This past Sunday’s psalm contains a lovely line that’s easy to overlook:
Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands;
serve the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.
Joy is such an important and under-emphasized dimension of a healthy Christian life (though see Martin’s popular book), something that is, in many ways, the sign of Christian faith, especially in the midst of trials (cf. James 1:2-4). Joy, as I loosely define it, is the delight of hope in a God who loves us; and who loves us not only as God, but as a man-with-us, walking with us into our darkest dungeons, all the while setting before us His joy (cf. Hebrews 12:2).
I remember that one of the Missionaries of Charity told me once, when I worked with them as a volunteer at an AIDS hospice, “Bring cheer to these men. They have enough gravity in their life already. Your job is to make them feel lighter, to lift them higher so they’re closer to God.”
One of the great patrons of Christian joy and humor is the 16th century Italian saint, fool for Christ, Philip Neri. He was a riot! Whether he was drop-kicking a cardinal’s hat, kicking soccer balls around the streets of Rome in his tattered cassock, or making it known that joke books were his favorite books along with the Bible, Neri believed excessive mirth was a necessary sign of salvation in a Church made overly dour by a heavy piety.
But his joy was not just natural mirth. It sprang from his intimacy with God, whose joy and delight in man burst into the world in Bethlehem. A particular mystical experience in St. Philip’s life highlights this divine wellspring of his joy.
Antonio Gallonio, St. Philip’s first biographer tells us:
It was habitual with Philip to pray each day to the Holy Spirit, and with great humility to ask Him for His gifts and graces. [In 1544], the saint suddenly felt himself divinely filled with the power of the Spirit with such force that his heart began to palpitate within his body and to be inflamed with such love that, his nature being unaccustomed to such a palpitation of the heart, he indicated that he was completely unable to bear it.
According to the testimony of Pietro Consolini, a special confidante of Philip’s last years, Philip saw a ball of fire enter into his mouth and then felt his breast expand over his heart. The sensation of inner fire was so strong that Philip threw himself onto the ground and cried out,
Enough, Lord, enough! I cannot take anymore!
“I cannot take anymore!” I love St. Philip, sign of the ebullient excessiveness of divine love.