Pope Francis and Holy, Undignified Joy

A Christian is one who is invited… to join in the feast, to the joy of being saved, to the joy of being redeemed, to the joy of sharing life with Christ. This is a joy! You are called to a party!  Pope Francis

 The Saints Were Not Miserable

Even though some old Catholic icons and holy cards often depict saints and the Holy Family looking miserable, with tears streaming down their pale faces, the truth is the saints lived in God’s Presence and in His joy. Even when saints suffered, their suffering was lived out in, with and through Divine Love. St. Francis of Assisi, a famous joyful saint, wrote “The Canticle of the Sun” while almost completely blind, with a body ravaged by poverty and hard labour, bearing the stigmata.

Look at our pope, whose namesake is Francis; his very countenance radiates kindness and joy even as he bears the burden of shepherding the world’s Catholics and a grueling schedule as the pontiff. Some traditional Catholics disapprove of our joyful pope and seem irritated by his very demeanor; perhaps they embody the church besieged while Pope Francis embodies the spirituality of the gospels and the patristic fathers. It is clear, though, that God is using Pope Francis to challenge present day Catholics to rediscover their roots and live daily in the Resurrection and Pentecost, not just the suffering of the Passion.

Dear young people, Jesus gives us life, life in abundance. If we are close to him we will have joy in our hearts and a smile on our face. Pope Francis

Those who experience spiritual joy have always shocked other proper but often secretly unhappy people. It was the same on the day the Church was birthed as some mocked the new Christians for their enthusiasm and euphoria:

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2: 12,13


Similarly, Catholics often look on with scorn when we see a “holy roller” who is dancing while singing praises to God. Have you ever stopped to question why God was pleased to see King David joyfully dancing half-naked before the Ark of the Covenant but was upset with his wife, Michal, in the Book of Samuel? Michal despised her husband for his unseemly conduct:

As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

David answered his wife , “I will celebrate before the Lord.  I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.”

And to the day of her death, Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children. [2 Samuel 6:17-22]  

I am willing to wager most  religious Catholics would not model themselves after joyful David but instead, scowl along with his wife Michal at such a scene. St. Augustine tried to warn us when he said,

Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers. I praise the dance. O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.  Saint Augustine

Joy Is For Catholics, Too

Joy is not just for Pentecostals or King David; joy is also for Catholics. Joy is not just for a few simple-minded anti- intellectuals, it is also for intellectuals. As C.S. Lewis explains,“Joy is the serious business of heaven”. Pope Francis is explicit when he states:

The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. Pope Francis

N0 one is exempt from embracing the joy of the Gospel, not even serious Catholics who focus more on social issues than on their inner life, nor sophisticated theologians. Even those who love solemn, traditional ceremony are not exempt because they too are called to live in holy joy as they celebrate the Latin Mass.

I have been given a gift of joy, a spiritual gift which I did not earn, ask for, or particularly desire. I  did not even know such a gift of the Spirit actually existed in reality. I can identify with C.S Lewis and say with him that I was Surprised by Joy. This joy is not dependent on my health, circumstances or emotions. Joy wells up from deep within my soul at unexpected times, sometimes at seemingly inappropriate times. When I surrender to the joy of the Lord, others around me catch spiritual joy in spite themselves. The joy of the Lord is contagious, a powerful tool of evangelization.

Christianity spreads through the joy of disciples who know that they are loved and saved. Pope Francis

What Is Christian Joy?

Joy is definitely not merely happiness, although certain techniques can help us live day to day life a bit more content. One method, Cognitive Therapy , claims thoughts proceed emotions. Sometimes changing my thoughts has changed my feelings by taking my eyes off myself. Even when I have been stuck in wretched circumstances such as living in poverty with a large family to take care of while weakened by sickness and sleep deprivation, I could still change how I felt by changing how I thought. By putting my circumstances in perspective, I could step out of self-pity.

Joy cannot be held at heel: it must be let go. Joy is a pilgrim virtue. It is a gift that walks, walks on the path of life, that walks with Jesus: preaching, proclaiming Jesus, proclaiming joy, lengthens and widens that path. Pope Francis

Cognitive Therapy: All About Choice

Cognitive therapy gives us a way to begin to understand that we do have a choice about how we feel, no matter how awful our circumstances seem. It is a powerful, secular tool used to change thoughts and focus on the blessings in life, instead of the burdens, even if it is simply the fact that I can still see, hear, and use all my limbs. When people focus on the positive aspects of their lives, their emotions often change dramatically, almost instantaneously. It has even been proven to help those suffering from clinical depression and schizophrenia.

Christian cognitive therapy has a little more punch to it. At the suggestion of a priest. I read a list every day for a year renouncing ingrained lies from my childhood which were like chains around my neck and proclaiming the truth by quoting corresponding verses from Holy Scripture which countered each lie. After a year, the resulting freedom seemed miraculous.

Each encounter with Jesus fills us with joy, with that deep joy which only God can give.Pope Francis
It is true, there are times when our world really does shatter and we simply cannot use cognitive therapy or a good sense of humour to laugh our way out of the pit of despair.
What then?
I love to control but when my safe little world has shattered, devastating circumstances ended one way of life for our family. This was the precise moment when God had a chance to fill us and surprise us with a new way of life.

Do not be afraid of what God asks of you! It is worth saying `yes’ to God. In him we find something new-joy. Pope Francis


The question still remains- how do we let go of control and say yes to God?  How do we choose to live in  As Henri Nouwen teaches,

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently than the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.

What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

No matter the hardships and trials we experience in this life on earth, we can choose to abandon a solitary, grim existence and embrace the indwelling presence of Holy Spirit, our Paraclete, Advocate, Consoler, Comforter, and Intercessor. Christ promised to not leave us orphaned.

“I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.” (John 15:11)

More Than Laughter

The spiritual journey towards complete union with Christ is intense and often painful but if we keep a sense of humour and don’t take ourselves too seriously the journey becomes much easier. A friend of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, once asked him if  it was possible to tell if another person had truly undergone an inner, spiritual transformation where their false self truly died replaced by the life of Christ. Merton responded by remarking that it is very difficult to tell but usually it is accompanied by a wonderful sense of humour. I understand Merton’s insight and so does Pope Francis.

The Holy Spirit transforms and renews us, creates harmony and unity, and gives us courage and joy for mission.  Pope Francis

When I allow God to transform me, I let God take over. He is God and I am not. I am simply His child, who can laugh in the face of tragedy because He is in charge.

Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis has summed up the reasons we are called to live joyfully as Catholics in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Joy of the Gospel. He opens the document:

The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

Let’s read Joy of the Gospel, then take up the pope’s challenge to celebrate in, with, and through the Lord.

Footnote- a commentator on LinkedIn just sent me a wonderful example of a life lived in holy joy.

Sister Maria Cecilia went to heaven after a hard fight against cancer. Thousands have shared on social networks images of her agony , a time in which she never lost peace or joy. She graduated as a nurse and the 26 -year-old made her first vows as a Discalced Carmelite in 2003 made her perpetual profession. Six months ago she was diagnosed with tongue cancer and the disease had lung metastases. She died on Wednesday, June 22 at dawn. Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord.09e99ce1ff683414302bd55ac8b65414

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