Dialog: Joy

Then there’s joy.  My mom is a joyful person and so are you, but for the most part, the Catholics I know are not as joyful as other Christians. 

I have three responses to your observation:

You are dead on!

Why is that?

Why does it matter?

I agree, as a rule Protestants, especially Evangelicals are more openly enthusiastic and outwardly expressive of the joy they have in their faith.  Though I have to add a caveat here: some of the most dour, judgmental and unpleasantly rigid people I have ever encountered are not Catholics, but Protestants–there are both kinds in each world, but I have to admit, there’s a certain validity in your observation.

Part of it, I think, stems from the nature of Protestant worship and theology.  There is a great deal of emphasis on the positive aspects of the Gospel.  Protestants are truly “good news” people and it shows.  I think–and here this is merely opinion and not worth much for that reason–that there is a lot of emphasis on the emotional aspects of the faith in Protestant circles.  I hear a lot more talk about how one “feels” in relationship to Christ from Protestants than from Catholics.  It just seems to be part and parcel of the whole culture, and it really is something we Catholics can learn from.  But be careful: faith is not to be judged just by how we “feel.”  Sometimes strong faith has some pretty grim emotions associated with it, because some of the situations we find ourselves in are not exactly pleasant.

I do think that if you took a look at Catholics who are wholeheartedly living their faith, not just claiming it as an inheritance, you’ll find more of what you would call joy.  Among those adult converts to the faith from other traditions, I think you may find it even more openly expressed–in part because these folks come fully equipped with the ways to express the joy of faith, and because they are comfortable doing so.

Take a look, for example, at the saints, if you want to prove my point.  Even in the midst of great difficulty and persecution, they expressed utter joy.  Some of them were almost impish in their pleasure.  St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the LIttle Flower, was known for her sense of humor, and tradition (small t) has it that St. Lawrence even cracked a joke as he was being tortured to death.

Joy is, after all, not the same thing as good feelings or pleasure.  It is a much deeper thing, an abiding peace and stability that comes from within, from that place inside us where God lives.  It is possible to be joyful even in great pain, and it is possible to have no joy even when experiencing good feelings.  It’s important to learn that, and it is a long, sometimes hard, lesson of life.

Catholic worship involves a good deal of introspection and focus on the less pleasant aspects of faith that are not so emphasized in Protestant worship and devotion–aspects that are still important in our journey. In my devotional life, for example I meditate at least twice a week on the passion of Christ, and I often pray the Stations of the Cross, and I look at a crucifix, and hence, remember the passion,  every time I am in church or praying in the family oratory.  These are deep, dark and powerful mysteries, sobering in their effect.  They still give me great joy, but not the jump-up-and-down-smiling kind that is so easy to see.

You see, if the only measure one has of joy is the emotional “up”side of it, one can pursue that feeling rather than Him who is the source of it.  In a way, one can get addicted to the emotional high and lose focus on Christ.  Every great Saint has gone through periods of great spiritual dryness, when the inner life was dark and desolate.  It is in those moments that we face the question:  Do I move forward in faith because of the good feelings its gives me–or because I love God?  Love, after all, is an act of the will, willing the good of the other as other, and not for any personal gain at all.  When the inner life dries up, then one truly has no immediate benefit from acts of love, acts of faith.  If one does them at all, it really is for the sake of love.

Having experienced the dry spells myself, I can tell you they are devastating, and I move forward as an act of my will cooperating with God’s grace–not because I am getting any immediate emotional benefit.  It is, in the end, a way of growth.  I do those things I am bound to do in faith simply because I have faith that they will bring me closer to Jesus even when I am not feeling much like that is happening.  It teaches me that I am not, in the end, the best measure of the state of my soul or my relationship with God–that those things are matters of faith.  Remember that the Catholic Church holds that no man can know the state of anyone’s soul, even his own.  Faith.  We move forward on faith.  In love.

But even in those times is joy, quite simply because I am moving, even in the darkness, in faith.  And I am hopeful that my exterior life doesn’t change too much, that I am still a positive image of Christ for the world–others will have to let me know, though, because I’m not the best judge of that, either.

Did you ever follow Mother Theresa and her work?  Seldom was there a more outwardly joyful woman, nor one who stepped out in greater faith to do God’s work in the most desperate of situations.  She was always smiling, always giving, always positive.  Yet for 50 years, she experienced the most remarkable spiritual dryness, in which she did not feel the presence of Christ at all, experienced only total, utter spiritual darkness.  Still, she lived in utter and complete abandonment to God’s will (that is what faith entails, after all) by God’s grace.  Still she manifested joy.

So this business of joy is a complicated question.  Dig a little deeper and I am not sure Catholics are less joyful…their joy is just different in its expression.

There’s another aspect, again, just my two-cents’ worth, nothing more.  It’s been my experience that there is a subset of Catholics, often of the “cradle” variety, who don’t know their faith very well.  Many of them stopped learning after their confirmation, and so they live in the midst of these great spiritual riches, and know nothing about them.  It’s rather like a man starving to death in the face of a banquet.  The more I learn about the riches of Catholicism, the more joy I have.  There are days (not a few of them) when I literally want to jump in the air, click my heels and shout “Yippee! I am Catholic!”  (For the record, I have actually done this once or twice.  I am hopeful no video exists…)  The wonder of the fact that I am Catholic, have been given the grace to enter into this rich and wonderful Church with all she holds for me, this great and expansive now-and-forever family is still a source of great amazement to me.  Why am I so blessed?  I don’t know–but I am and I want everyone else to have what I have.

Look for joy.  You’ll find it when you learn to recognize it in other forms.

So–why does this matter?  Well, in part because joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.    Those who are temples of the Spirit ought to manifest joy.  If we don’t something has gone amiss. And there is no doubt that that has happened in the past, and happens still.  Every Catholic has at least one horror story of angry, bitter, ill-tempered nuns and priests.  Then again, I can match each of those stories with an equally tragic one of dour, mean Protestants.  We are a fallen people.  All of us….

But the reality is, the world sees Catholics as a people apart..which is why it is so important for us to be mindful of how we interact with others, what image we present to the world.  I try to keep in mind, I may be the only Catholic the people I meet see.  It would be a great tragedy if, rather than bringing them to Christ and His Church, I drove them away.

And I do try to let my joy show through, at least once in a while….


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