Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Christian Joy

1. Christianity is neither sad nor pessimistic. On the contrary, it is the harbinger of great joy, (Luke 2:10) to quote the expression used by the Angels when they announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Obviously, this joy is something quite distinct from sensible pleasure. It is the spiritual happiness which accompanies an innocent life, sorrow for sin, or suffering bravely borne for the love of God.

Any other form of earthly happiness can never be more than a partial and transitory pleasure, incapable of satisfying the human heart completely. When Christianity urges us to be detached from worldly objects, however, it does not condemn the joys of the present life. The historian Tacitus was very far from the truth when, in the description in his Annals of the burning of Rome at the time of Nero, he accused the Christians of hating the human race, although not of having set fire to the city. Although the teaching of Christianity is preoccupied with the joys of Heaven, it does not frown upon legitimate worldly pleasures.

Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were in the power of the devil. (Act 10:38) He loved to give joy to others and sanctified the marriage feast of Cana by His presence and by working His first miracle there. He restored happiness to the widow of Naim by raising her son to life, and to Martha and Mary by giving them back their brother, Lazarus, who had been dead for four days. He spent His entire life giving happiness to others.

There is only one kind of merriment which Christianity cannot countenance, and that is the inordinate pleasure which leads to sin or is the result of sin. This kind of pleasure has no kinship with spiritual joy. It is a momentary exaltation which soon disappears and leaves behind disillusionment and remorse. It leads inevitably to sorrow; this is a chastisement from God which can only become meritorious if it is offered up in expiation. The end of joy may be sorrow, (Prov. 14:13) says the Book of Proverbs. For this reason let us seek spiritual joys, not those which lead to sin nor those which are the result of sin.

2. In his letters St. Paul frequently exhorts the early Christians to be joyful. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. (Phil. 4:4) The fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, kindliness... (Cf. Gal. 5:22) But we are to remember that the kingdom of God does not consist in food and drink, but in justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 6:20-22)

St. Paul emphasises that this joy need not be lost in times of tribulation. I am filled with comfort, I overflow with joy in all our troubles. (2 Cor. 7:4) In the life of a Christian, joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive, but complement and perfect one another.

This does not mean that Christianity essentially transforms human nature and banishes the pangs of suffering. It means simply that everything in human nature is purified and elevated so that it may be deserving of Heaven, where true and lasting happiness is to be found. Be fervent in spirit, says St. Paul, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, (Rom. 12:12) and as sorrowful, always rejoicing. (2 Cor. 6:10)

3. If we live good lives, hoping for a Heavenly reward and guided by the action of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we shall possess this spiritual joy. Once we possess it, it will be erased neither by temptation nor by suffering nor by persecution, as long as our faith remains firm and steadfast. The sincere Christian accepts pleasure and pain with equal readiness because he places everything in God's hands.This explains what Jesus had in mind when He said: Blessed are you poor . . . Blessed are you who hunger . . . Blessed are you who weep . . . Blessed shall you be when men hate you and when they shut you out and reproach you . . . (Luke 6:20-22) The Saints were happy in spite of suffering and persecution. We must try at least to achieve that spirit of complete resignation to God's will which is always rewarded by peace of soul.

Work and Worry (August 13)

1. When we recite the Lord's Prayer, we say with confidence "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." This does not mean, however, that we renounce in a spirit of fatalism all right to action and initiative on our part.

Faith, says St. James, unless it has works, is dead in itself. (James 2: 17-26) The same applies to charity. (James 2: 13-17)

Faith and charity must be accompanied by action, which should always be inspired by the interior life. But our external activity should never be allowed to quench the flame of the divine life within us. If this should happen, our labour would grow sterile and would receive no blessing from God.

We should work hard, but should always act as if death might come at any moment. In other words, we should not become completely absorbed in our work, but should keep before our minds the ideals of the glory of God, our own sanctification, and the salvation of our neighbour. If our efforts seem to be successful, we should thank God. But if all our work appears to be in vain we should thank Him, just the, same, for such things happen with God's permission. Providence often guides events in its own way for the promotion of Gods's glory and for our greater good, which can be achieved through our humiliation as well as through our success.

If our spiritual outlook is in conformity with these principles, we shall be able to preserve our peace of mind, no matter how busy we may be.

