Surprised by Joy


I think I have met a good number of saints in my life. Some I can name: One was Mother Teresa. Two was an old lady named June. Three was her daughter. Four was an old priest named Richard and Five was a priest named John. Six was a young priest named James.

When I call to mind there have been a good many others. Some have been old, some have been young, some Anglican, some Catholic. The distinguishing mark in all of them is a quality called joy.

I’m not sure exactly how to describe joy, but I know what it’s not. It’s not mere happiness or feeling fine. Neither is it giddiness, hilarity or what some people call ‘evangelical perma-grin’ (that everlastingly smug smile some pious people paste on) Neither is it a sentimental, twee religious happy time, nor some spooky religious high that you sometimes find in devotees of Eastern religions.

Instead Christian joy is a tough, shrewd realism built on a bedrock of optimism. The energy and determination of joy is formidable. Joy is a steam engine that is unstoppable. Joy laughs quickly, but it also weeps quickly in compassion. Joy is an authentic clarity of vision, a simplicity of style and a direct way of speaking in total honesty, but without a touch of malice. It is honest, open, attractive and infectious. Joy is more than a lift of the heart or the buoyancy of spirit that comes from external circumstances. Joy springs up from the depths of a heart that has been truly converted by the power of the resurrection.
That is the best way to describe joy: it is a heart raised up and being raised up and forever being raised up. It is the everlasing lift of the heart renewed. It is tough, tender, hilarious and alive.

Joy is a uniquely Christian grace.

What other religion has joy? Can any religion determined by legalism engender joy? I doubt it. Can any religion determined by fatalism and negation of this world engender joy? Never. Can any religion determined by human preference or good works engender joy? Hardly.

Finally, can any religious believer who is continually lacking in joy evidence a truly authentic faith? Not for my money. One may argue, “But what about the people who are locked in terrible suffering? Surely they cannot evidence joy? Surely they are allowed to be blue, to be down in th dumps. Surely Father, they are allowed to sometimes be a little depressed?”

I would, out of compassion, wish to agree, but then one of the most joyful people I know is an old hermit who has had nothing but heartbreak, poor health, pain and suffering her whole life. One of the most joyful people I’ve met went through decades of spiritual suffering and darkness. One of the saints I met who was joyful to the end got cancer when he was in his mid thirties and died a painful death.

Do you want to find authentic religion? Look for joy.

Are you looking for a saint? Look for joy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09356738924839809045 Andrew

    Brilliant thoughts, Father. Here’s how Mother Teresa once put it, “Joy is prayer. Joy is strength. Joy is love. The best way to show my gratitude to God is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy. Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget for one moment the joy of Christ risen.””.If you see photos of Mother Teresa, she embodies all you’ve written about the joy of faith. Despite all the hardships and death that surrounds her, she is joyful.Thanks for the timely reminder to rekindle the joy of faith, the mark of a genuine relationship with Christ.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05495771160792293715 Archistrategos

    Brilliant post. It always struck me as odd how many trads think that acting like there’s a huge rod stuck up theirs is a badge of holiness. As St. Teresa famously said, ‘Lord, deliver me from gloomy saints!’ To be holy means to be set apart; how then can people see the radiant grace of God if we do not possess the joy that should set us apart from the rest? The reminder is especially timely.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06735175874152541268 Stephen Wikner

    Hmm. I’m sure you’re right.At a less elevated level, the words of a retiring Anglo-Catholic bishop at his farewell Mass a number of years ago have remained lodged in my grey matter. ‘You know’, he said, ‘being an Anglo-Catholic is fun.’ Even if you allow that the good bishop wasn’t equating ‘fun’ with ‘frivolity, the point he was making might still be seen as somewhat limited. But I would suggest it’s a notion that might be applied in a wider arena and is one that isn’t a million miles from what the present Pope is saying about Catholics smartening up their Eucharistic act. Getting it ‘right’,doing it well can be great fun.I know you think I was a bit sniffy about your Maundy Thursday posting showing an oriental Altar of Repose but among its many attributes was, I suggest, a sense of fun.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Indeed, I daresay the Anglo Catholic bishop was a saintly old fellow himself, and humility and the English instinct for understatement forbade him from talking in holy terms about ‘joy’.Yes, the Philippino altar of repose was fun. I didn’t take your comments wrongly. I was just enjoying a bit of jousting.Thank you for your presence here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    I believe my first experience of joy was changing one of my kids’ diapers. It was a bad one, (a humbling one, you might say), and while feeling sorry for myself, I chanced to see the blissful baby smiling at me. I thought, “If there’s a better way of doing God’s work right now, I don’t know what it is,” and for the first time I was surprised by plain & simple joy (as distinct from happiness).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01718162592660319087 Radical Catholic Mom

    Thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14850575419673561383 Tom

    A Dominican priest once preached on the topic of charisms (he himself has been involved in the Charismatic movement from its earliest days).I asked him what charism he thought the Church in the United States was most in need of. His answer: “Joy.”

  • AEO

    Father Dwight, Thank you so much for incorporating this into the homily at Mass. It has been on my mind all day today, and it’s uplifted me, and joy does give us strength to endure even the most trying of times. I have joy in the Lord, every single day, and though I may stumble, err, and falter through this life…I have joy in a God who never fails to lift me up when I reach out to Him. Oh, I have joy, Father! :-) Thank you!

  • Lani

    I really appreciated your description of authentic joy. Nevertheless i disagree that a believer who is continually lacking in joy cannot evidence authentic faith. There are many (including myself) whose ability to feel joy is affected by depression or other mental illness. It does not follow that this illustrates a lack of authentic faith and it concerns me that this kind of misunderstanding adds to the stigma which sufferers of mental illness already face. I love Jesus with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. In my depression God has drawn me closer to him and enhanced my capacity to relate and feel compassion for others. There are days where i cannot feel joy where my prayers are like those of the psalmists in their songs of lament. And that’s ok. After all we are all clay vessels. The important thing is to keep bringing our despair to Jesus Christ who will one day make our joy complete.


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