I once came across a story that illustrated an important point about the role of joy in Christian witness.
A Catholic gentleman, who was also a successful entrepreneur in the Northeast (I think New York), was sharing at a men’s conference about a decade ago the story of his conversion of to Catholicism in the early 1990s. He identified three obstacles to his coming to faith: (1) his own Machiavellian approach to business, (2) his sexually active lifestyle and (3) the joylessness of Christians he knew. Though all three obstacles were powerful, it was the third that, to me, was the most fascinating.
He made this point (as always, filtered through my memory):
Generally my experience of “committed” Christians was that they were pissed off about the evils in the churches and the world and, frankly, did not seem to find joy in their faith as much as they found in their faith a heavenly reason to gripe about the problems of general existence; and about their existence in particular. And let me say, there’s nothing more off-putting to a faithless person who’s in hot pursuit of worldly joys than a joyless, complaining faithful Christian. But the day I encountered Steve’s down to earth and joyful self [Steve was a broker] was the day that I actually became curious about this Jesus…[later in the talk]…There was one day, the day I finally realized my emptiness and need for God, that I finally broke down and sobbed for at least an hour. And when I was finished, I felt totally new; I felt what I could call “God joy” for the first time in my life. And what was different about it, different from the worldly ones I’d long grasped after, was this: it wasn’t going anywhere; it was here to stay.
This is a great question we need to ask of ourselves if we are people of faith: in what ways is joy manifest in me to others?
Lent is, in part, a time when we seek to be cleansed by penthos, the “joyful mourning” Jesus mentions in the beatitudes, that opens to us the cleansing and healing power of penitent tears. Why link penitence with joy? Because the greatest joy-killer is always sin, and the panoply of dysfunctions that keep us from being who God desires us to be. It’s why St. Isaac of Syria says of our life’s meaning, “This life is for repentance.”
This gift of penitent and mournful tears, which has always been considered in our spiritual tradition as a true gift and as a kind of “second baptism,” has the power to wash away the obstacles to joy in our life.
Ask for them.
Christian joy flows not from a life free from troubles, and is not the expression of a don’t-worry-be-happy outlook. Rather, joy flows from our unshakable hope in Christ Crucified and Risen, and emerges from the midst of life’s frequent storms where Christ is most near us. As the Carthusian monks’ motto has it,
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the earth whirls around.”
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit-set-free in us.
We need every day to ask — no, beg! — God to liberate us from all that hinders us from living and witnessing to lives of joy.
Joy is a net of love by which we catch souls. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta
Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God — Paul Claudel