of a mystery) had made a botch of things and it was our job to set it right. Only when we had done so could we rejoice. Only when we had succeeded in bringing heaven down to earth could we allow ourselves to rest.
Adhering to such an unrealistic philosophy means condemning yourself to a deep metaphysical unhappiness—an unhappiness of the soul. Such joylessness is unbearable, and so I sought relief where I could find it, usually in satisfying the body or the psyche. And so, in the pursuit of equality I became a hedonist and an egotist—characters by no means uncommon on the utopian left. But pleasure is not joy, and victory over one’s rivals and enemies only satisfies the ego. And so I pursued a life of pleasure and power, and did so joylessly.
True happiness—the joy produced in our souls by truth according to Augustine and Aquinas—comes not from us, but from God, who is truth. Even the pagans (ancient and modern) testify to the glory of God’s Creation when they experience awe before nature’s majesty, though usually this means ignoring nature’s source, or deifying nature itself, as in pantheism. But atheists cannot allow themselves even this, because the point of atheism is more specifically anti-theism, the point of which is to refuse to acknowledge God or his works, and so deny him the honor and glory and gratitude he rightfully deserves. This root unwillingness to be grateful to God leads directly to the inability to express gratitude to others—even or especially our own families.
By the grace of God, I had a daughter even I could not help but love, and for whom I could only give thanks, however reluctantly. No doubt my daughter’s birthday in 1992 was the day, unbeknownst to me, I started walking back to God, the Church, and to joy.
And so back to birthdays. If you believe yourself to be little more than an evolutionary accident, why is the day of your accident particularly worth celebrating? What, in fact, is being celebrated? What makes “your day” special? Why even call it “your” day? Absent any recognition of the God who made us, who made that birthday possible, to call such attention exclusively to ourselves—as if we were responsible for our own having been born—is nothing but egotistical selfishness and pride. And while I can be as prideful as anyone, I somehow knew that celebrating myself wasn’t the true meaning of my birthday. But, having no God to thank for having made me, I found the whole business meaningless. Unless we are getting on our knees and thanking God for giving us the gift of life, the life through which we can find and return to him through Christ Jesus, our “celebration” is disordered, and false, and so unlikely to bring us anything remotely resembling true joy. It never did for me, and for good reason. If my birth is special and worth celebrating—if my life is special and worth celebrating—it is only because God made me. Anything else is pure egotism.
And so I no longer find birthdays to be a problem. I feel the joy I am supposed to feel because I am grateful to the God for whom I should be grateful. And my joy overflows because I have many things for which to be thankful, though I will only mention a few of them here.
I am sure I am not the first to wonder whether we Catholics shouldn’t be celebrating our day of conception rather than the day of our birth. That’s the instant, known only to God (and maybe mom and dad!) that matters. Thinking of my conception, I am thankful both to God and my parents for without them I would not be, and without them I would not be Catholic. I also give thanks to my mother for not aborting me—as are so many of God’s children in our Godless and selfish society. I am thankful I was born before such murder became socially acceptable and legal—a significant marker of our corruption.
I also give thanks to God for my younger brother, born of the same parents and the same God, and a gift to our family. And I pray, in hope, that we are all able to join our mother, and all our loved ones in Heaven, where our joy will be unlimited and endless. I am, as well, grateful for my father, a good man and a veteran, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next month.
I am also thankful to God for bringing my wife to me, for her baptism and our marriage in the Church. With God’s help we can help each other, now and forever.
My daughter was God’s greatest gift to me, and if it wasn’t for my birthday she would not have a birthday, and so I am grateful to God for having the chance to be her father, however well or poorly I do the job. A few years ago she was baptized and married in the Church. Did I mention that I had reasons to be grateful?
And to God I give thanks and praise for allowing me to have already lived a long life by any historical measure. And I am thankful that the Lord has now given me the comfort and peace to be unafraid in life and, I hope, in death. I have learned that it is not death we should fear, but choosing to separate ourselves from God’s grace through sin.
I look forward to many more birthdays, days on which I can pray: Lord today is my birthday, the day you made me for yourself. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Birthday,” depicts Louis XIV’s Apartments at Versailles where clerics celebrate the chef’s birthday and is painted by Andrea Landini (1847-1912).