Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Happy Thought for a New Year

This painting by Georges de la Tour shows a young woman -- the Magdalene, I believe -- staring at a skull on her table. In the December 2005 issue of Crisis magazine, Tom Howard's column, Ashes to Ashes, carries a short reflection entitled "Halyards, Sheets, Shrouds, and Painters." Though sailors will know what the title is all about, it's not with those marine technicalities that he begins his reflection, but rather the painting by Georges de la Tour: "By our lights the whole thing is macabre. That lady is headed for trouble, and what she needs is some upbeat counseling." Something of this kind, at least, would be the pervasive response of many today. But Howard observes:
Anyone familiar with the 2,000 years of Catholic forms of meditation will, of course, wish to lay a hand on the sleeve of the scandalized viewer and try to explain things. One may rummage in vain through the pages of a thousand contemporary books and articles on self-actualization and good mental health and fail altogether to find a syllable recommending what, to the Magdalene and hosts of ardent Catholics, is the very avatar of sound, sensible, solid mental health and freedom.

What we have there, of course, is a momento mori: a reminder of death. The idea is not that we need to wallow in "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous" revels about "tombs and worms and tumbling to decay" (my thanks to Poe for that glorious, alliterative line-up, and to Hopkins for the worms). The idea, quite sensible and wholesome if you think about it for more than the most rushed moment, is that unless you have a fixed, stark, and robust notion of just what that lovely head of yours is going to look like one fine morning, the chances are that your life might fritter itself away, "distracted from distraction by distraction" (Eliot, Four Quartets).
There is more, of course, that establishes a thematic connection in Howard's meditation between Georges's painting and sailing -- halyards, sheets, shrouds, and painters -- but the upshot here is that, among the myriads of material things -- the stuff one acquires over the course of a lifetime -- one could do far worse than buy a cheap reproduction of old Georges's picture and mull it over.

A "happy" thought for a new year? Indeed. What is a "happy" thought? Have you ever wondered at how the word "happy" in English is related to cognates such as "happen," "mishap," "happenstance," "hapless," and the like? What is interesting is how the subject is passive in relation to the action in question. This is altogether wrongheaded when it comes to happiness, for it leads us to think that happiness is something that depends on external factors such as good luck, wealth, health, comfortable circumstances, etc. But even the Greeks (like Plato and Aristotle) knew that a happy life involved virtue, which involved our choices in the formation of our own character. In short, happiness involves a commitment to a cluster of values and virtues, which, in the Christian milieu mean a commitment to the realism of a life well-lived within the understanding of how our temporal life is lodged within the larger canopy of eternity. Apart from that understanding, all the "pursuit of happiness" one might muster in this life is a vain chasing after the wind.

My mother died 23 years ago. My father turns 89 this year. Vita brevis. Tempus fugit. Momento mori.

[Also see our post of November 12, 2004, entitled "Momento Mori," a reflection based on a visit to the crypt of the church, Sta Maria della Concezione, located at Via Vittorio Veneto 27 in Rome.]

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