Marian Program on Hearts of Space
For T.S. Eliot Fans

Waiting for Joy

Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010

One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.

To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.

There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.

But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes:
what more is there to say?

The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.

The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.

But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.

It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.

But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

so beautiful. that made me cry.


Thanks, Mac. Very appropriate for this time of year.

That little dog looks just like one of our dogs. Is it a bichon?

You're welcome. Yes, that's Andy the bichon, in bichon-buzz mode. You mentioned a while back that your family had bichons and that some had met untimely ends at the hands, er, jaws, of coyotes. Andy is a very likeable dog except for his chronic skin problems, which drive both of us crazy. He's spent a lot of time in the Cone of Shame over the past several months. I'm currently feeding him $2/lb food along with various supplements intended to combat them. Either that or the cooler weather is helping.

Great post, and of course as a melancholic I agree 100%. And I love that dog too.

Lewis has an interesting statement about being vulnerable and wounded in love:

"Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the suffering inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it."

I'm always struck by how Catholic Lewis sounds.

And ironically I got this from my former Baptist church after I converted to Catholicism:

One of the best graduation presents I've ever received.

That was indeed a nice present. I'm sure you've read some of the Lewis studies that try to figure out why he never converted. He certainly had the Catholic mind. It's easy to just chalk it up to Ulster, and I'm sure that was a factor, but probably not the whole story. In any event, I think he's fulfilled his desire to bring all Christians closer together around what we hold in common.

Glad you like the post. And I love that Lewis quote.

That Lewis quote is almost exactly what I have wanted to say since I read the post. I just haven't had time to say it well, and I didn't want to mess it up. Maybe some time in the next wonderful eleven days I will find the time.


It's frustrating when I come up with a point, only to find that Lewis has already said it lol.

And I did hear about the Ulster explanation. It's still odd, though, since Tolkien had such a big influence on his conversion. Lewis even believed in Purgatory!

Psalm 34:18 (in haste)

Tolkien really didn't have that much of an influence. He made that remark during that evening in Addison's Walk, but it was just one piece in a big puzzle. Lewis seemed to have a real blindness where Catholicism was concerned. It drove Tolkien crazy. It drives me crazy. There have been times when I've been reading something of his that I have wanted to throw the book across the room.


Well, I always knew you were one of those violent readers. lol

I assume you're referring to his remark about paganism and sacrifice--one remark yes, but what an impact!

Well, the straw that breaks the camel's back has a dramatic impact, but it's no more important the thousands of other straws that have gone before. And it wasn't a particularly Catholic remark. Any Christian could have said it. I don't think that JRRT budged him an inch in the direction of Catholicism.


Well, it really is hard not to see Lewis's resistance as having to do in some significant way with the anti-Catholicism he absorbed in childhood and youth. When I was an Episcopalian I often heard talk about how similar the Anglican Communion was to the Catholic Church, how there really wasn't much separating us, and so on, and yet sometimes--not always--when you scratched the surface a bit you'd find real venom.

I recall in some of Tolkien's later letters that he expressed a great sense of alienation from Lewis. Sad.

I have a dream that one day every colour shall be changed, every blue should be added yellow and every yellow should be added blue, there will be no other colours but holy a green!

How boring is that! It reminds me of oobleck.

I was just reading a piece about Justin Martyr, not bad in itself, that reached its climax with the sentence The whole glorious history of Christian thought is prefigured here, from Augustine to Aquinas to C. S. Lewis!

That rather brought me up short. Lewis has grown on me in recent years, but it's hard not to laugh at his name concluding such a list.

It doesn't reach the laugh-at-it level for me, but Lewis's name does seem out of place.

I'd be interested in knowing who wrote it? Not a Catholic, surely?


The name of the author would appear to be Rod Bennett.

Name sounds slightly familiar. Google indicates he's probably the author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. Which is maybe what you're reading?

Well, reading texts online is not entirely unlike a squirrel jumping from branch to branch in a tree. But retracing my steps and reading the finer print, it seems I was indeed reading an online excerpt from Four Witnesses.

That squirrel analogy is spot on. Not only does reading online resemble squirrels jumping from branch to branch (or tree to tree), it also makes your brain squirrely. At least it does mine.

Well, examining text messages online is not entirely as opposed to a rabbit getting from division to division in a shrub.

Usually I just kill spam comments on sight, but that one's sorta fun.

When I saw that you had responded, I was thinking, "Can that possibly be a real comment?"


Not entirely, perhaps.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)