We can accept, rather than trying to avoid, pain and trials in a spirit allowing us to offer this rarely-appreciated human gift back to God. This is the cause of St. Francis of Assisi’s perfect joy.
St. Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera
There seems to be two general categories of joy. Natural joy happens in time. It is not a constant condition but rather a feeling that lifts us up for a while. It comes from possessing something good, looking forward to something good, or a pleasure or happiness that results from some basic good. There is joy in doing the right thing, joy in completing a task we have been evading because it is displeasing to us. There is joy that results from the hard work of earning a college degree. Such natural joys can come from planned activities, or come upon us for no apparent reason whatsoever.
Far deeper and richer a gift, however, is supernatural joy. This is a joy that is eternal. No person has this joy unless he or she prays to God, living so as to enter ever more deeply into a perfecting union with him. St. Bonaventure tells us: “In God alone is there primordial and true delight, and in all our delights it is this delight we are seeking.” Christian joy is more than pleasure or happiness. It comes with a price. We must communicate with God, obey his teachings and live with the intentions of pleasing him. Christian joy, not limited to positive emotions, is a by-product of knowing God personally and intimately. It is more like a serene inner glow. Perhaps, we can visualize it as a tranquil, deep lake hidden, at the bottom of the soul. When difficulties arise and seem to overwhelm us, we seek solace and refuge by being submerged in its placid, clear, and restorative waters. With the help of divine grace, we rise up, refreshed and invigorated, ready to face our challenges with peace, with faith, and with love. This illuminates and transforms our spiritual landscape, so that we can manage whatever life has in-store for us. This sign of the eternal assures us that we should not fear. Problems purify us, as prayer draws us closer to the reality for which we were created. Anselm of Canterbury knew this, stating: “I have not yet thought or said, O Lord, how much your blessed ones will rejoice. Surely, they will rejoice in the degree that they will love, and they will love to the degree that they will know. How much will they know you in that day, Lord, how much will they love you?”
Jesus is at the center of all our love, all our knowing, all our rejoicing. This joy flows from him: when we pray, worship, receive his sacraments, undertake good works, we are living in the light of eternal salvation—the God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the perfection of lasting joy, the sole goal of our Christian life. He is the only person who gives us the fullness of joy because he is the only one who can completely fulfill our deepest human needs, desires, and longings.
Christian joy is usually unaffected by external circumstances because it is a prayerful focus of the heart. True Christian joy is not something always, or even usually, “felt.” Rather, it is a deep, settled commitment, secured in God, bonded in hope, and lived out by Christian principles. It is our anchor in this swirling sea of life. This disposition does not demand that we be perpetually cheerful. Common sense tells us that this is simply not real. The sacred is in normal, everyday life. God is found all around us—from the monastery to the mortuary, from the corner church to the corner cafe. John Paul II realized this better than most: “There is no law which lays it down that you must smile, but you can make a gift of your smile. You can be the heaven of kindness in your family.”
Christian joy is based on our confidence in being a daughter or son of God, who loves us tenderly and will never abandon us. Evelyn Underhill once wrote: “This is the secret of joy. We will no longer strive for our own way; but commit ourselves, easily and simply, to God’s way, acquiesce in his will, and in so doing, find our peace.” This is possible when prayer is an all important daily commitment. Intentional prayer is the proof that we believe in God’s particular and unique love for us. The only one who will “always be there” for us is God, loving us always as he loved his own Son. His love is unchanging and consistent, making it possible for us to trust him in all circumstances. Our trust in God develops from heartfelt prayer, deep faith, and a yearning for his intimacy. Our love is, thus, a fruit of such prayer. St. Teresa of Calcutta reminds us how to love this way: “Give love to your children, your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor… Let no one ever come to you without leaving better or happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face; kindness in your eyes; kindness in your smile; kindness in your warm greeting.”
Joy requires living in peace. Because peace begins with ourselves, we must make a decision to live, each day, from a joy inherent in our union with the Trinity, realized through our practice of prayer. Only by loving, and being loved, by God are we are free to be ourselves, free to blossom, and free to relish our moments of grace. This freedom flows underneath the feasts and famines of our days because our constant strength is in God, in his love: “The greatest honor that you can give to Almighty God, greater than all your penances and sacrifices and mortifications, is to live joyfully because of the knowledge of his love” (Julian of Norwich). Because prayer helps us live in the company of Jesus Christ, we strive not to be cynical or sarcastic. We ignore rumors, avoid gossip, and strive to see people as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Problems are then opportunities to collaborate with God, choosing joy each day, and in so doing, being liberated from the constraints of negativity. Deep Christian joy that blossoms from the heart, and shared with others, fosters a common unity and purpose. This is evident when we share aspects of our Catholic faith, as St. Augustine knew: “When many men rejoice together, there is a richer joy in each individual, since they enkindle themselves and they inflame one another.”
