The Politics of Sorrow

Some years ago, I served at a parish with a priest—let me call him Father Micawber—who frequently asked me to preach. It seems he was satisfied with my homilies, with a single exception. “You should be more upbeat,” he told me. “We want people to leave Mass happier than when they came in the door.”

This evidently meant that our homilies were to be free of all distressing talk regarding sin and evil, divine judgment and fear of the Lord, and Purgatory and Hell.  His choice of music was similarly “cheerful”—with Marty Haugen, Father (for a while) Peter Scholtes, or Father (for a while) Dan Schutte having pride of place—and there were very few “out-of-date” hymns such as “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Take Up Your Cross,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” or “O Sacred Head, Surrounded.”

Concern regarding perky preaching and happy hymns was a symptom and not the cause of Father Micawber’s worldview. Rather, his commitment to light-hearted liturgies (you’ve no doubt seen chasubles with large “happy faces” on them and noticed that even funeral Masses invariably feature white [and not the equally permissible violet or black] vestments) was rooted in his credulous acceptance of the political Coueism which continues to mark our time.

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Emile Coue was a French psychologist who insisted that many ailments could be effectively treated through a program of positive self-suggestion: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Such giddy Panglossianism is at the heart not only of much popular religion and self-help fads (one thinks of Norman Vincent Peale) but of contemporary political life as well. Almost every politician tells us that “happy days are here again,” provided that we follow that particular demagogue’s prescribed programs and policies.

Rare is the leader who promises only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” and Churchill got away with it only because of the military crisis of that day.  In any other circumstance, in any other day, such realism would be a recipe only for certain political defeat.

The exception to this seems to be that it is politically sanctioned (and almost de rigueur) to predict the imminent end of the world—ostensibly due to climate change.

The main current in American entertainment, as in American politics, is one of almost unrelieved emphasis upon sensual satisfaction and happy endings. Examples of this type are legion, but the case of jolly good fellow Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, the fictional commander of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in the Korean War, may make the point. After the plane carrying Blake and others was supposedly shot down, killing all aboard, there was outrage in the television world, and many hundreds of letters were sent to the network, complaining bitterly about the episode. Surely, Blake should have retired from the Army to joyous civilian days and lived happily ever after.

We are stunned by events which do not go as planned. We do not understand tragedy or evil or even lingering sorrow. Foreign are the observations of such writers as Thomas Wolfe, or Joseph Conrad, or Anatole France, that we are born, suffer, and die.

Aren’t we supposed to be able to do things “My Way,” and don’t we have a right to fame, fortune, and long lives? Can’t the government do something for us in this regard? Surely life is a comedy and not a tragedy; surely everyone should have a good time, laughing his way through life until being painlessly euthanized in the interests of the Leviathan, the great impersonal social calculus.

Father Micawber to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not Catholic teaching, which insists that we turn, for an end to our tears, not to political machinations but to God Almighty.

Very rare is the politician with the wisdom and courage to tell us that politics is not about redemption; rather, it regulates the practical arrangements which permit the private (i.e., not state-directed) and prayerful (i.e., not self-assured) pursuit of salvation by a God not reducible to party platforms, fantastical promises, and Pollyanna-like policies.

Our birth, suffering, and death are not meaningless episodes in a universe devoid of destiny or deprived of Logos—for, as St. John Henry Newman tells us, we can trust in God: “If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about.”

The more we understand that we are the “poor, banished children of Eve… mourning and weeping in this valley of tears,” the stronger our immunity to the siren song of fraudulent politics promising heaven but delivering hell. The greater our sorrow for sin, the firmer will be our purpose of amendment. Even a nation may be forgiven its sins, if, in sorrow for them, it repents.

The sine qua non of progressive-utopian politics is the belief that we are to be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied here and now. But Our Lord tells us that those who mourn (meaning both grieve and regret the sin of the world) are blessed; this is why James tells us: “Be sorrowful, cry, and weep; change your laughter into crying, your joy into gloom.” This is why we learn in Ecclesiastes that “laughter is foolish,” and, in fact, “terrible for you who laugh now,” as the evangelist Luke says—except in the case of days holy to our Lord. Our time is short; in recognizing our brief time on earth, we take a step toward wisdom.

Father Micawber is right that we are called to work diligently and cheerfully for justice in the here and now. The great Jewish maxim “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” is precisely on target. We ourselves do not resolve history; we are not our own eschaton; we do not build heaven on earth; and we are not our own savior.

There is, though, one instance of laughter we should recall as we devise our political goals: “From his throne in heaven the Lord laughs and mocks their feeble plans” as the psalmist writes.

The beginning point of wise political thought is, therefore, the sorrow of knowing that we are sinners who deserve nothing and the recognition that we can do nothing without God’s grace. The Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson writes: “There still remains only God to protect Man against Man. Either we will serve Him in spirit and truth or we shall enslave ourselves ceaselessly, more and more, to the monstrous idol which we have made with our own hands to our own image and likeness.”

Therefore, be aware that political progress is often more illusion than reality; that guarantees of fulfillment in this vale of tears are invitations to corruption and disaster; that prudent sorrow about the human condition serves civic purpose more reliably than quixotic optimism; and that fear of the Lord is, in fact, the beginning of wisdom.

There will always be betrayal, failure, illness, pain, suffering, and death. Teaching this may not improve the collection at Mass, but it is a truth we must understand, both personally and politically. Then Christ will come again, and “there will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.” This redemption, however, comes from Christ and not Herod, by whatever name he may now be known.

St. Paul told the Galatians that, as we await the Parousia, if we do not give up, “the time will come when we will reap the harvest.” Perhaps Churchill was thinking of that passage as he spoke in the Commons on March 1, 1955: “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

Image: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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