Prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger addressed a group of Catechists in Rome on the topic of the New Evangelization. He commented that one of the greatest obstacles to the Gospel is poverty. The greatest poverty, the future Pope commented, is the inability of joy. All of us seek joy and yet it remains elusive for many of us because we are unable to receive it. Why might this be?
Joy remains elusive for the simple reason that we do not know what it is and therefore fail to identify it when it comes. Joy, according to Blessed Paul VI, is the satisfaction that occurs when we possess a known and desired good [Gaudete in Domino (GD), 1]. Because joy is related to a “known and desired good,” and specifically man’s highest faculties of knowing and willing, we can say it originates within man’s spirit and not from within the body. It may spill over into the body and be experienced as bodily pleasure, but that is not always the case. To help us separate joy from pleasure St. Thomas says “we take delight both in those things which we desire naturally, when we get them, and in those things which we desire as a result of reason. But we do not speak of joy except when delight follows reason.” Identification of the good as truly good and a love of it then are key components of joy.
An ever-present danger is to think that joy can only be found in the possession of God. What this leads to is compartmentalization and an “over-spiritualizing” of our lives. Joy finds its fullness in the possession of God as Goodness itself, but there is such thing as natural joy. In fact supernatural joy assumes that we are capable of natural joy.
At each stage of Creation, God took delight (“it was good”) and upon its completion He rested delighting in the whole as “very good” (Gn 1:31). In other words, God found joy in Creation. Mankind, made in His image, is given a share in that joy. Certainly if God finds joy then we should too.
We might find joy in a beautiful sunset or an incredible landscape, but in truth joy mostly comes in “smaller” ways. Natural joy comes when we do those things that fulfill our nature— our work, our duties, and our relationships. All of these things are true goods that fulfill us and thus sources of joy.
Why was it that God chose shepherds tending their flock as the first recipients of the message of great joy (Lk 2:11-12)? Was it because they were particularly pious? There is nothing to indicate that. Was it because they were breathlessly awaiting the Messiah? Again, nothing indicates this. Instead the angels appear to them because they were open to supernatural joy. They had found natural joy in watching their sheep by night. They saw the good of their work and the fruits that it provided them and they delighted in them. Supernatural joy, in the Person of God Himself, found them and He came to find us too so that our “joy might be complete” (John 15:11).
This is why supernatural joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Just as fruit only comes to a tree when it is mature, once a man has a certain spiritual maturity he finds the fruit of joy from his possession of the Holy Spirit.
St. Thomas says that “no man can live without joy” so the Devil is always lurking trying to steal our joy. We must also then be aware of the obstacles to joy.
Recall that joy comes in the recognition of a good thing as truly good. If we are loaded down by our “responsibilities” and do not allow silence to speak to us about these goods, we may not recognize them as good. We can only love what we know, so until we truly see them as good we cannot delight in them. By cultivating silence in our lives as a time of reflection of the good things in our lives, we can develop the capacity for joy. Rather than gratitude, the culture attempts to instill envy in us. You will never find joy in keeping up with the Joneses. As Paul VI said, “in a fast-moving world, too often men are prevented from enjoying daily joys. Nevertheless such joys do exist. The Holy Spirit wants to help these people rediscover these joys, to purify them, to share them” (GD, 5). No prophet of gloom, the Blessed Pontiff left us with an antidote—developing a Marian spirit who “mediates on the least signs of God, pondering them in her heart” (GD, 5).
Paul VI also mentioned that “technological society has succeeded in the multiplying of opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty generating joy” (GD, 1). Technology (which literally means “the study of technique”) offers us efficiency, but there are no efficient ways to find joy. In addition to silence, joy also takes work. Technology is meant to reduce work. This is a good as long as it doesn’t reduce man at the same time. Even though it may create a temporary high, you can never derive joy from a thousand “likes” on Facebook. But joy can come from a single smile from your child even after a trying day. It might feel good to make one-handed catch in Madden ’17, but it will never bring the joy that comes from running a route until you have perfected it and then having the ball right on your hands when you turn around.
St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake because I make up for what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1:24). At first glance it seems that only a sadist would find joy in his sufferings, but there is something more at play here that is worth investigating. This is especially true because suffering appears to be the one insurmountable obstacle to joy. How is it possible to find joy in the midst of suffering?
Joy is not the same thing as giddiness. Those who find joy in suffering still feel the pain of it. They still suffer. That is because it is not the suffering that causes them joy but the thing that they possess because of the suffering. When suffering comes upon us, we know that we have God’s personal attention. He has handpicked our suffering because it is the gentlest way for us to be made perfect like Jesus, the Suffering Servant. We can rejoice because we are being perfected, like gold tested in fire. We can rejoice because someone else through our participation in the Cross is being perfected. The point is that we rejoice like St. Paul because we find the meaning of our suffering. For those of us who have suffered we find joy in the goods that the Almighty Father attached to the suffering (for my own testimony read here). The Cross really is the Tree of Life.