Thursday, May 22, 2014

Can There be Joy, Even in Pain and Tribulations?

"Joy is like the seal of a Christian. Even in pain, tribulations, even in persecutions" (Pope Francis).

I don't think we can stress this too much, as long as we know what we're really saying. Joy is not the same thing as "always seeing the bright side," or always maintaining a constant smile or a good mood or good feelings. It's not merely a good disposition or an energetic manner.

External cheerfulness and a peaceful, confident, positive internal feeling or state of mind are not the same things as Christian joy. Indeed, joy often coexists with all sorts of apparently contrary dispositions of a complicated human personality, ranging from bad digestion to intense physical or psychological suffering. "Even in pain, tribulations, even in persecutions" the Christian person possesses joy.

The obvious appearances and feelings of joy may be signs and expressions of real joy, or some of its elements. But in and of themselves, they may indicate nothing more than natural realities such as a certain personality type, a cultural expression, a physical and psychological equilibrium, or a response to a satisfying experience. They can even be a fake dress worn by hypocrisy, or a facade that hides an agenda of violence, abuse, and personal manipulation.

Real joy, however, is deep and foundational. It is an underlying reality of the new humanity that we receive from Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The heart of Christian joy is a participation, already begun here and now in the life of grace, in the very mystery of God's own infinite joy, of His life, of His glory. No experience in this life can simply be objectified, analysed, and classified as "joy-in-the-radical-sense," because it is God sharing His joy with us -- the joy that is God Himself.

God elevates and purifies our affections, draws us through them, and gives us much help that passes through our psychic experiences and strengthens us. But even when we cannot "feel Him" in any way, we still believe in Him by faith and cling to Him in hope. We know that the source of our joy is with us, and that if we love Him, then we possess that invincible joy even if the world rages at us, even if sorrow overcomes us in the face of earthly loss, even if neurotransmitters in the brain or hormones in the body go bonkers, even if incomprehensible pain fills our entire conscious awareness.

It is for our encouragement (not our discouragement) that the grace of the Spirit touched some of the martyrs and saints, so that they embraced gruesome death "as if going to a wedding feast." But God's Kingdom is overwhelmingly made up of saints who probably went through their deaths with considerably less enthusiasm. Many lived their lives with temperaments that would not be classified as "joyful" in the mundane sense.

The joy of God is lived within the love of God, and it realizes itself vitally within our personality in the measure in which we love God and our neighbor. The resonance within experience and the external signs of joy have different forms, different levels of intensity, and variations that correspond to the secret ways in which the grace of God is at work transforming mysteriously the particular person according to his or her own history, wounds, and suffering.

If we are patient and loving with people, we will be surprised by their joy as it peeks through like the sun on a cloudy day. And a glimpse of it will enrich us.

In sum, smiles and good feelings may arise from true joy, but the joy that is the gift of the Spirit is always deeper and "beyond" any of these expressions. If life becomes more happy and "fun" in general for those who love God (and it does), it is because God's presence brings healing to the whole person... but in different ways and in different measure, always mysteriously and personally, not always obvious and evident.

After the resurrection, Jesus didn't ask Peter: "Simon son of John, do you feel good about me...."

He asked, "Simon son of John, do you love me...."

It is in God that we have joy, and nothing can separate us from this radical joy: neither principalities and powers, nor the present or the future, nor the kings of the earth and their designs, nor persecutions, tribulations, pains, nor the tragedies of life, the loss of loved ones, the oppression of harsh task masters, nor sufferings, nor piercing screams from some horrendous cancer treatment (whether it is us who scream, or the person we love most in the world as we stand by their bed), nor the harrowing abysses of psychiatric disorders, the darkness and deadness of depression, the anxiety and obsessions that rage like fire in our brains, nor the implacable daily unseen torture of a chronic illness that no one else seems to understand, nor any of the countless ups or downs of life -- extraordinary or ordinary -- that we can imagine.

When we hear the words of Pope Francis, we shouldn't say, "Oh, I don't feel joyful, so I guess I'm not a real Christian." Rather let us say, "No matter how I feel, my joy is in Christ and in belonging to Him."

When we say this, let us examine ourselves, and seek forgiveness for all our sins (which never bring true joy in themselves, although our sorrow over them is already the beginning of joy). And let us live in hope, because the life of God is our joy, and His love is stronger than our suffering, our wounds, our frailty.

We have confident joy because He has reached down to our deepest need. God has joined Himself to us in the most desolate places of our pain and tribulation. Jesus is with us, and our wounds belong to Him; they are His wounds, forever. Joy is the revolution of transfigured open wounds, open forever in His resurrected body, because of His love which He gives to us.

The joy of this love becomes mysteriously radiant even within all the moments of this present life -- this often arduous journey -- because love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). In His love we keep going, we hope, we desire, we offer, we trust, we cry out for God, we never give up.