Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Joy

I went to Matthew's funeral yesterday. His family planned the most beautiful Requiem Mass for him, complete with a "schola" (or liturgical choir) singing beautifully in Latin. It was the most honorable farewell I could imagine.

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of my favorite days of the year, and a beautiful Marian celebration. This year my friend Alex and I did a novena together leading up to it.

At least half of my friends' status updates on Facebook were about the feast day, which sort of makes me feel like I'm living in a Catholic compound. But I digress.

I have a lot of things to say about joy. It's one of my great intellectual preoccupations at the moment. I'm not sure this post can even remotely do it justice. But I'm going to try, and I would love to hear what you think about it too.

This question of how a person can love God and live their faith without being happy had puzzled me for a long time. I was also very puzzled about this odd phenomenon of sharp pain that came with the sight of great beauty (something that many of my favorite authors described). It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I finally figured out both questions, and understood how they were connected.

The answer came through a conversation with my friend Joey - who is awesome, and whom I will post about tomorrow.

He showed me a book he was reading about the humor and joy at the heart of faith in God. Now, this book is hardly the first to point this out. Chesterton even ends his great book Orthodoxy with the speculation that Christ's great secret as a human being was His wonderful sense of humor - His "mirth."

But the book Joey showed me had an interesting definition of what joy really is.

"In a secular context," the book said, "joy is generally understood as a kind of happiness." It is seen as a particularly strong or long-lasting delight.

But from a spiritual perspective, joy is something radically different. "Joy is not simply a fleeting or an evanescent emotion," the book told us. "Religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God."

Even more extraordinary, Christianity teaches that joy is compatible with suffering.

"What characterizes Christian joy in contrast to happiness," the book said, is "its ability to exist even in the midst of suffering, because joy has less to do with emotion and more to do with belief."

A person is almost never happy while suffering. But a person can suffer and remain truly joyful throughout.

Joy "does not ignore pain in the world, in another's life or in one's own life... Rather, it goes deeper, seeing confidence in God as the reason for joy and a constant source of joy."

Wow. So joy is very different from happiness. Happiness is a passing feeling which is incompatible with sadness. But joy is a belief. Joy is trusting completely in your relationship with God. Joy is knowing your place as a creature of God and being confident in God's plan for you.

In other words, if you trust God, joy never leaves you.

This also explains the strange pain that joy brings. Our longing for full union with God can never be completed on this earth. So when we are most conscious of our relationship with Him, we feel that sharp longing for an otherworldly reality, for a glorious home we will not reach until after death.

The past two Sundays at Mass, the choir sang a hymn that I had never heard before.

"Lift up your heart, lift up your voice," they sang. "Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!"

I sang along with them, but privately I contemplated what a strange refrain it was. The hymn was actually commanding us, not asking us, to be joyful.

That command doesn't make sense unless you consider joy from a supernatural perspective. If joy is just a really great type of happiness, how can you command someone to be joyful? Feelings come and go; happiness won't always be possible.

But if joy is the result of a relationship, if joy is an inner confidence arising from belief in God and His providence, than it seems that joy is the natural duty of every believer.

So that hymn was onto something. We have an obligation to be joyful. Even when we are sad or suffering, we are called to trust in God and draw inner strength from our relationship with Him. That's what joy really is.

This past week has been a time of mourning. For the first few days after Matthew died, I felt a little bit like a zombie. My boss must have thought I was crazy, because I spent the first few days after Matt died staring off into space or putting my head in my hands.

I won't say everything is 100% back to normal yet. But I will tell you this: I've started smiling at strangers on the street again. I've started greeting cashiers and vendors in my usual friendly voice. I'm chipper when I answer the phone.

Happiness is coming back to me. But joy never left me. It was always there, a generous gift from Him. And for that I am truly thankful.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad that you have started smiling at strangers again, I am sure he wouldn't have wanted it any other way...God rest his soul.