So I’m reading the chapter “Artists, Mystics, and Clowns” in Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust and wondering: why do we act the way that we do, and how does this reflect God? What’s so great about efficiency? Gravitas? Breast-beating? Sobriety? Somewhere along the line I leaned that these were more holy than extravagance, art, and levity. Somewhere alone the line I learned I must stifle effulgent passions, had no time for interruptions, mustn’t laugh when there’s so much suffering in the world and so much work to be done, must put away childish playfulness. Somewhere along the line I learned that God is begrudging and exasperated. What is God’s disposition, anyways?
In my high school, French was the only foreign language offered. We learned it playing “Tour du Monde” with vocabulary, drawing pictures of “fromage” and “papillon” for each other on the chalkboards in the House, wandering the streets of Angers and Paris and Aix ordering our first café au lait and pain au chocolat in giddy tones. I remember vividly one day after we had gotten out of class, I walked around the corner with my friend and we ducked our heads inside a patisserie, and we ordered in a rush two “religeuses.” The woman behind the counter didn’t look at my ratty hair in its pigtail braids and my very American purple winter coat (a hand-me-down from my sister, I think) and make a noise that meant, “American.” She simply smiled and put the pastry in a small bag with a piece of tissue paper. “Bonne soirée” she called out after us. And I felt the rush of what the French call “joie” – joy.
I was a junior the year that we sang Gabriel Fauré’s “Cantique de Jean Racine.” We used to rehearse the song in its delicate French in a crowded room with uneven and overly polished floorboards. I sat in a grey folding chair, tucked my feet under me, pushed that still-ratty hair behind my ears with my fingernails coated with blue sparkle. The song hushes in its final line to this – “Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé.” And may our praises return filled with Your gifts. It isn’t the exact translation – I’m not even sure I could translate it well, if I’m honest – but the last, hushed line, has the word, “comblé” which, whether or not I understood the line right, is a French word for “overjoyed.” The verb “combler” is about filling, being filled.
I tell you these stories because you are asking something about who God is, and what His attitude is about us. And I learned this from singing “Cantique de Jean Racine,” from the woman in the patisserie by the Lycée David d’Angers, from my years of unkempt hair and hand-me-down winter coats: God is delighted.
Delighted, overjoyed – we so often mistake those words for happy, or, more honestly, for naively cheerful or optimistic. We think that if we name those adjectives, we’re making it sound like we (or God or both) aren’t taking hurt seriously. That we have missed suffering. That we have lost sight of the ache of the world and are applying a pink band-aid to the gaping wounds.
But it is the work of delight and joy to come close to suffering, even closer than the so-called serious realism. It is through joy, not cynicism, that we approach the unspeakably difficult.
Because joy and delight are not happy feelings: they are the choices to let love win. They are the choice to trust love triumphant. Joy is a choice to believe God when He calls what He has made very good, and a choice to draw near to that very good world in its ache and terror and sadness.
If you do not practice laughter, you cannot know this joy. If you do not practice the playfulness, the levity, the extravagant gestures without reason, the shrieks of hide-and-seek games, you cannot walk with us to the places where love is most needed and most difficult.
God is overjoyed with us. God is delighted. Because He is these things, because He is delighted in my moment in the patisserie, eating something truly good and laughing with my friend, and wishing the woman kneading bread a “bonne soirée” – He can enact such an extravagant and mysterious story of love triumphant. Because God is delighted, because His delight is not some blithe or silly perpetual good mood, but the serious weight of everlasting love, He is able to save us.
This is the story we are going to tell the world. The story of love triumphant over darkness. The story of joy and reuniting, of harmony and whole, of laughter and extravagance. But to tell it, and to tell it in the places most needed, we must practice those things in ourselves.
So, dear one, this is the work of delight. It will take everything you’ve got, to live the blurred lines between sorrow and weeping and joy and splitting your sides laughing. It will take your whole self and a self transformed to banish the categories we’ve so carefully constructed around what counts as “serious” and what counts as “light,” to sing while we cry and rage while we laugh.
But I think it can be done. I think it must be done. So that, in the mystery of love triumphant, we can sing:
Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante;
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix;
Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace, O Lord,
That all hell flees at the sound of Your voice.