The Meaning of Christian Joy

JOY: THE SPIRIT’S GIGANTIC SECRET BEHIND THE CHURCH’S SURVIVAL By Father John T. Catoir (Alba House, Society of St. Paul, 2187 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, N.Y.10314, 2006; 1-800-343-2522), 190 pp. PB. $14.95.

This is a simple but substantive book on the full meaning and rich sources of Christian joy, “the gigantic secret” that G. K. Chesterton discovered as the essence of Christianity. It recovers an aspect of the Church’s teaching that church fathers like Origin called “the everlasting festival”—the many holy days and holidays in the church calendar that marked the entire Christian year as infused with the occasions for celebration. Father Catoir traces this theme throughout the Gospels from the Annunciation (“Do not be afraid, Mary, I have come to bring you tidings of great joy”) to the last words of Christ at the Last Supper (“I have told you all these things that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete”). This theme resonates in St. Paul who exhorted the early Christians to “rejoice always” and wrote, “The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control.” Saints like St. Francis of Assisi preached that Christians win souls for God by “giving them joy and making them happy,” and spiritual writers like Juliana of Norwich affirm the same truth: “The greatest honor you can give to Almighty God is to be joyful because of the knowledge of His love.”

After announcing his theme and recording the Biblical and spiritual sources that resound with this affirmation, Father Catoir notes this motif in the Prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life.” The book then examines the myriad sources of this joy that provide the fullness of complete happiness. The various chapters of the book illustrate the various human experiences and the holy sacraments that fill the heart with spiritual joy. For example, “Joy, the Surrender of Self,” “Joy, the By-Product of a Healthy Conscience,” and “Joy, the Reward of Forgiveness” represent chapter headings that identify the specific, ordinary, practical ways that Christian joy can accompany daily experience. The surrender of self produces joy when a person resists “an egoistic struggle to demonstrate, primarily to oneself, one’s superiority” and exercises an “abandonment to Divine Providence” that conquers self-preoccupation. Honoring God’s moral laws which enjoin all humans to goodness and justice and obeying the Church’s Magisterium in matters of faith and morals brings peace to the soul, and “a clean conscience is a joy forever.” Because grudges, hatred, and resentment kill the spirit of love, forgiveness purifies the heart and restores joy. “A great weight will be lifted,” and “The Joy of forgiveness is worth any inconvenience or discomfort in going to confession.” This deep spiritual joy, as Father Catoir carefully explains, has nothing in common with the pleasures of the world.

This godly joy not only flows from a moral life based on the gift of self, a pure heart, a clean conscience, and the virtue of forgiveness but also from the divine life of the sacraments. The chapter “Joy, the Goal of Matrimony” recalls the Church’s sublime teaching on the magnificence of marriage by citing Tertullian’s words: “How can I ever express the happiness of a marriage joined by the Church, sealed by blessing, announced by angels, and ratified by the Father in heaven?” The chapter entitled “Joy, the Gift of the Eucharist” captures the reality of the love and grace received in Holy Communion, the Joy of the Holy Spirit and all its many fruits. As Father Catoir explains so lucidly and eloquently, even the cross does not destroy this divine joy. There is often great joy amidst great tribulations as St. Paul’s life illustrates when he said his sufferings produced patience, then perseverance, then hope, “and this hope is not deceptive because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” The cross not only deepens a person’s compassion and mercy for the sorrows of others but also leads one to the heart of Christ crucified and the mystery of redemptive suffering. The joy of the cross—a difficult topic to elucidate—becomes intelligible and reasonable in the succinct exposition the book provides.

In probing the depths of the meaning of Christian joy, Father Catoir also gives much prudent advice. First, a person can pardon others without an argument or confrontation by forgiving them in one’s heart: “Do not wait until you feel like forgiving, or it may never happen.” Second, a person should never exaggerate his superiority or lose contact with his natural limitations: “You are merely an average person, not a superhuman being,” and “expecting too much of yourself is a form of vanity.” Third, the sincerity and fruitfulness of prayers should not be measured by the intensity of the feelings or the eloquence of the words: “Pure prayer is not in the feelings” but “in the will to give yourself to God, and this overflows into your actions.” Finally, God does not expect the impossible but the human: “The truth is that we can only do some good in this world, and avoid some evil in this world.” The honest, realistic experience of God’s joys in this world leads to both a practical wisdom and divine truth.

All this abundant human and divine joy that flows from the heart and mind of the Church leads the human intelligence to contemplate the great truth which St. Thomas Aquinas pondered: God is Happiness and Joy itself, and he created man “for his delight” and for man to share in the everlasting festival of the divine life of the beatific vision. This book makes this sublime truth accessible, for it demonstrates that the foundation for this heavenly joy is laid in this world from the moment of the Annunciation to the glory of Easter.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Saint Anselm College
Manchester, New Hampshire

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