No one Scripture verse sums up the spirit with which we are encouraged to live the Christian life like the exhortation of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice.” (Phil 4:4) If we take the gospel message seriously and if we take the promises of Jesus Christ to heart, then everything about our lives should lead us to rejoicing. St. Paul understood that being offered the status of forgiven, loved sinners, and the opportunity to be raised up to new life, is indeed cause for rejoicing. He had experienced such a transformation in his own life and he knew the difference between a life with Christ and one without. Paul knew that holiness is responding to Christ in joy and gratitude and that this response motivates the holy ones to share the gift of faith, hope, and love with little thought of any other way of life. The holy ones, therefore, are those who have so immersed themselves in the understanding of the great gift of God to us in Jesus Christ that their joy makes them literally shine with love. This is not to say that they never suffer again, but that all things can be borne when one is filled with the joy which is a gift of God and the result of allowing our understanding to be totally transformed in Him.
The joy of which Paul speaks is not cheerfulness, and it is not a false ‘game face,’ nor is it something which arises from naiveté. Joy is not a feeling and it is not the result of a series of wonderful circumstances. Joy is not the same as happiness, but it is a spiritual gift from God coming from the Holy Spirit. Understanding this is the key to understanding what St. Paul is saying. While there is an obvious element of happiness in spiritual joy, it is much deeper than happiness and simultaneously transcends it. It is deeper because joy is not a product of our emotion, but rather is the result of God’s presence taking root; it transcends because as a gift of the Holy Spirit it is otherworldly, it is from above. Happiness is fleeting, while joy becomes part of the heart in which it comes to live. Joy is a radical shift in perspective which enables one to love in a new way, a motivation which comes not from one’s own fallible heart, but from the very heart of God.
The Saints are people who prepare a place in their hearts in which joy can reside. As they grow in holiness their perspective, that is, their view of themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationship with God, totally shifts toward God and His desires for them. They fall so in love with God that their hearts are transformed in love that is often expressed as joy which becomes visible to others. This is because God is joy. We often hear that God is love, but love brings joy, and therefore the two cannot really be separated. Joy is not something we know with our minds, and it is not something that can be defined, though it can be described. To know God with the heart brings joy that is like no other because this knowing is experiential; it is pure gift. In one of his letters, St. Paul lists joy as one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) The Fruits are signs of the presence of God, and therefore St. Paul attests to the fact that among other things, God is indeed joy.
In reading about various Saints, one trait that is often reported is the sense of joy with which they lived and often with which they bore suffering. They were able to deeply savor goodness, but they could also persevere in suffering because of the joy in knowing that they were never alone and that their trials united them to Christ, serving as prayer for others. For example, the martyrs did not enjoy their fate, but the radical shift in perspective that took place freed them to become a source of strength to the community of believers. These holy ones exemplified that joy is not a feeling, but is a reorientation which frees one from the weight of concerns and points their awareness to God. This freeing causes a joy unlike anything imaginable. Joy also attracts others who might observe, wondering what makes the joyous one different, desiring what it is they have. St. Teresa of Calcutta put it best when she said, “Joy is very infectious; therefore, be always full of joy.” And again: “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love.” This from a woman who dealt with terrible pain and suffering on a daily basis as she took the poorest of the poor from the gutters in order to help them to die with love and dignity. She knew that joy is not about good feelings, but rather is a gift we receive and a gift we can offer to others. She knew that to be loved is to experience joy.
Another example of holy joy is seen in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97). She lived a rather short life which on outward appearance contained much suffering. Though Thérèse came from a close-knit, loving family of Saints in their own right, there was some trauma and feelings of abandonment in her childhood. When Thérèse was four her mother (St.) Zelie died; then two of her sisters who became mother figures for her (consecutively) left for the convent. The result was that Thérèse struggled to bond with friends while in school and also battled spiritual scrupulosity for a long time. However, as her holiness grew she was able to overcome these weaknesses. She entered religious life at age 15 with great joy, but soon experienced the difficulties of such a life. And as if that is not enough, she contracted tuberculosis within a few years and died an excruciating death at the age of 24. Despite all this adversity, she was renowned for the love with which she did everything as well as for the joy which emanated from her. Her Little Way, of which she wrote in her autobiography and poetry, was the reason Thérèse was named as a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved for the greatest teachers and theologians. One of her poems totally encompasses the essence of what inflamed her heart, motivated her actions, and enabled her to persevere through the suffering which permeated her life: it is entitled My Joy. In it she wrote that the source of her joy was her love for Jesus.* Indeed her perception shifted from being self-centered as a child, (though trying to love Jesus as much as she could), to accepting the radical shift of letting go of self. This process required work, but in doing so she was able to focus completely on Jesus, thus unifying with His love and the gift of joy.
