Tuesday, February 15, 2022

What is the "Joy" of the Christian Life?

Joy is one of the promised fruits of Christian life. But it is a very particular kind of joy, a joy that comes from a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It eminently corresponds to the deepest yearnings of the human heart, but also shares in the life of God, and therefore goes beyond finite human ways of understanding and measuring things.

Christian joy 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 strengthens us by illuminating and affecting our reason, and our psychological and emotional experiences. 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 seems to overwhelm us in the face of earthly loss, even if we are lonely, sick, imprisoned, or oppressed, even if incomprehensible pain fills our entire conscious awareness.

It is for our encouragement (not our discouragement) that the grace of the Spirit touched in special ways some of the martyrs and saints, so that they embraced suffering and even gruesome death "as if going to a wedding feast." But I think that 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.

There are certain dispositions, a certain "personality type," and certain ways of living that we commonly identify as pertaining to a "joyful person" (and that we rightfully expect to find abundantly in a healthy Christian community). It is not surprising that joyful people have a zest for life, a ready smile, and a disposition for friendship and hospitality. It is not surprising that they are prepared to serve others, and to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation amidst the conflicts of life in this world. Joy by its nature manifests itself externally, but Christian joy is a light that shines in darkness, a transfiguring light that grows in the midst of the many limitations of our frail and wounded human nature. It is the beginning of our mortal humanity's being clothed with immortality. This joy that is the gift of the Spirit is a vitality always deeper and beyond any externally perceptible "ebullience" in human actions or emotional states. Rather, the working and fruition of Christian joy opens new perspectives, gradually transforms our awareness of the meaning of reality, and prompts us toward the real, concrete possibilities of self-giving love within whatever circumstances we are called to live each day. 

Many will point out that life even in this world becomes more happy and fulfilling in general for those who love God. This is true, I think, because the foretaste and even the initiation of eternal life begins here and now, and gives a new depth of meaning to everything in our lives.  But the unfolding and increase of joy are not formulaic and predictable. Everyone shares a common, redeemed human nature, but each one has a unique vocation that includes unique challenges, circumstances, sufferings, and constraints. Christ's presence brings healing to the whole person... but in different ways and in different qualities, always mysteriously and personally, not always obvious and evident to our limited measure for "the way things should be..."

Joy is certainly greater and deeper than what we consider to be "good feelings" about ourselves, others, life, or the ways of God. 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 our belonging to the Risen Christ 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 illness or injury (whether it is us who scream, or the person we love most in the world whom we must accompany even when there is nothing we can do to stop the pain), nor the harrowing abysses of psychiatric disorders, the feelings of darkness and "deadness" of neuropsychiatric depression, the mental diseases that cause irresolvable 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 that the mark of Christianity is joy, 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."

Certainly when we say this, let us examine ourselves, and see to what extent we are truly open to ways that the Spirit wants to fill our hearts with the joy that corresponds to our own vocations and circumstances. Let us ask the Lord to increase our joy, nourishing it through prayer and encountering Jesus in the sacraments, in our neighbors, especially in the poor who need our attention, solidarity, and merciful love. Let us 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 sins, 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 born from these 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.