Joy in God's Presence
Of the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit I think that joy is often a bit misunderstood. It is sometimes equated with happiness, and while there is obvious overlap, they are truly not the same. The ‘joy’ of the Fruits is spiritual joy, and that is the first important distinction. Second, we need to think of happiness as a response to a person or experience which emanates from within us, while we can define spiritual joy as a response to God’s presence, with God as its origin. In truth, all nine Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) are virtues which reveal the presence of God. The term ‘fruit’ comes from something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Though He was speaking about how to discern true prophets from false, He said we know a tree is healthy if it produces robust fruit, and when the tree is unhealthy it puts forth diseased fruit. (Matthew 7:17-20) This is also true spiritually: when God is present virtues such as kindness, generosity, love, and joy are present. Because it is about God’s presence, it is just as possible to experience spiritual joy when things are going well as it is to have joy in the midst of suffering. In fact, if we look to the lives of the saints we see that many of them suffered immensely yet reported having spiritual joy. It was not that they were enjoying the suffering, (something which makes no sense), but rather that they knew God was with them and so His presence comforted them to the extent that they had a deep sense of gratitude and yes, joy in His presence.
Indeed, joy springs from a recognition that God is ‘in this place,’ or that God is present deeply within one's heart and soul. Happiness is a wonderful gift, too, and we enjoy it especially if we have come to understand what we truly value, such as who the important people in our lives may be and what the blessings we have received are, and to appreciate it all with gratitude. Happiness is a contentment that is no less important than joy, but it can be fleeting if we are placing it in material things or personal achievements or even in an inflated sense of self. Not to be misunderstood, we are meant to be happy and we are meant to enjoy that which we have been given. But what is always important is that we do not elevate material things, ambition, or relationships with people above our relationship with God. We are called to be good stewards, and that means that we do not really possess things, but enjoy their good use and also share our gifts with others, (as time, talent, and treasure.)
Spiritual joy comes directly from God: it is not necessarily elation, (though it can include it), but rather a deep interior sense that God is holding us close to His heart, an experience which can give us a sense that is so profound it can seem otherworldly, as if one is experiencing a preview of what Heaven will be like. When this happens a person is so filled with the Holy Spirit that the virtues arise, especially love, graces which they know do not come from them, but rather come from God. Some saints experienced this quite a bit, like St. Teresa of Avila. She would go into what appeared to be a swoon, but was actually what is referred to as an ecstasy, a unitive experience with God. Ecstasies are not common, but every member of the Body of Christ can experience the Fruits of the Spirit which are defined as “the virtues put into action through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” * Whenever we respond to God and one of the virtues is put into action, God is present.
Luke’s Gospel is filled with examples of the joy which is brought by having a relationship with Jesus. In fact, it was so apparent to Luke that it is one of the main themes of his gospel. In the first two chapters alone the word ‘joy’ appears or is implied numerous times. Among the many examples, most notable would the joy which erupted when Mary greeted Elizabeth causing the baby (John) to leap in her womb, and Mary’s response through prayer, her Magnificat, an ode to the joy of God’s favor poured out to His people. Luke continued this theme in the Acts of the Apostles, best exemplified when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles at Pentecost, and again when Peter was with the family of Cornelius and they experienced what is often referred to as the Pentecost of the Gentiles. (Acts 10, particularly verses 44-46) We can see that when God acts and one is open to Him, joy ensues: when God is present, joy is present. And beyond the Scriptures, we have Saints like Ignatius of Loyola who not only experienced incredible moments of spiritual joy, but came to describe a type of joy as spiritual consolation. Briefly, he labeled as consolation all which leads us closer to God and to a deeper love for Him.
A woman with a fascinating story which involves joy in the midst of suffering is St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized. In 1658 Kateri was born in upstate New York to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father. When she was four, smallpox wiped out many in her village, including her parents, and the disease left her with a terribly disfigured, pockmarked face and severely impaired vision. She was sent to live with relatives, and while there, was exposed to some “Blackrobes,” (what the natives called the Jesuit missionary priests), who taught her about Christianity. She was baptized at 19, taking the name Kateri, (after St. Catherine). “Tekakwitha” was a nickname, however. It translates to “she who bumps into things and then puts them back in order,” a reference to her near blindness. Soon after becoming Catholic she had to flee because of animosity directed at Christians; she ended up in a small town outside Montreal, having made the 200 mile trip on foot. Kateri only lived a few years after that, dying in 1680 at the young age of 24.
