One of the few upsides of being in a prolonged quarantine is a free hour or two in each day, which would ordinarily be used for dressing or commuting or socializing, but that I am using now to revisit books and movies I love. What is interesting to me is how my perception of a book or a movie can change depending on my state in life or, perhaps more to the point, my stage of life. St. Thomas Aquinas articulated a metaphysical principle that expresses this experience of subjectivity: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, or “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.”
My perception of a book or a movie can change depending on my state in life or, perhaps more to the point, my stage of life.
The mode of this receiver has been a bit gloomy of late. It’s only natural, of course, that I should feel that way after several weeks of forced isolation and increasingly dire news. It would be strange if I were not at least a little down. Still, my sullenness has bothered me enough that I’ve tried to take very deliberate steps to lift my spirits.
That’s where “Singin’ in the Rain” comes in, the 1952 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. The whole thing is a pleasure to watch, but there is one moment that really grabs my heart. At about the halfway mark of the movie, the three stars, who have been up all night trying to work through their problem, find a solution at last, just as the dawn light breaks through the kitchen window. The musical number that follows, “Good Morning,” is not only an unqualified triumph of human artistry, but comes as close to capturing the essence of ecstatic joy as anything I’ve ever seen in film or on canvas. It leaves me breathless—and I’m only watching it.
The musical number “Good Morning” is not only an unqualified triumph of human artistry, but comes as close to capturing the essence of ecstatic joy as anything I’ve ever seen in film or on canvas.
My late mother also loved “Singin in the Rain,” and that’s probably one of the reasons I do. I feel some connection to her when I watch it, which got me thinking: Of all of the gifts my mom possessed, the greatest one, which she bequeathed to me, was her faith. What she handed down to me was not a history book, or a list of rules or pious platitudes. What my mom gave me was the joy her faith brought her, not a giddy cheeriness, though sometimes it was that, but really the deep consolation that comes from a heart inhabited by the risen Lord. Her joy was an Easter joy.
My mother's joy was an Easter joy.
You might be wondering where I’m going with all this. What I’m stumbling toward is this: The world is an awfully tough place to call home right now. In addition to the economic and public health crises, there is the general desolation that pervades the public discourse. Every time we turn on the television, there is one group of people, who believe the world is ending, yelling at another group of people, who believe that it’s just beginning.
But both groups of people have something in common: They are joyless. There is a serious joy deficit in both the church and the world these days. Some of the most visible Christians, for example, look as if they haven’t had a joyful thought in 10 years. That’s a big problem, for them certainly, but also because joy is what makes our witness truly credible, what changes the mode of the giver and the receiver. Joy is what makes our faith attractive, even what makes it intelligible. Without joy, to paraphrase St. Paul, we are just clanging cymbals.
To have Easter joy is to live each day in the knowledge that God broke into time and space; broke into our house while we were sleeping and sprinkled every room with a dust of eternity. Then he rose and left through the front door, which remains open for us to follow. Easter joy gives us the eyes to see those hints of eternity in the here and now—glimpses of hope, if you will.
Easter joy gives us the eyes to see those hints of eternity in the here and now—glimpses of hope, if you will.
In other words, a heart filled with Easter joy knows that the world is ending and it is also just beginning. Both are happening all around us and within us. Easter joy gives us the faith to stand in our present, on the bedrock of the past, and face our future: a future of our choosing yet also chosen for us.
Easter joy gives us the courage, in the words of Maya Angelou,
...to look up and out,
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply