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Sunday, 26 October 2008

Don't worry! Be happy!

Some years ago, I remember a "hit" song that my youth group liked called "Don't worry! Be happy!" The fun and lilting caribbean voice made it a popular and amusing invitation to "chill out".

The atheist bus adverts promise people a worry-free existence if they will only accept that there is "probably" no God. This is not very reassuring in itself - to be free of worry, you would really need to be certain that there is no God - but let that pass.

Who can have a worry-free existence? This was essentially the problem that exercised the Stoics and other ancient philosophers in search of the "Beata vita", the blessed, or calm and contented life. Seneca and others got close when saying that freedom from fear and desire was the key. An ascetical life would free you from the desire that nags and worries. Acceptance of whatever happens will free you from fear.

Without the teaching of Christ, however, this search for the beata vita will be doomed to frustration. At this time of the year, we reflect on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, hell and heaven; exactly those eternal truths that Richard Dawkins and his friends think condemn us all to worry and unhappiness. In fact, they liberate us to enjoy life and life more abundant. By seeing our present lives in the perspective of eternity, we do not solve all our present worries but we are freed from seeing them as final. We are open to a glorious future in which:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. (Rev 21.4)
In "The God Delusion", Dawkins taunted Christians with the challenge that they should not fear death. Two examples come to mind from England in the reign of Henry VIII. St Thomas More marvelled at how the Carthusian martyrs went to their gruesome deaths at Tyburn singing the psalms as though they were on their way to a wedding.

I also love the story of St John Fisher's final hours in the Tower. On 22 June 1535, when the Lieutenant of the Tower of London came to tell him that he was to be executed that morning, there was this exchange:
‘Well,’ quoth the Bishop, ‘if this be your errand hither, it is no news unto me; I have looked daily for it. I pray you, what is it a’clock?’

‘It is,’ quoth the Lieutenant, ‘about five.’

‘What time,’ quoth the bishop, ‘must be mine hour to go out hence?’

‘About ten of the clock,’ said the Lieutenant.

‘Well, then,’ quoth the bishop, ‘I pray you, let me sleep an hour or twain. For I may say to you, I slept not much this night, not for fear of death, I tell you, but by reason of my great sickness and weakness.’
In other words, "Although I am going to have my head chopped off in a couple of hours, I'm a bit tired and I'd just like to get a little more sleep."

Don't worry! Be happy!
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