St. Kateri was known for her humility, kindness, charity, and intense devotion to prayer and sacrifice. Two characteristics that stand out, however, are that she meditated continuously on the “immense dignity of being baptized,” and the joy which this produced within her.** She was ridiculed for her appearance and her near-blindness as well as for her desire to live as a virgin, unheard of in Mohawk culture. But none of this dampened her joy in knowing, loving, and serving Jesus as taught to her by the Jesuits. She had come to understand that baptism was an extraordinary gift, bringing her the dignity of being loved by God despite her disfigurement or her disabilities. Her response to this great gift was to offer kindness to others and to offer penances as prayer for the conversion of her people. She suffered greatly, yet she was filled with the joy of God’s presence and with deep gratitude for being so loved by Him. An amazing testimony to the grace of spiritual joy within Kateri is that within a few minutes after her death her face became quite beautiful as she was totally healed of all the pockmarks and scars, and a smile crept onto her lips.
What we learn from St. Kateri Tekakwitha is that we can open ourselves up to the gift of spiritual joy by growing in relationship with God through time spent in prayer and adoration. We also learn that it does not necessarily take a long time to become holy. Kateri, who only lived 24 years and who was nearly blind, found a way to see Jesus and His love in everyone to whom she ministered with kindness and charity. She prayed for a people who misunderstood her, continually offering penances on their behalf; we learn that while we can choose meaningful penances, in life they can also come unbidden and so we can offer all these up as prayer. She teaches that spiritual joy is a gift which assures us that we are never alone, especially in the midst of suffering when we may not feel God, but can rely on faith to know He is actually closer to us than ever. Like Kateri, we can learn to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit whom we received at Baptism and Confirmation, thus giving us great dignity and the ability to recognize the dignity of others. Through the life of St. Kateri we see that joy invites us to rest in the arms of Jesus and also to share the deep sense of being at home with those whom we meet. Perhaps we can be like St. Kateri, letting the inner beauty which comes from the dignity of being a child of God bring joy to others with a smile on our lips and gratitude in our hearts.
May we request the intercession of St. Kateri when we are burdened by cares and cannot see a way through! May we rely upon the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit which we have received through the Sacraments! May we learn to recognize the presence of God and open ourselves up to responding by putting the virtues into action! May we be an example to others by our desire to grow in holiness, doing small things with great love! And may we find comfort and inspiration in the presence of God who never leaves us, continuously guides us, and ceaselessly loves us! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post on July 30.
* This definition is found in the Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary found in the back of the New American Bible Revised Edition.
** This information was taken from Franciscan Media found at https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-kateri-tekakwitha/
For more on St. Kateri, including the site where I found the meaning of her name, go to:
1. My husband Tony took this photo in an outdoor market in Siracusa, Sicily. I chose it here as a representation of the bounty of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
2. I took this photo while on an airboat on a trip up the Rees River in the Glenorchy area, north of Queenstown, New Zealand. I chose it here as an example of a spot where I truly felt that "God is in this place."
3. This icon is St. Teresa of Avila, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I felt it was appropriate to present this icon here since it depicts St. Teresa in ecstasy. The hands are God's hands, a reference to her famous words saying that the only hands God has now are ours. You can find the icon, and purchase a copy in one of many mediums if you so desire, at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This is a photo of a stained glass window which I took at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel. It shows the moment after Mary greeted Elizabeth. Elizabeth has one hand pointing toward Mary's womb, indicating that she, and her baby who had 'leapt', had recognized the special Child within Mary's womb: there is great joy in this image as they all know they are in the presence of God.
5. This is another of the icons of Fr. William Hart McNichols, called The Apparition of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. While this image of St. Kateri depicts an apparition of her after her death, it is nonetheless appropriate here. It shows her face clear, as she looked after death, but I particularly liked that instead of the usual halo around her head, there are rays which speak of the joy of being in the presence of the Holy, and perhaps the spiritual joy which she experienced during her life. You can find the image at frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-apparition-of-st-kateri-tekakwitha-192-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. I took this photo in the gardens at Larnach Castle near Dunedin, New Zealand. I loved the beauty of the butterfly which spoke to me of joy. God is present in simplicity and beauty.
7. This painting is Still Life with Peaches and Pears, by Paul Cezanne. (1888-90) I love the impressionist artists, but sometimes we get so caught up in their landscapes and outdoor scenes, that we forget their wonderful still life paintings. Again, it is the simplicity of the peaches and pears, sitting atop a simple wooden table on a tea towel which is evident; it seems like a scene which could be present in any ordinary kitchen. God is present in the ordinary, making even the simplest places and times extraordinary.
(In remembrance of Max Finney whose joy was contagious. Rest in Peace!)
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
elise m campana
7/16/2018 03:46:47 pm
Thank you Michele, I enjoyed learning about St. Kateri. Hope your summer is going well.
7/16/2018 09:21:54 pm
Wonderful insights into the fruits of the HS and the true meaning of joy!
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