Joy and Sorrow

In my last post, I mentioned the Pope’s admonition regarding joy and it’s place in the Christian life.  I certainly believe that, but I wanted to take a moment to address the other side of the equation.

Fr. James Martin is a Jesuit and author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.  On his blog this week, he posted an excerpt from the book addressing the difference between mindless happiness and true joy.

So the believer must navigate between a grinning, idiotic, false happiness and carping, caterwauling, complaining mopiness. (Notice again that I’m also not speaking of clinical depression here, which more of a psychological issue.)  Overall, the believer will be happy and sad at different points of his life; but joy is possible in the midst of tragedy, since joy depends on one’s faith and confidence in God.

He goes on to note that:

Likewise, a person in a difficult situation can still find humor in his or her life and still laugh.  Moreover, he can choose to be cheerful around others, not in a masochistic way but rather as a way of not unduly burdening everyone with your latest complaint.  This is not to say that one should never talk about one’s struggles or burdens with anyone. As St. Paul would say, “By no means!” It’s important during times of struggle to speak to a close friend, family member, a priest or minister, or a therapist, things are very difficult. And it’s important to share those struggles with God in prayer.

This has certainly been true in my life.  Even in the most difficult circumstances, there are moments of joy and grace and even laughter.

In my father’s last days, before the cancer finally beat him, there were many, many dark moments.  Times when we despaired as we watched him spiraling down.  Yet, there were also moments of joy and humor.  Sometimes as a result of something we remembered about him from better days or because of some seemingly small event that set us to laughing.

Humor became a relief valve and provided us with moments that I truly believe were God-sent as grace to get us through.

Much of this came back to me this week when I read Thomas McDonald’s account of his father’s last days.  Thomas is a talented blogger who perfectly captured the experience of a slow death in all of its essence.  He, too, experienced those moments of grace and joy.

There were brief “rallies” and flickers here and there. One day, he was muttering something, and when my mother asked him who he was talking to, he said, “All of them” with a smile. He would regain tiny slivers of consciousness and his eyes would focus on blank places in the room, one after another, and smile beatifically.

Thomas sums up the experience at the end of the essay.

The bodies we have are noble and God-created: enfleshed spirit. They are wombs for the soul to be born into heaven, and one day we will return to these bodies, only to find them perfected.  And after this our exile, we will come face to face with the first fruit of that womb, and there will be neither tears, nor death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.

In my mind, these two essays complement one another.  If you have a few moments, please read them both.  They point to the middle path which we should walk as believers and give an example of the journey.  And, both of them point to the fact that even in dark times, there is still joy to be found.


Love and Joy

This past week, about 6,000 novices and seminarians visited Rome as part of a Vocations Pilgrimage arranged by the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization.  I’ve enjoyed reading what the Pope has to say to these young people.

In his homily for July 7, he pulled three strands out of the readings and wove them into a compelling picture of ordained religious life.  The whole homily is worth reading, but for the moment I’d like to concentrate on his first point — the need for joy in the Christian life.

From the first reading (Isaiah 66:10-14) Pope Francis talks about the joy of the consolation of the Lord.

Every Christian, especially you and I, is called to be a bearer of this message of hope that gives serenity and joy: God’s consolation, his tenderness towards all. But if we first experience the joy of being consoled by him, of being loved by him, then we can bring that joy to others. This is important if our mission is to be fruitful: to feel God’s consolation and to pass it on to others!

I think this joy is something that is too often lacking in the lives of Christians.  We shuffle across the Earth with long faces and sour expressions and its little wonder that no one wants to join us.  Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten the essential nature of God.

God is love.

Stop and re-read that sentence.  It’s become a sort of Christian meme that we toss around carelessly without really contemplating what it means.  If you really consider it, the implications become awesome and a little frightening.

In his review of the film of the musical Les Miserables, Fr. Robert Barron says:

[Speaking of the Bishop’s gift of silver candlesticks.] In this simple and deeply affecting episode, one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is displayed. God is love. God is nothing but gracious self-gift. And what God wants, first and last, is that his human creatures participate in the love that he is, thereby becoming conduits of the divine grace to the world. What Jean Valjean received through the bishop was precisely this divine life and the mission that accompanies and flows from it. If the bishop’s gesture had been, in any sense, self-interested, it would not have conveyed God’s manner of being. But in its utter gratuity, it became a sacrament and instrument of uncreated grace.

Earlier this year, our parish hosted a weekly class built around Fr. Barron’s Seven Deadly Sins/Seven Lively Virtues study course.  That hardly sounds like the sort of topic that would lend itself to a discussion of God’s love.  Dialogue about sin inevitably conjures visions of punishment.  Yet, Fr. Barron constantly drew out the fact that we owe our very existence to God’s love.  He used the phrase “continually loved into being” over-and-over.

If we believed that — really believed that — it would change the way we act; it would change who we are.

I think Pope Francis believes that as well, in an earlier address to the seminarians in Rome, he said that there is “no holiness in sadness“.

Pope Francis took seminarians and novices to task for being “too serious, too sad”. “Something’s not right here,” Francis told them pointing out that `’There is no sadness in holiness,” and adding that such clergy lack “the joy of the Lord.”

“To become a priest or a religious is not primarily our choice; it is our answer to a calling, a calling of love”.

“If you find a seminarian, priest, nun, with a long, sad face, if it seems as if in their life someone threw a wet blanket over them,” then one should conclude “it’s a psychiatric problem, they can leave – `buenos dias’”.

He’s right.  How can we not have joy and confidence when we know God loves us?