The Catholic Thing
On Joy, Christian Style Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 18 August 2014

I once had a very talented research assistant (he had the idea for what is now The Catholic Thing), who grew up evangelical. He became a Catholic and remains one – a good one. He once explained to me the plight of the more emotional forms of evangelicalism, and why that very emotionalism, in part, brought him into the Church.

Those of us who do not belong to more charismatic religious bodies may never think much about it, but there’s great difficulty in maintaining a certain kind of holy enthusiasm as a community over the long haul. More typically – at least in my friend’s telling – people lose the initial excitement and then start a frantic search through an endless series of other churches and groups hoping to rediscover it. 

Such a high pitch of emotion cannot be sustained throughout the life of an individual or a community, any more than the initial infatuation lasts unaltered over the years of a long marriage. Emotion is a proper part of human life and appropriate feelings – ecstasy, sorrow, joy, comfort, even bewilderment or despair – may teach us a lot. But to make emotion itself the measure of holiness or of ordinary life is to invite deep disappointment. Some people, having lost a certain feeling, think they’ve lost God.

Which brings me to my central subject: Christian joy. Pope Francis has rightly put that notion before the world, and others have taken it up eagerly. But in a culture like ours, driven as it is by emotionalism, even the quintessential idea of Christian joy can be easily distorted. And has been.

I often meet Christians who hope to reach out to the culture and seem to believe that, if we can show non-believers that we’re even happier than they are, that it will be a potent tool of evangelization. Perhaps so, but it all depends what you mean by happy. If you give the impression that Christians just have more fun – in the adolescent way of our culture – you’ll lose the game. Rightly, because Christian joy is an adult affair.

The touchstone in these matters has to be Jesus Himself who, whatever else we see in Him, was not merely a “fun guy.” Neither were the saints. When He speaks of the fullness of joy, it’s in a different context than the one we hear about most:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:10-13)
Laying down your life for someone else is, to say the least, not a popular standard for the fullness of joy.

Statue of the Korean martyr Andrew Kim Taegon near Seoul

There’s something potentially frivolous – given the tensions, conflicts, diseases, disappointments, trials, injustices, sufferings, death to which all humans are subject – in giving the impression that the Christian life is joyful in some other way. Which I’m afraid not a few Christians enthusiasts seem to be doing. I’m entirely with Pope Francis about Christian “sourpusses,” of whom there seems to be a perpetual, abundant supply. But as he suggested in a homily to young people yesterday in Korea, Christian joy takes some of its being from sacrifice, even martyrdom.

One experience that led the highly perceptive Edith Stein to faith was the death of her friend and fellow Husserl student, Adolf Reinach, who was killed at the front during World War I. Stein went to console his widow, but found the widow full of hope, like the deceased a serious Christian, consoling the friends instead:

It was my first encounter with the Cross and with the force that it gives to those who carry it. For the first time, I was seeing with my own eyes the Church, born out of the Passion of the Redeemer, victorious over the sting of death.   

When I was writing my Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, I came across that story, and another about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. One of his biographers wrote that, in the years prior to his assassination by a death squad during Mass, Romero had been “joyfully celebrating the Eucharist” with his people. [my emphasis] The phrase stuck in my mind because, Romero was so affected by the general violence in his country and the personal threats against him that he was what we must call emotionally disturbed. I still don’t know whether the “joyfully” was mere pious mouthwash or a rare perception by someone who knew him, about a man who had true Christian joy.

We in the developed world don’t like even to hear about this part of Christian joy. We like the fun, the easier part, the one that calms the anxieties and doubts of our much easier lives. In fact, it seems at times as if we believe that, in becoming Christians and despite sheer historical evidence to the contrary, we’ll somehow be spared the tougher lives that have been the lot of much of the human race. And the persecution and martyrdom that have marked Christian existence since the death of its Founder.

The current travails of Christians in the Middle East are a warning that the threat never goes away – and is never far away. Yet we rejoice, Christian-style, in the midst of such trials. It’s an odd Christian perspective, odd because both non-Christians and Christians alike don’t take seriously – or even know – the very words of Christ any longer: 

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Lee Gilbert, August 18, 2014
Mr. Royal, you write, "Those of us who do not belong to more charismatic religious bodies may never think much about it, but there’s great difficulty in maintaining a certain kind of holy enthusiasm as a community over the long haul."

There is as a matter of fact no religious body more charismatic than the Catholic Church-unless you can think of another church that claims Pentecost as its very birthday. Or is there some other Church whose chief apostle on that day offered as conclusive evidence for the Resurrection the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, "which you see and hear"?

Is there some other Church who first authored and promulgated I Corinthians 12, 13 and 14- a manual for the proper use of the charismatic gifts and a strong encouragement to use them? To take one example: "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy." There seems considerable reason to doubt that such a desire enjoys the approbation of the Catholic intelligentia, however much the Charismatic Renewal may enjoy the approbation of recent popes. Nevertheless, it is an exhortation of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul, Scripture and the Catholic Church.

