January 2008

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

“Joy is a special grace of the Franciscan movement.” These delightful words were spoken by Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., at the rising of the new millennium to several young priests on retreat. It certainly helped that the venue for this gathering was La Verna, Italy, the soil upon which Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata shortly before his death in 1226, and that one of the subjects assigned to Cardinal Martini was “Perfect Joy in Ministry.”

Saint Francis is remembered by some for austerity and by others for spontaneous joy. Neither is wrong nor wholly correct. Indeed, the most intriguing insight of this enigmatic saint was to discover, as Saint Paul had 1,200 years earlier, “perfect joy” is wisdom, which “is foolishness to the world.” (1Cor.3:19)

Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt.

– Dictated to Brother Leo, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis

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The definition of joy that we’ve inherited from Saint Francis is difficult to accept. If we believe it but disregard it as an impracticable counsel, we overlook the fact that the poverello arrived at this conclusion at the end of a long and arduous spiritual journey. For our part, we might prefer to climb the same hill by a gentler slope. Let’s see if we can come to understand true joy by another way, a more familiar way—through our own experience.

Everyone wants and needs joy. It is essential to well-being. It is the ultimate healing of grief and the only effective antidote to anxiety, which is the great plague of contemporary society. Perhaps the most telling sign of its absence is boredom, which drives people to pursue false joys, unhealthy pleasures and extreme activities that are neither wholesome nor satisfying. One need only observe how joyless are the faces in print advertising, particularly in the promotion of expensive clothing and cosmetics. (For example, the soulless expressions of the young male faces in Ralph Lauren ads or Revlon’s ‘eternally ageless’ beauties whose expressions have been botoxed away!) If this is the ideal of beauty, where is the joy of having reached the pinnacle? People are joyless for as many reasons there are personal life stories. But in general terms, one of three situations often prevails. People don’t know what it is, look for it in the wrong places or are not prepared to pay the price.

What is joy? We use the word joy often. We typically associate it with happiness in general or the pleasure that we experience from some passing fancy. Some things that we call joy seem genuine. The feeling runs deep and it lasts a good long time after the event that provoked it. We can think of falling in love, savouring natural beauty, and achieving something difficult and important as occasions of extreme happiness.

At other times, we use the word to signify a flash of delight that might even be followed by disillusionment. Sometimes, we know intuitively that this is not true joy but we accept or even cause it because it feels good for a while, even if the long-term cost cannot be justified. This is the case for eating junk food or drinking too much wine. In more problematic cases, the pursuit of false joy can even lead to risking life or developing dangerous addictions.

So, what is true joy? This is a riddle for most of us, perhaps the most perplexing question of all. We all need it and most of us yearn for it, yet it’s so elusive. We know not what it looks like, where to find it or, if we catch a glimpse of it, grasp it and retain it.

To begin with, it may be helpful to differentiate between two types, both real but different in nature.

Like pleasure, a true experience of joy is triggered by something external to the person and lasts only a relatively short time. But unlike pleasure that occurs only in the absence of pain, the experience of joy rises because of favourable conditions within, a disposition of the heart that is free to greet a marvellous event, even in the presence of suffering. And unlike pleasure, the experience of joy produces consolation that continues to nourish the soul long after the event has passed. It is a powerful inner response to something at once simple and mysterious, such as an insight, the birth of a baby or the discovery of gratuitous goodness in the midst of tragedy.

Each of us has had experiences of true joy. Radical examples are found in Christian Scripture, including the Epiphany (“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”–Mt.2:10); the Transfiguration (“And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is well that we are here.’” –Mk.9:5); and the experience of the Emmaus disciples (“They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us?’” –Lk.24:32) Indeed, all followers of Jesus Christ are called to joy.

And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
– Acts 13: 52

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While we can’t create joy, we can create the conditions that are favourable to an experience of it. These will differ from one person to another. That’s why it’s important to know what is joyful for us and what blocks our access to it. They are often linked to healthy pleasures but sometimes, as in the cases of the experiences of the magi, the apostles, and the disciples, joy is a surprising bonus for having a well-disposed heart—one that is open to the child-like quality of awe, not barricaded by fear. As well, we must consciously avoid or courageously dismantle the conditions that sap life of its natural joy. This requires avoiding situations that are overly stressful and normally associated with high levels of anxiety, including toxic relationships and events that remind us of earlier tragedies.

Experiences of joy are very important. The memories of them sustain us through difficult periods in our life. The hope of them stimulates us to take risks in connecting with people, in pursing dreams and in overcoming obstacles. Joy is to be found in “peak experiences,” and in the passionate pursuit and savouring of what nourishes us—food, friends, and beautiful things (art, nature, etc.)

On the other hand, the state of joy is marked by its duration and resilience. It can persist through darkness and light, with or without pleasure, even during periods of physical, emotional or spiritual pain. Among other things, its presence is confirmed by consolation and energy. A person in a state of joy is generally more patient, perseverant and hopeful than most others around them. They are slower to become anxious and rarely panic; they can maintain a level of effort over a longer period of time because they are not prone to cynicism and are less inclined to get discouraged by set-backs. They are positive though not naïve in outlook, confident about the power of virtue though realistic about human foibles, and trusting in the goodwill of others while aware of how woundedness can cause others to behave destructively.

Such a person is open to being surprised by joy. Experiences of joy are most acutely felt by those who live in a state of receptivity to them. In Surprised by Joy (1956), written seven years before his death, C.S. Lewis helped shed light on the unexpected experience of joy. It is essentially an account of those life experiences that brought Lewis to a mature, adult Christian faith. A longing for a restoration of the joy he experienced as a boy, permeates the entire book. Lewis turns first to the written word as an outlet for this ongoing search, creating wonderful stories such as the Tales of Narnia.

Lewis also explored the writings of two distinguished authors: George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century Scot Presbyterian minister and novelist, and G. K. Chesterton, popular and prolific London journalist, and a talented Christian apologist in his own right. Lewis then discovered the fullness of joy in a new appreciation of the faith of his childhood, one based on personal authenticity and unrestricted engagement in loving relationships. From Lewis’ perspective, the joy he had so long sought had been discovered in the least likely place within the least likely circumstances. Lewis wrote, “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

The consolation that characterizes the state of joy facilitates our acceptance with equanimity of life’s vagaries and allows us to exclaim spontaneously in the most ordinary moments, “God, it’s good to be alive.” Indeed, a joyful person is fully alive, as evidenced by well-defined motivation and energy.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
– John 10: 10

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Next month, we’ll explore the second question: Why do people seek joy in the wrong places?

May the good Lord bless you throughout 2008 with abundant life, daring hope and resilient joy.

Fraternally,

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries