A Blessed Sadness

“You say that nobody could kill such a happy old man, but I’m not sure; ne nos inducas in tentationem. If ever I murdered somebody,” he added quite simply, “I dare say it might be an Optimist.”

So says Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton’s amiable and unassuming priest-detective, in the memorable tale, “The Three Tools of Death.” The “happy old man” to whom he refers—a reformed alcoholic and philanthropist by the name of Sir Aaron Armstrong—has just met his horrible, though dramatically satisfying, demise. It seems to be a case of murder, of course, but the mildly incompetent police inspector, Merton, can’t imagine why anyone would have killed the jolly old fellow. After all, Armstrong had been universally esteemed for his untiring benevolence and indefatigable cheerfulness; “he was popular in such a manner as to be almost legendary,” and “his political and social speeches were cataracts of anecdotes and loud laughter.”

When Father Brown suggests that someone might very well murder such a man precisely for his sunny disposition, poor Merton is at a loss:

“Why?” cried Merton, amused. “Do you think people dislike cheerfulness?”
“People like frequent laughter,” answered Father Brown, “but I don’t think they like a permanent smile. Cheerfulness without humour is a very trying thing.”

It seems that Armstrong’s good cheer proceeded, not from spontaneous joy, but from a grim determination never to be sad. “He was, one felt, the most seriously merry of all the sons of men.” Cheerfulness had become for him a kind of moral imperative, jocularity a public duty. Contemplating what must have been the soul-strangling anguish of such a charade, Father Brown calls it a “cruel religion” and sadly remarks, “Why couldn’t they let him weep a little, like his fathers before him?”

Superficial or manufactured cheerfulness can be found in all sorts of people, both pious and profane. Unless we are very young or very old, we all “put on a happy face” more or less frequently, and occasionally for good reason: affability, or friendliness, is a virtue, and sometimes being friendly involves being cheerful, whether we feel like it or not. (Then again, sometimes it doesn’t; close friends share as much sorrow as they do joy.) Chesterton, however, seems to regard Sir Aaron Armstrong’s particular type of principled optimism, his resolute refusal to be sad, as peculiar to the modern world. And perhaps we can see why.

Secularism may free a man, temporarily, from the more austere side of religion, from the consideration of sin and punishment and rendering an account; it may even, though I doubt it, make him as uninhibited as the green grass or the rushing wind. But, in doing so, it leaves him precious little excuse for sadness. A child of nature is expected to rejoice in what nature supplies. He has no right to ask for more, and if he does—if he is unhappy with what he has—it must be his own fault. Either he has simply not availed himself of the proper means of fulfilling his desires, which can all be naturally satisfied; or he has not accepted with equanimity their inevitable, and therefore natural, frustration. He can no more object to sickness, misfortune, or death than he can to gravity or electromagnetism. Surely he didn’t expect to live forever? No, he must take what he is given and make the best of it. Sadness is simply a waste of time.

The Christian, by contrast, has an excuse to be sad; and it’s called Original Sin. Anyone with a weak will, a darkened intellect, and passions that are constantly rebelling against his better judgment—that is, anyone living with the effects of the Fall—will get sad and gloomy occasionally. And rightly so. It’s perfectly reasonable to grieve over the sorry state we’re in, because it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and the fact that it is this way is not due to any personal act of yours or mine. It’s not a catastrophe that we brought about, even though we certainly add to it in various ways, and no merely human agency, no utopian scheme, will ever set things right. So it’s okay to feel sorrow and heartache. It’s even okay to feel out of sorts on Sunday afternoon. It only means that things are not as they should be, that we’re not home yet.

But what about the guilt we feel for personal sin? Wouldn’t the secular person enjoy a certain blissful ignorance on this score? Certainly, it is tempting to think that if God goes, guilt will go, too; that “if God is dead, all things are permitted,” as Ivan Karamazov says. But experience proves otherwise. The secular person still feels guilt. He may even feel it frequently and persistently. Sadly, however, he doesn’t know what to do with it. He only knows that guilt is “childish” or “unhealthy,” and so he tries to repress it; or he goes to a therapist; or he commits suicide. All pretty poor substitutes, it seems, for confessing one’s sins and receiving forgiveness. Here again, the Christian is happier because he is allowed to be sad.

In reality, of course, we are all modern people; and most of us are deeply afraid of sorrow and suffering. This Lent, may God give us the grace to surrender ourselves to his loving care, knowing that, if He casts us down, it is only to raise us up again.

Bitter-Sweet

Ah, my deare angrie Lord,
Since Thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise,
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

—George Herbert

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Br. Charles Shonk, O.P.

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Br. Charles Shonk entered the Order of Preachers in 2009. He is a graduate of Denison University, where he studied Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. He worked as a schoolteacher in New York City before entering the Order. On DominicanFriars.org