It is ironic that the scintillating Graeco-Syrian Saint Luke was martyred, according to tradition, in Boeotia, a humid and swampy part of central Greece whose people were said to be not interested in philosophy or much of anything beyond their uneventful daily lives.
That may have been the propaganda of the superior Athenians, who caricatured the Boeotians and indeed anyone not Athenian, the way some Irish make Kerrymen the butt of jokes. The great Pindar was Boeotian, but for the most part the fetid place was not considered a nursery of genius and the Boeotians remained the equivalent of people today whose cultural universe is confined to watching ESPN. The Romans absorbed the Greek prejudice and had an expression: “Boeotum in crasso jurares aere natum” — “You’d swear he was born in the thick air of Boeotia.”
If Luke died in Boeotia, he certainly was not Boeotian in outlook. He traveled widely and observed his world with an artist’s eye. As Horace compared poetry with painting, so did Luke make word pictures of historical sketches, adding the immediacy of a reporter; for if the Good News is new, it needs a news reporter. Luke accompanied Paul, who mentions him in his letters to Philemon, Timothy, and the Colossians. His vivid Acts of the Apostles paints psychological portraits in a rupture from the stylized forms of what had long passed for narrative history in the classical world. In one scene he records how some of the people of Thessalonika objected to what Paul and Silas had been preaching. The two had found shelter in the house of Jason and seem to have fled the mob. Jason and some of his fellows were dragged before the public officials and were accused: “These men who have upset the world have come here also… and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus (Acts 17: 6-7).
It is a brilliant anticipation of what is said in our own secular culture as Christianity is proscribed as politically incorrect. In the next chapter, Luke describes Paul on trial before Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeus, proconsul of Achaia. Gallio, representing the best in Roman jurisprudence, threw out the case brought against Paul because it had nothing to do with Roman civil law. Gallio was the brother of the most revered Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Like Paul, the two brothers would die under Nero, in their cases by forced suicide.
Stoicism was a grin-and-bear-it philosophy: there is no point in expecting happiness in a future life, since a soul if immortal lacks eternal individuality and will be absorbed into a “cosmic wholeness.” The only happiness consists in the satisfaction of cultivating the natural virtues. The Stoics did not perfectly practice what they preached, overlapping somewhat with the Epicureans, and Seneca indulged in a luxurious life himself. They did pride themselves in moral discipline, with a consequent stiff upper lip attitude to suffering. Seneca taught that if you feared losing something, practice doing without it while you had it. So, for instance, if you feared losing comforts, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘This is the condition that I feared.’” They called this “the premeditation of evils.”
Some mistakenly have thought that Paul exchanged letters with Seneca and was something of a Stoic himself. He does say: “We rejoice in our suffering because suffering produces perseverance (Romans 5:3),” but unlike the Stoics, he believed that hardships and spiritual disciplines shouldered uncomplainingly, prepare the soul for the joys of heaven. So on Gaudete Sunday in penitential Advent, a little unearthly light seeps into earthly darkness and the Church chants: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:4–6).
Governments, kings, and rulers of all sorts come and go and when they are good, their passing from this mortal coil engenders sadness and when they are evil, their end makes their survivors happy, at least for a while. Joy, however, never ends, for it is fealty to Christ whose kingdom is not of this world. By coming “to his own” he sets the world aright, and only those who have been accustomed to an upside down world think that he has upset it. That is the same disordered perspective that thinks holiness is insane and sin is sane.
As man is in the image of God, human nature can only come fully alive by reflecting that Light: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy: Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with rejoicing” (Psalm 126:2).
It is characteristic of people who think that disorder is natural, that they are given to sadness. Calvinism, like the ancient Stoicism, was of that hue, thinking of life as making the best of a bad thing. This was expressed in the film, The African Queen, by Katherine Hepburn’s character Rose Sayer, a Methodist missionary in German East Africa who unctuously explains: “Nature is what we were put on earth to rise above.” There is more than a dash of that in the Jansenism that weaves its way in and out of various Catholic enthusiasms. They claim to be of the sacred tradition, but distort the Apostolic Faith to the extent of giving the impression that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in order to make people dress modestly. The common characteristics of those who, in the words of Ronald Knox, are “pure as angels and proud as devils” is a lack of joy.
C.S. Lewis absorbed some of that mentality in the culture of Ulster, and when he finally embraced a radiant Christianity he was “surprised by joy.” The Catholic saints are never surprised by joy, because they are only surprised by a lack of it in the world around them. Just as Christ was transfigured and not transformed, so Aquinas teaches, contrary to Rose Sayer, that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. “Jerusalem gaude. Rejoice Jerusalem.” If our little rejoicings come off as gaudy tinsel, they are furtive sparks from that Light that enlightens every man. As man is in the image of God, human nature can only come fully alive by reflecting that Light: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy: Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with rejoicing” (Psalm 126:2).
For all their admirable traits, the Stoics disdained those who were happy because they were happy. They were like the sober skeptics of our own time who think, like the somber Oxford philosopher who studied the subject thoroughly, that happiness is no laughing matter. In response, the Church keeps laughing, dresses gaudily, and sings, “Rejoice Jerusalem.”
There is then a vast difference between ancient Stoicism and the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience vowed by consecrated Religious in Catholicism. Those counsels are animated by the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Just as Gaudete and Laetare Sundays illumine the sobriety of Advent and Lent with a glimpse of the promised Jerusalem on high, so the consecrated Religious remind the faithful, by their discipline and even by their outward form of dress, of the promised eternal life which is not an absorption into a cosmic whole but a transfiguration of soul and body into a new glory.
It is sad but predictable that those Religious communities that abandon this purpose of their existence tend to embrace a neo-paganism that lacks the nobility of the best ancient pagans. “Peace and Justice” become to them what the virtues were to the Stoics, but nothing more. Half-baked paganism lacks the savor of the original dish, and the end result is a loss of radiant joy. We may have to endure for a few more years the degrading spectacle of arthritic Religious walking their labyrinths like superannuated debutantes, but the actuarial tables are against them. In the Catholic scheme of things, they are sadder than the Boethians were to the Athenians, for the one thing lacking in the most virtuous pagan soul is the confidence that moved Saint Bernard of Cluny to sing: “I know not, O I know not/ What joys await us there,/ What radiancy of glory,/ What bliss beyond compare. ”
This article was originally published at Crisis.