2. There are many people who claim that they are working, for God and for souls. In fact, they do work hard and make great sacrifices, but at the first sign of failure they are disappointed and discouraged. Why is this? It is because they only believed that they were working for God and for His Church, whereas in their heart and soul they were more influenced by self-love and by a desire for the praise and approval of others. Their motives were not completely disinterested, and their sacrifices were not made entirely for God. Therefore they were disturbed by visions of success in human terms and were agitated at the prospect of failure.

The Saints worked hard also, but they never worried. They were always calm, because their attention was focused on Heaven rather than on themselves. As long as we work entirely for God and accept as His will the outcome of our efforts, everything will go well for us even when it seems to be going badly.

3. Some people imagine that they are not working properly unless they are worrying and fretting and attracting the attention of others. This kind of approach results in more agitation than action. These people are working more for worldly glory than for the glory of God, and their best efforts are ruined by self love. They have received their reward, (Mt. 6:2-5) and they cannot hope to be rewarded in the next life.

We should aim at a purity of intention which will inspire us to do everything for the love of God. We should rememberthat the internal action of grace is what matters most in the life of a Christian. If that is lacking, all our external activity is worthless in the sight of God.

Christian Optimism (August 12)

1. There are two kinds of optimism. The first is the optimism of worldlings who expect nothing but pleasure from life. They run away from anything which smacks of sacrifice or self-control, and as a result virtue is completely outside their grasp. Their motto is the "carpe diem" of the poet Horace. (Horace, Carm. I, 2:8) Living for the day in this fashion, they seem to uphold the philosophy which the Book of Wisdom puts on the lips of the foolish: Come, let us enjoy the good things that are real, and use the freshness of creation avidly. Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds ere they wither; let no meadow be free from our wantonness. (Wisdom 2:6-8)

This kind of optimism is an inversion of true human values. It is the result of the domination which man's lower instincts can sometimes acquire over his reason. But because our natural longing for what is good can never be completely stifled, this pleasant epicurean approach always leaves in its wake a sense of disillusionment.

Sooner or later this optimism is converted into pessimism. Human pleasure must always turn to sorrow, and at this stage, unless some miracle of divine grace intervenes, the spirit rebels and falls prey to despair. It is true that most of us will have avoided the worst excesses of the epicurean outlook, but we may have developed a distortedly comfortable and selfish approach to life. If this is so, we should remember that our lives are in conflict with Christian principles.

Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, Jesus said, t remains alone. But fit dies, it brings forth much fruit. (Cf. John 12:44) Unless you repent, you will all perish. (Luke 13:5) The kingdom o f heaven has been enduring violent assault, and the violent have been seizing it by force. (Mt. 11:12) If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

Let us consider whether our lives are in accordance with this teaching.

2. There is also a Christian optimism, for Christianity is essentially optimistic. The Jansenist conception of Christianity as a gloomy and fearfully exacting creed is quite erroneous. Jesus has told us that His yoke is easy and His burden light, and St. Paul speaks of the arrival of the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour. (Titus 3:4) We have only to recall the parables of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, and Christ's encounters with Mary Magdalen and the repentant adulteress.

Christianity, then, is not opposed to the principles of natural goodness; it does not frown upon the blessings of life, on normal human affections, and on the love of beauty. Whatever things are true, says St. Paul, whatever honourable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things. (Cf. Phil. 4:8) Christian teaching does not hold that our natural inclinations are evil, for they are forces which can be channelled to lead us towards holiness.

3. Sin alone is essentially evil, because it offends God, our Supreme Good, and separates us from Him. Even sin is only a evil in so far as it is a deliberate act in which we find pleasure
mid continued satisfaction. But if it is washed away by tears of repentance and by sacramental Confession, even sin becomes a source of goodness, for it leads us back to God.

Christianity makes everything good and meritorious, even suffering. Only Christianity can give us an explanation of suffering, which can be employed by our acceptance of it as a valuable means of expiation and sanctification.

Only in Christianity can the human heart find satisfaction and peace. Christian optimism abhors the malice of sin, lightens our, sufferings, and moderates our pleasures. It helps us to see God's image in all creatures, gives us joy in life and hope in the hour' of death. In this sense, let us be optimists.