Wednesday, April 20, 2016

If Christ is Risen, Why Don't I Feel the Joy?

Christ is Risen!
O God, life of the faithful,
glory of the humble, blessedness of the just,
listen kindly to the prayers
of those who call on you,
that they who thirst for what you generously promise
may always have their fill of your plenty.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I was struck by the Collect of today's liturgy, so I decided to repropose it on the blog as we continue to seek the promise of the Lord's joy and plenty during this Easter season. It's worth praying again and pondering slowly.

Perhaps we don't feel that we're experiencing much "Easter joy," or the generous plenitude that God promises to His faithful. Here we are, more than three weeks into the Easter season and we feel like we're stuck back at Good Friday or that mysterious, silent day of Holy Saturday. We're still waiting for something to happen.

We have heard of His resurrection from the dead, but our lives aren't any different. Where is the Risen Jesus?

Okay, maybe on Easter Sunday or Divine Mercy Sunday we did encounter Him and rejoice in Him, through the witness of the liturgy, through the sacraments, through the remembrance of the extraordinary ordinariness of the companions He has given us who help us live our daily lives.

But where did He go? Where is He now?

We're at work, at home with the kids, burdened with afflictions, confused about the present, anxious about the future. Are we back to kicking the dust around the empty tomb, feeling even more empty within ourselves? Or have we simply settled down into the "Upper Room" of daily life, trying to pass the time and (of course) bickering with one another?

I certainly don't want to underestimate the possibility that our lack of joy comes from our lack of trust in Jesus and our resistance to God's will in our lives. We miss a lot of even simple human joys because we persist stubbornly in trying to be the masters of our own lives, or in following our selfish impulses. Do we pray? Do we open our hearts to the gift of the Holy Spirit? Do we seek the guidance of others, those who can help us remember that our lives belong to Christ?

All of us can be more attentive to the many gestures that make up a living relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church. But I want to examine another factor that may make us feel ambivalent about our being joyful. We sometimes think "being joyful" means having no problems. Or we think it means that we have a kind of psychological control over our sufferings so that they don't really "bother" us.

But real suffering doesn't work that way. And we are all still suffering in so many ways, and our sufferings are greater than anyone realizes, greater and deeper than we ourselves can comprehend.

Just as suffering is mysterious, so too is real Christian joy.

For those of us who suffer from physical and/or mental illnesses or who care for loved ones in such conditions, it can be particularly difficult to hear about "the joy of the resurrection." We feel overwhelmed by life, but we also fear that our lack of "joyfulness" may be our own fault. We fear that it's just another sign of how we're not "doing this suffering business right." Others among us, on the other hand, may be perfectly "healthy" and energetic and cheerful on a psychological level, but we also have different kinds of sufferings that trouble us deeply. Or perhaps we don't even know what the "problem" is.

Do we have the joy of the resurrection?

We firmly believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, and we know that means someday we will rise with Him. And even now, we can offer our suffering in union with Him and share in His death and resurrection for the salvation of the world.

That's good. We know that. Some of us have long lists of other people to pray for (and those people benefit from our prayers, certainly). But we don't feel very joyful. We don't feel "connected" to Jesus. We might try hard to get our emotions moving, to play the part. And that's not such a bad thing, especially because we really do believe and we really do want to witness to others that Christ is risen. Still, for us the effort just seems to add to our suffering.
We may feel like saying, "Christ is risen. And I believe in Him. Why don't I 'feel the joy'... like, even a little bit? I follow the Church's teaching. I know the theology and the spirituality and I pray and read the Scriptures and receive the sacraments and offer my sufferings and I'm really trying to follow Him. He is risen! So why do I still feel dead? I don't know right now where He really lives within my life. I believe that He's in the Eucharist, that He works through the sacraments, that He's with me in my sufferings and in front of me in the life of the Church, in the Christian community, in my neighbor. I am grateful and moved and even consoled by this. And I do my best to recognize Him and love Him and serve Him in all the ways He is present. But still, when I say 'rejoice' I feel like a fake. Or like that's for other people. Where is the resurrection for me? When will my sufferings bear fruit?"
Of course, even now our sufferings do bear fruit, but usually in ways we don't understand. And we have faith in that too. Still, in this particularly dark place of unknowing, of the Holy Spirit's mysterious work, we must tend the seemingly tiny flames of faith, hope, and love. It is here that we must keep a loving faith that longs for God. It is here that we must keep hope alive. It is here that we must never give up!

