“Laugh and grow strong.” ( St. Ignatius of Loyola)
I was stunned when I first discovered this quote by St. Ignatius because I associated the soldier-saint, who founded the intellectual Jesuit order, with the serious, arduous Spiritual Exercises. I could hardly imagine St. Iggy spouting a phrase which appears at first glance to be flippant. Yet, this quote illustrates that Ignatius grasped a deep, spiritual truth which many Catholics do not understand: joy is a gift from God. The average Catholic does not associate joy with holiness, but believes holiness is synonymous with Christ-like suffering. However, the truth is even redemptive suffering is not miserable when we are suffused with the love of God and filled with His Spirit. Joy is at the core of our spirit when we live in, with, and through Christ. This holy joy is the source of a Christian’s strength.
“God Made Us For Joy”
Countless Catholic voices have extolled the virtue of joy. As the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin said so eloquently, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence”. Pope Francis, another Jesuit, radiates the joy of God and challenges us to ”have the courage to be happy”. Pope St. John Paul himself also stated, “God made us for joy”. St. John Vianney said if we really understood what was happening at Mass, we would die of joy. Even before Christ freed God’s people from sin and death and filled us with the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament proclaims, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Joy is a Choice
The truth is each of us must choose to live in joy, in the Spirit. As Father Henri Nouwen explained, joy does not simply happen to us, we must choose joy and keep choosing it every day. I consider myself fortunate because God has blessed me with a sense of humour which defies my circumstances. Raising nine kids in poverty on a hobby farm with a husband burdened with clinical depression was not easy. Yet in the middle of many catastrophes, I have been known to dissolve into gales of inexplicable laughter which broke the tension and literally ushered in the Presence of God.
One evening, when everyone was asleep, I curled up with a long-neglected book. A couple of minutes into my free time, I heard a plaintive, little cry. Five-year-old Grace woke up vomiting all over her pillow, sheets, comforter and pajamas. She reeked of vomit; it was in her hair, all over her face and even soaked through her top. I washed her with a warm, wet face cloth and lots of sweet-smelling soap, shampooed her hair over the edge of the tub, quickly dried it, put on clean pajamas and tucked her into my clean bed with a hot bean bag and lots of hugs.
I had no sooner stripped Grace’s bed, rinsed out all the bedding, put in a load of wash and remade her bed when she vomited all over our pillow, sheets, comforter, her pajamas and her hair . . . again. I cleaned her up a second time, tucked her in her now fresh bed, stripped my bed and piled up the dirty bedding in the basement. In the next 20 minutes, the entire procedure happened all over again. Finally, my little girl was sleeping peacefully, in her own bed.
I tip-toed into the kitchen to deal with nine-month-old Joseph who had woken up during all this activity. I had corralled him in part of the supposedly child-proof kitchen only to discover he had tipped over three litres of oil on the kitchen floor. Now, Joseph was gleefully swimming and splashing on his tummy in a pool of oil which soaked every inch of his clothes, face, body and hair.
What was my reaction to this overwhelming scene? Faced with another hour of clean-up, I leaned against the kitchen wall, slid down till I sat on the floor with my legs sticking straight out, and started giggling. Soon I was laughing until my stomach ached and tears were streaming down my face. In that moment, I sensed the joyful Presence of God within.
Laughter Works Wonders
The truth is humour works. It has been proven, when people laugh at trouble or their own foibles and do not take themselves too seriously, their problems suddenly shrink. This reality is simply an example of cognitive therapy in action: take a step away from each conflict and look at the big picture, through the eyes of God. When we laugh and banish tension, the evil one flees because he is the antithesis of laughter. Yes, laughter works, releasing endorphins helping us relax enough to perceive the gentle Presence of God that is constantly supporting us.
We fasted, prayed and gave alms during Lent, but Catholics also need to relax and simply soak in the joy of the Lord. Let’s pray for a better sense of humour and for the divine gift of laughter. Teilhard de Chardin was right, God’s deepest essence is joy because it is the light of heaven. We are called to “laugh and grow strong”. The point of being Catholic is not to act like the Pharisees parading our hardships and suffering as a badge of holiness. God invites us to receive joy, and to walk clothed in dignity and strength, laughing without fear of the future (Proverbs 31:25) . Then the joy of the Lord will sustain us.
first published on Catholic Stand