Jesus empowers us with his serenity in the midst of personal trials. This is why joy is the greatest sign of God’s presence. Our lifeline with Jesus is prayer, increasing our awareness of his expansive presence. It is important to remind ourselves that prayer is more of the will, and less of feelings or intellect. We often put off praying until we think we have made everything right in our lives, first. However, there is no correct mood for prayer: being distracted or having inappropriate thoughts does not mean we are praying poorly. It means that we are being faithful to the discipline of daily prayer. Prayer is thus an act of the will, wherein we desire to give all our confused thoughts and problems to God Too much reflection on the negatives in our past, wears us down and erodes the joy of the present. We should, therefore, leave the past to God’s mercy, living, instead, in the present. The same holds true for the future: for if we allow the past or future to crash into the present, they inevitably tarnish the grace and sacrament of the present moment. The spirit of joy requires discipline of the mind. We need to control our wandering thoughts, and try, as best we can, to enjoy the life in the gift of today. If we altruistically love ourselves and our neighbor, we are active components of God’s love.
One winter day, St. Francis of Assisi was traveling to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels) in Perugia, Italy, with Brother Leo. The bitter cold made them both suffer keenly. St. Francis called to Brother Leo, who was walking ahead of him a bit: “Brother Leo, even if the Friars Minor in every country give a great example, and integrity, and good edification, nevertheless, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.”
When he had walked on a bit, St. Francis called him again, saying: “Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb and, what is more, brings back to life a man who had been dead for four days, write that perfect joy is not in that.”
Going on further, St. Francis called out again in a strong voice: “Brother Leo, if a Friar Minor knew all languages, and all sciences, and Scripture, if he also knew how to prophesy, and to reveal, not only the future, but also the secrets of consciences and minds of others, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.”
As they continued to walk for a while, St. Francis called Leo again forcefully: “Brother Leo, Little Lamb of God, even if a Friar Minor could speak with the voice of an angel, and knew the courses of the stars, and the powers of herbs, and knew all about the treasures in the earth, and if he knew the qualities of birds and fishes, animals, humans, roots, trees, rocks, and waters, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.”
Going on a bit farther, St. Francis called again strongly: “Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor could preach so well that he should convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that perfect joy is not there.”
Now, when he had been talking this way for a distance of two miles, Brother Leo, in great amazement, finally asked him: “Father, I beg you, in God’s name, to tell me where perfect joy is.”
St. Francis replied: “When we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud, and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of the place and the brother porter comes and says angrily: “Who are you?” And we say: “We are two of your brothers.” And he contradicts us, saying: “You are not telling the truth. Rather, you are two rascals who go around deceiving people, and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!” And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls—then if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled, and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that the porter really knows us, and that God makes him speak against us, oh, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there.”
“And if we continue to know, and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying, ‘Get away from here, you dirty thieves—go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won’t eat or sleep here’—and if we bear it patiently, and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, Oh, Brother Leo, write that this is perfect joy!”
“And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call, and crying loudly beg him to open for us and let us come in for the love of God, and he grows still more angry and says: ‘Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I’ll give them what they deserve.’ And he comes out with a knotty club, and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the ground, rolling us in the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that he covers our bodies with wounds—if we endure all those evils and insults with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of him, Oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!”
“And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends, is that of conquering oneself, and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God’s, as the Apostle says: ‘What have you that you have not received?’ But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions because that is ours, and so the Apostle says: ‘I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'”
Francis accepted suffering in the way of the Beatitudes. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained how the poor, hungry, mourning and suffering people are tenderly loved by God, blessed by God, because they hope despite overwhelming circumstances. St. Francis makes very real that perfect joy does not come from many talents and abilities, since these are never ultimately ours, but are gifts from God. Francis, therefore, believed that the only really true gifts we can give to God, which are not originally from God, are our sufferings.
On the natural level, we, of course, do not want suffering in our life, but having reached the state described in the Beatitudes, we can accept suffering with joy. Instead of trying to avoid pain and trials, we can accept them in a spirit that would allow us to offer this rarely-appreciated human gift back to God. This is the cause of St. Francis’ perfect joy: he found the only thing that he had which he could give back to the Lord. This is how to live the Beatitudes, how to live on a supernatural level, able to say, “I will not glory, save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perfect joy is found in fidelity and in constant prayer, patiently enduring all the gifts we give to God. Joy is an interior state, independent from that which affects us externally. For beneath all the hardships is the fundamental reality of joy. The background to all suffering is total faith in the ultimate triumph of the Cross of Christ.
Hymn to Joy
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!
All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed, Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.
(Text: Henry Van Dyke; Music: Ludwig van Beethoven; Arr. by Edward Hodges; Tune: HYMN TO JOY.)