You conflate the exercise of charisms with "enthusiasm," a conflation in vogue since 1968 when the newly appearing Charismatic Renewal was broadly equated with Montanism and said to be the subject of Ronald Knox's book, "Enthusiasm." No, we at least in this hemisphere have largely thrown the gifts of the Holy Spirit back in His face- a phenomenon known scripturally as suppressing the Holy Spirit. Now we are reduced to drumming up enthusiasm for "The New Evangelisation," which would have happened spontaneously and with enthusiasm had the charismatic renewal been as welcome here as in Africa and South America. My experience has been that the Catholic intelligentia here and the pastors formed by it vastly prefer a culture "sicklied over with the pale cast of thought." Of course, there is nothing wrong with thought, with theology, but there is something vastly wrong with a theology that dismisses its own biblical wellsprings out of hand and consigns whole streams of it to "enthusiasm.".
written by irenaeus, August 18, 2014
I have recently reached my sixth decade, however I have many facebook friends and family who are in the "young adult" demographic, and, of course, a majority of those have rejected the faith. I have noticed among them a common theme of disappointment in God and others. Why doesn't He make things better? One even said of people who help in a crisis, "Where were they when there was no crisis?" I patiently point out that the crisis opens us up to receive the help from others, and by implication from God, but no one wants to listen to my song of gratitude.
Joy? Where is it in the faithless? You would think the joy of the Church, of the Eucharist, would be a huge attraction to this crowd, but they are stuck. I am spending the rest of my life trying to figure out how to unstick them.
It won't do to get mad at them. That may make me feel better for about half a minute, but it really sends the whole thing backwards. I try using logic, mainly because they claim to be so logical, but they are not moved by it. The only times I seem to make any headway is when one of them stops me and says "Where do you get your strength?", and I wonder what they have been seeing in me. I guess I have been giving a good example, at least some of the time. Joy must be caught, not taught, and often it looks like strength in adversity.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 18, 2014
In his commentary, On Epistle to Galatians 49, St Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, says, “in acting we necessarily follow what gives us most pleasure”
Then, in On the Merits and Remission of Sins 2, 17, 26: he insists, "Men are not willing to do what is right either because the fact that it is right is hidden from them, or because it does not please them... It is from the grace of God, which helps the wills of man, that that which was hidden becomes known, and that which did not please become sweet."
Again, in On John’s Gospel 26.4 he says, “If it be allowable to the poet [Vergil, Eclogues 2.65] to say “his own pleasure draws each man,” not need, but pleasure, not obligation but delight, how much more ought we to say that a man is drawn to Christ, who delights in the truth, who delights in happiness who delights in justice, who delights in eternal life and all this is Christ?”
As Pascal comments on this teaching, “According to this great saint,” says Pascal, “whom the popes and the Church have held to be a standard authority on this subject, God transforms the heart of man, by shedding abroad in it a heavenly sweetness, which surmounting the delights of the flesh, and inducing him to feel, on the one hand, his own mortality and nothingness, and to discover, on the other hand, the majesty and eternity of God, makes him conceive a distaste for the pleasures of sin which interpose between him and incorruptible happiness. Finding his chiefest joy in the God who charms him, his soul is drawn towards Him infallibly, but of its own accord, by a motion perfectly free, spontaneous, love-impelled; so that it would be its torment and punishment to be separated from Him.”
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 18, 2014
When I am counseling people (which happens to take place within a parish setting) I oftentimes will point them in the direction of the crucifix and share with them that in my own mind what they are looking at is the image of a man who is full of joy. This is, to my mind, the essence of the Christian mystery. It opens for them the possibility of giving witness to joy even in the midst of utter human travail.
written by Stanley Anderson, August 18, 2014
When my wife and I decided to join the Catholic Church (eight years ago on the Feast of the Assumption), we met with the priest who, listening to our talk about having been "traditional" Anglicans for the last 25 years, surprised us with what might have been a kind of "push back" to test our desire, and said to us, "You might be happier at your Anglican Church." We told him in reply that we had been and were perfectly happy at the Anglican Church and that our decision to join the Catholic Church had nothing to do with dissatisfaction at or rebellion of our Anglican Church, but that we desired to be part of the "fullness" (a word I like better than "universal") of the Church. We have never regretted that decision (our only regret, typical of converts I'm told, is that it took so darned long for us to finally come home).

Coming from a Traditional Anglican Church, we in fact had to get used to the "disappointments" of folk Mass music and "modern" language and other whoopee-type activities (clapping at the end of Mass, etc? gulp), but as you note in the article, these sorts of things (whether they are "enjoyable" or "disappointing" for various types of individuals) are not the source of the joy we were coming to the Catholic Church for. Rather it was, as I said above, the joy of being part of the fullness of the Church.
written by Happy-Clappy, August 18, 2014
Oh, goody! Royal has followed his bliss!

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