I do not like and do not share in any way the rigorist doctrines of some Christians, who, without even realizing it, have in these matters the arrogance and false Protestant modesty, and are far from the true spirit of faith. The innocent joys were never proscribed. Certainly, those tumultuous assemblies in which the agglomeration itself contributes to a dangerous freedom, in which the impudence of the finery provokes the insolence of the eyes, in which equivocal conversations are exchanged in the stormy frenzy of the dance, without a doubt would not get the approval of reputable men. But in front of the eyes of a mother, in a chosen society, in a circle of relatives and friends, a little music and dancing to encourage the monotony of an evening, to cheer the youth with a graceful exercise, all that is, in my opinion, the most natural and least reprehensible thing. I have no lack of examples […]. My aunt and mom liked that kind of fun when they were young, and they did not stop being holy by that.
Frederic Ozanam, letter to Amélie Soulacroix, May 28, 1841.
- First of all, let’s put in context the above paragraph:
- On November 24, 1840, Amélie and Frederic celebrated their marriage agreement, and the wedding was scheduled for June, 1841. Almost the whole period of the courtship was spent separately, for Amélie lived in Lyon with her parents and siblings, and Frederic had to move (in Mid-December, 1840) to Paris to begin his job as substitute professor of the chair of foreign literature at the Sorbonne. From December 1840 to June 1841, they only met again for two weeks, during the Easter holidays of 1841. The relationship will therefore be essentially done by correspondence.
- Among the things they comment on by letter are, of course, all the preparations for the wedding day; and among them, the party and the subject of the dance to celebrate on that joyous day.
- Frederic, who in his previous life had had no experience in dance halls or theaters, recognizes that he does not know how to dance and “if we have to dance, you will have to open the scene, and I will make a fool if I dance or if I do not” (cf. Letter to Amélie Soulacroix, May 13, 1841). Amélie did like to dance, and it was customary to do it at family parties that were organized at her parents’ house. In addition, she played the piano deftly, so we can imagine that those parties would be drenched with music and joy.
- It is not to be understood, however, that Ozanam was a puritan: his objections to the dance come, rather, from his personal incapacity and that of his brothers.
- I remember an experience that I had, many years ago, during one of the Vincentian missions in which I participated, in my early days as a Vincentian lay missionary. We gathered the young people there to have some meetings and to encourage them to deepen their faith and life according to the charism of St. Vincent de Paul. As we always do at the first meeting, we asked young people what topics they would like to discuss during the meetings that we would have with them. This served, in addition, to take the pulse to the reality of the place and to speak from the experience, and not from the theory. One of the questions that they raised came to my attention: “Is it a sin to dance?” some people asked. I remember my amazement: I was about 25 years old, and not for a moment did it occur to me to think that this could be a problem or a matter that worried some Catholic young people.
- The answer to the question is given in this text by Frederic himself, since the issue is identical to that raised by the young people in the mission. There is a certain vision of some Protestant branches that tend to see danger in any manifestation that can be considered equivocal and could jeopardize the good relationship between people of different sex. These “rigorist doctrines,” as Frederic calls them, end up distorting the authentic evangelical message, leading to confusion and, as we see, also misrepresenting the authentic Christian sense of festivity and joy.
- For it must be said clearly: “innocent joys were never proscribed.” We can remember Jesus celebrating, for example at the wedding feast at Cana (see John 2:1-11), drinking wine and making sure the feast has it. But we can also remember St. Paul’s sentence: “Everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial, everything is lawful, but not everything is constructive” (1 Cor 10:23). And the apostle explains it by adding, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). And it is easy to understand with a little example: there is nothing wrong in sharing a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with friends … another matter is to get drunk.
- With parties and the dance the same happens. Frederic says: “in a chosen society, in a circle of relatives and friends, a little music and dancing to encourage the monotony of an evening, to cheer the youth with a graceful exercise, all that is, in my opinion, the most natural thing;” however, “those tumultuous assemblies […] in which the impudence […] provokes the insolence of the eyes, in which equivocal conversations are exchanged […], without a doubt would not get the approval of reputable men.”
- Virtually everything can be taken to excess: drink, fun, the use of the Internet … we will not say that, for example, the Internet is bad; the bad thing would be, in any case, the abuse that we make of its use. The same thing we have to say with other similar matters.
- Being believers does not make us boring people. On the contrary, joy is part of Christian hope. And joy, when it is shared, multiplies. Let us avoid, then, the maximalist positions and the prejudices, following Frederic’s example.
Questions for dialogue:
- Am I excessively severe in my value judgments about certain attitudes of young people?
- Do we offer young people suitable places for healthy recreation?
- What lessons might we learn from Frederic’s thoughts in this text?