In her novel, Final Payments, Mary Gordon articulates an equation that has long influenced Christian spirituality, both for good and for bad.
Her heroine, Isabel, is a young woman within whom a strong Catholic background, an overly-strict father, and a natural depth of soul conspire together to leave her overly-reticent and overly-reflective, looking at life from the outside, too self-aware and too reflective in general to enter spontaneously into a dance or trust any kind of gaiety
One night she goes to a party of college students but almost immediately feels out of place inside the giddiness, youthful bravado, drinking, and dancing. So she falls back into an old habit: "I would look among the faces of the students for a face that I could love.
"I would look for something original, something attesting in the shape of the chin or the eyes, something that suggested the belief that there was residual pain that could not be touched by legislation.
"But they all looked so relentlessly happy and healthy that they did not interest me. I realized that I was looking for someone who was sad, and I was angry at myself for making the equation, my father's equation, the Church's equation, between suffering and value."
That equation between suffering and value has a long-standing history within spirituality and has strongly influenced us both positively and negatively. It has also, I must confess, generally been my own equation.
Like Mary Gordon's Isabel, I too tend to look around the room at a party for a sad face, with the belief that sadness is a sign of depth, of substance, of weightiness. Occasionally I have been right and a face carrying sadness did indeed issue forth from a deep interiority, but I have also often been wrong.
Sometimes that sadness is merely an indication of depression, timidity, and unacknowledged anger. As well, I have also met people who were strongly extroverted in manifesting their happiness and joy and who, underneath, had real depth of soul and were anything but superficial.
FULL STORY A haunting equation (Ron Rolheiser)