Lent, Day 17, back to Bernard and Grace

Well, we’re back to Bernard of Clairvaux’ essay “Grace and Free Will.”  Today’s selection is from section 13, which Pennington labels “Freedom of Pleasure.”  This section addresses the apparent contradiction that the bad guys have all the fun (what the TV ads for Jaguar use in their “It’s Good to be Bad” commercials), while the good often suffer.

Bernard makes a resounding no to the question “though virtue is not immune from sorrow, perhaps vice is.”  For the apparent joys or lack of sorrow the evil person enjoys are false sorrows.  And that “No sorrow is more truly sorrow than false joy.”  In other words, the apparently successful villain is only fooling him/herself.  I think I would go further — the joys of the person doing wrong are not joys of connection, but joys of insulation.  To enjoy those joys dependent on the misfortune of others we have to blind ourselves to their misfortune, or convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter (as we don’t feel them).  That is a form of disconnection and failure to love, and that is not only no virtue, but makes any joy felt something empty and insubstantial.

To be open to the world (to be able to see the purple and rejoice in it) means to be open to its sorrows as well.  If we love a pet or a person, we grieve at their death.  Death is part of nature, and many times the person dying is better off (escaping a greatly reduced or pain-filled existence), but our loss hurts us deeply and we must give voice and tears to that sorrow and loss.  There is no escape from that sort of sorrow short of dulling one’s mind and senses through alcohol or hardening one’s heart, but any such joy that comes from such an effort will be very costly.  In a sense, it costs us our very souls.

I’m not speaking about some punishment after life is done.  And I’m not speaking of people getting caught and imprisoned in our world.  I think that there is much truth in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors — the fantasies we tell ourselves about some external come-uppance are likely not true, at least they are not something we can count on.  But the criminal in Allen’s film does not escape unscathed.  He gets away with his crime, and he even manages to allay his guilt.  Still, he took someone’s life, and violated his own oath as a doctor.  In a way, there’s no getting past that without some efforts towards redemption.  And life without redemption would be punishment enough, I think.

The matter of grace is not addressed explicitly in this section.  But there is a sense that a virtuous life, one in accord with God (for me with the world or respect for the interdependence of the world), though full of sorrows could be seen as one in which grace is present and operative, in part because it’s acknowledged, while the life of vice takes the eyes and heart off the true prize (some sense of union) in its lust for material pleasures.  And so, it cannot see grace present and without some awareness or focus on grace, it does not take hold in one’s life.

Even if grace is not dependent on us — it exists around us and in us without our summoning it — it works best (and may only work) when we acknowledge it and say yes to it.

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