On Joy, Christian Style

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.