As we see in the examples of those we consider to be Saints, holiness comes when we allow ourselves to be molded by the love of God. When His will comes before our own there is a joy which follows because we are freed from all that which keeps us bound. All it takes is small attempts at love, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness, fueled by the gifts given by God, to do something great in the life of one who is without or of one who seeks. We do not have to do great death-defying feats to become holy, but rather we have to open our hearts to Jesus so that we might learn to discern His presence, to see Him in the eyes of the other, so that we might reverence them as He does. He taught us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. The joy which comes from learning to recognize Jesus in this way is the gift He gives us as He becomes the one who is grateful for the love which we offer Him by offering it to His children.
Holiness is to have had that shift in perception so that one sees joy where others see none; to see beauty where others do not, and to know that faith, hope, and love are present as we face opposition and falsehood. Holiness comes when we are willing to offer ourselves to God and then accept the gift of His love and joy which transform us to understand the beauty of living a life steeped in Christ. As in the First Letter of John we could then say, “What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:3-4) We already are in this fellowship as members of the Body of Christ; therefore we need to take to heart the exhortation of St. Paul to rejoice in the Lord. And taking to heart St. John, may our joy be complete.
May we open our hearts to Jesus so that we might have a shift in perspective! May we see through His eyes and love with His heart! May we learn to discern the Fruits of the Holy Spirit so that we might always know when we are in the presence of God! May we recognize the gift of love which we receive from God always and everywhere, and in that recognition may we receive the gift of joy! And may we rest in the love of Jesus who rejoices over every repentant sinner and never ceases to love us! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* For the complete text of St. Thérèse of Lisieux's poem called My Joy, click here:
Note: Next post is on August 14.
1. This first photo is one of mine, taken at Matagorda Bay, TX. I chose it because of the vividness of the colors in nature that day: all of the shades and hues of color present seemed joyous to me when I took this photo. The walking bridge seemed to lead right into the midst of it all, as if beckoning one into the scene.
2. This icon is called St. Paul the Apostle, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. True, St. Paul does not look joyful in this icon, but you must remember that in icons the subjects never are seen smiling because it is not as if they are posing for a photo. However, I picked this one for more reasons than one, but primarily because the "lack" of a smile truly exemplifies what I was saying about joy. It is a change in perspective and something truly interior. He is holding the source of his joy in his hands: the gospels, depicting his desire to share his joy with us, something he did in his ministry of preaching and letter writing. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-paul-the-apostle-196-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. This photo of St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta was taken right before she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. I chose this one because it shows the joy with which she was able to accept it. In clarification, her joy is not in "her achievement," but rather in being able to serve Jesus and to spread the gospel through her actions. That she was noticed and therefore rewarded was never about her, but it drew attention to the work of her sisters and the need to help the poor. However, as humans and as Christians, we are supposed to enjoy the fruit of our labors. It is not prideful to do so and I highly doubt anyone would accuse this most holy of women of being anything but humble.
4. I chose this photo because it perfectly states the reality I was trying to convey about spiritual joy: to express what it is, is actually impossible, though I attempted to describe what it is and is not. But Thérèse is 'spot on' with her statement as seen at the side of her photo: How powerless we all are at expressing the things of Heaven which we have seen, heard, or experienced in our prayer! When I saw this statement,I instantly knew I would use it here because it made me feel so much better about my stumbling statements to describe joy which fall short of what it really is. Thank you, St. Thérèse! It can be found at http://blog.littleflower.org/st-therese-daily-devotional/powerless-how/.
5. This is a painting called Paradiso by Giusto de Menabuoi (1375-76). It is on the ceiling of the Baptistry at the Cathedral in Padua, in the Veneto region of Italy. I chose it because it shows Jesus surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, (with Mary, His mother, depicted most prominently just beneath Him) which is referred to in the Letter to the Hebrews, that is, the saints in Heaven. I think this fresco is magnificent. It takes me breath away to see Heaven so depicted.
6. This is one of my photos, taken while hiking at Fort Davis National Park in Fort Davis, TX. Again, the beauty of nature brings joy. All of nature is a gift of God. Our planet and all the life sustained here is a gift, and so it should be a source of joy and gratitude.
Heart Speaks to Heart