Arts and Culture

Reflecting on Christian Joy

by Father Robert Lauder

RECENTLY I GAVE a talk on Christian joy and found preparing for the talk to be an important learning experience. I thought I knew what Christian joy was until I had to speak about it and then I found that it was easier to say what it was not, than what it was. There is a statement from Abbot Dom Marmion that has appeared on numerous holy cards: “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” Often I have quoted the statement in homilies. Now that I had to give a talk about joy, I was forced to ask myself just what Dom Marmion meant.

Joy is not the same as giddiness. A person who has Christian joy does not have to walk around grinning. Apparently I do this on the campus of St. John’s University. Recently another professor, seeing me approach, said “Here comes the smiling priest!” Often I’m not even aware that I’m smiling. I’m not sure whether my lack of awareness is a good or a bad personality trait. But Christian joy is not necessarily evidenced through smiling. In fact someone might have Christian joy and yet at some moment or moments be unable to smile.

Reflecting on Christian joy, I have come to think of it as something deeply religious, perhaps even mystical. I think this kind of joy comes from a deep awareness of God’s love and of the Spirit’s presence within us. It is necessary for me to remind myself occasionally that the Holy Spirit’s presence is not an event that happens only in dramatic situations or only when a sacred rite is being celebrated. The Holy Spirit’s presence is a constant and the Holy Spirit is not merely an interested observer. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is actively present, inviting, encouraging, inspiring.

As I thought about Christian joy, I simultaneously experienced insight and darkness. The experience was a chiaroscuro of light and darkness.

I turned to that source for information about anything to do with the Catholic understanding of holiness: The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, Editor: Michael Downey (A Michael Glazier Book, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1993). There I found the following:

“Far more than a feeling state or a mere heightened sense of pleasure, joy in the Christian life refers to a basic disposition and a fundamental attunement to the self-giving of God in Christ. To rejoice in the midst of suffering puts a strain on our ordinary conception of joy and enjoyment. This is because the joy of which Scripture and the tradition speak takes a peculiar object — the revelation of God in Christ. Thus Mary’s Magnificat rejoices in ‘God my Savior.’ The joy is configured by who is being acknowledged in the singing: the Holy One of Israel now incarnate.

“Joy is this ingredient in the very pattern of life constituted by trust in God, in, with, and through Jesus Christ. Every activity and relationship in service of God and neighbor shares in a joyful quality. Serving the neighbor becomes an ‘enjoyment,’ one of the chief ends of human existence. Such joy is not contingent upon fortune, good or bad, but is grounded in faith that God is Creator and Redeemer of the world.

“In sum, joy occupies a central place among the Christian affections, yet it is also characteristic of all activities begun and completed in faith.”

Christian joy, I believe, comes from a deep awareness of God’s love for us. We can claim that we believe that God loves us, but I know that for me, and perhaps for others, there is the danger that to the truth that God loves us we give only what John Henry Cardinal Newman called notional assent. This assent is rather superficial and does not express a deep commitment to the truth, nor does it make the truth personal for us. What is called for is what Cardinal Newman identified as real assent — personal and deep. This assent is the type that should be made concerning what we believe as Christians. We do not believe in Christ’s teachings because they are interesting or provocative ideas. We believe in Christ’s teachings because we believe in Christ, because we have made a commitment to the Lord.

What can we do to foster Christian joy in our lives? I believe that if we spend silent time listening to God our awareness of God’s love for us will increase and deepen.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.