Being truly free

By Maria Sermersheim

Meditatione Ignis

Editor’s note: This column is adapted from an academic paper Maria wrote for a class at the University of Notre Dame titled “Chesterton and Catholicism.”

To be truly Catholic is to be truly free and lay claim to the greatest of all joys: the possession of three prepositions. Catholics have full license to laugh at the world, in the world, and with the world. Billy Joel sang that he’d “rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun” (lyrics from Joel’s song, “Only the Good Die Young”).

But G.K. Chesterton would condemn Joel as a heretic of our time for completely mischaracterizing Catholicism and thus pursuing a caricature of joy. To use the paradigmatic Chestertonian analogy, the saints’ lives are governed only by walls that give them the freedom to romp boisterously around the playground, walls that protect them from the perils of the cliff on the other side.

Chesterton wrote that for Catholics, “the things on which men agree are so immeasurably more important than the things on which they differ, that the latter, for all practical purposes, disappear. They have too much in them of an ancient laughter even to endure to discuss the difference between the hats….”  This is not to say that this perspective lends Catholics to an ambivalent and apathetic worldview. Instead, the saints cannot endure the discussion in seriousness as a matter of grave importance, but they will entertain the discussion in seriousness as a matter of graced frivolity. For where the Catholic Church is, “there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air.” Catholicism gives those who live within its moral framework the sensibility to discern the things that actually matter.

As Chesterton clarifies, this discernment does not require one to disengage oneself from anything that is not of ultimate importance, but it gives the Catholic, the person in pursuit of sainthood, the freedom to relax. It gives us the freedom to leisurely enjoy things of secondary importance because engaging in frivolous activities is not a necessary task. Instead, it is the joyful reception of and gratitude for God’s gifts to an undeserving people. If only the world could see the truth and love of Christ, it would understand the paradoxical severity and gaiety of the Catholic. Joel’s laughter with sinners is temporary and unfulfilling, and he is mistaken that the saints’ tears are those of sorrow. I suggest the tears of the saints are tears of joy, and I’d rather cry with the saints in laughter, wonder and awe.

Because we know that there are far more important things than the decision between hats, we possess an ancient laughter with which we can laugh at the world. Because we currently inhabit the earth, we necessarily laugh in it. And because we know Christ came to redeem all things, because we know all creation is good and points to He who is greater, we laugh with the world.

The Chesterton quotes are from:

“Orthodoxy. Collected Works: Volume I” (Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 350

“Heretics. Collected Works: Volume I” (Ignatius Press, 1986) p. 173

“Orthodoxy. Collected Works: Volume I” (Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 350