And the Holy Spirit will help us. He is "the Spirit [who] helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26-27).

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. Let us therefore not be afraid of our weakness.

Remembering also that the "fruit of the Spirit" is "joy" (Galatians 5:22), we can be confident that joy is within us even if we don't feel any joyful emotions at all. In this present life, the joy of the resurrection is, so to speak, "in motion" -- it is a deep, often hidden, mysteriously growing thing. It can burst up into our awareness and even seem to carry us for awhile. But it always runs deeper than our accessible, conscious awareness. And it does not necessarily correspond to a merely human state of psychological or emotional well-being.

We usually "experience" the joy that is the maturing and ever ripening fruit of the Holy Spirit as hidden within longing, at the roots of the heart's desire, in the tenacity of a hope that endures so many disappointments and sorrows, that lives through all our afflictions of body and mind.

Sometimes other people can perceive the joy in us, even when we can't. It shines out of us in ways that we are not even aware of. (Mother Teresa is an extraordinary example of this. She was truly joyful and she gave joy to others even though she experienced terrible darkness and desolation within herself.) More often and for most of us, I think, joy is a simple, subtle, patient presence, like the ground that stays solid through all the sunshine and moonlight and shadows and clouds and raging storms above it.

When we remember that Jesus is truly risen, that He has conquered sin and death, and that He is with us, we will grow more and more in the confidence that His hold on our lives is firmer than the ground beneath our feet.

So when the weight is heavy upon us during this Easter season (or any time) let us recall the prayer of today's liturgy and the hope of God's generous promise.

When the weight is heavy, we are tempted to give up on Jesus, to settle for something less than God's promise. We might try to find "joy" by more-or-less forgetting about God in our hearts and aiming lower, by trying desperately to squeeze what we can from out of what the world proposes to us. In fact, we will all do this: it's called sin, and even the best of us will let ourselves be fooled sometimes by its illusions, in small things or even in big things, with varying degrees of blame.

But when the weight is heavy and the air is dark and our mouths are parched, there is another possibility. "O God... listen kindly to the prayers of those who call on you" -- there is prayer.

But what kind of prayer? How can we find God's love and grow more and more into the capacity to receive and return that love, a capacity entirely beyond anything we can generate by ourselves? By wanting Him, and by letting Him draw our real desire more and more to Himself.

He put this desire for infinite fulfillment within our hearts, and only He can give us the capacity to find that fulfillment. The desire, the awakening of our hearts, that painful yearning and longing that we scarcely understand--these are His gifts and He intends to bring them to fruition, if we let Him.

Who finds fulfillment? "They who thirst for what you generously promise." God wants the prayer of our thirst. He wants us to give Him our thirst.

And He will fill it with His plenty, but let us remember that His plenty is Himself, His life, He who is Eternal Love. This is the answer to our thirst, and yet we must slowly grow accustomed to the strength and the taste of this strong drink of Love.

That's ultimately what this life -- with all its aspirations and pains, its duties and rewards and failures and sufferings, its sweetness and beauty and peculiarity and strangeness -- is all about. 

And if we find a great emptiness in ourselves, perhaps it's a sign of God working to open more and more the space He wants to fill with Himself, with His Love.

In the depths of our enormous empty space, like the garments left behind in the empty tomb, there is the mysterious joy of the resurrection, even if we do not yet recognize it.

And if we thirst, let us turn our thirst toward Him. Let us remember that in the end everything is shaped by the mystery of Eternal Love.

Let us not be afraid to thirst for Him who thirsts for us.