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Living out of a deep spirit of Christian joy

July 10, 2015
Father Mark Doherty

The world into which Jesus sent the Twelve to preach the Gospel is different than the world into which today’s evangelists labor. More than anything else, residents of our contemporary Western world are imbued with a naturalist mentality. The supernatural realm, that of grace (St. Paul), of eternal life (St. John), is not as palpable a reality as it was for pre-modern peoples.

It becomes evident, then, that a chief task of the evangelist today is not only to propose to people that Jesus is the one, true God, but that there is a God at all (who is not simply a therapeutic mental concept (Feuerbach), and that opening one’s self to God’s grace will have an unimaginably transformative effect on one’s life.

The key to persuading our contemporaries of the reality of the life of grace is the joyful quality of our own lives. Look at the example of St. Paul and the joy he exudes in the opening verses of his epistle to the Ephesians. In our days, the joyful charisma of Pope Francis is key to understanding why he has been able to draw the attention of so many. He understands that joy (which is utterly different than the cheap, gauzy spirit or aura of ‘wellness’ so many – in thrall as they are to the new therapeutic religion – chase after today) is a defining, authenticating characteristic of the higher life of grace, and that it must be a central feature of our evangelization efforts.

But living out of a deep spirit of Christian joy is not easy. It cannot be fabricated. It must be received, precisely because it is a fruit of the life of grace. The obstacles to harvesting the fruit of joy are substantial. They can only be overcome by cultivating the life of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love.

Joy is the fruit of possessing the object of one’s love. To the extent to which I love God I will bear the joy of possessing him in the life of grace. The difficulty all of us face is that we vacillate in our love for God. Our love is lukewarm. Part of us wants God, but often enough we find ourselves drawn more powerfully to creatures. As a result, our ‘Christian’ life can be characterized by angst, irritation, dejection, and even bitterness more than it is by joy because we are caught in the no man’s land between love of God and love of creatures. We can be resentful and jealous of the people around us who are living lives of indulgence because we want to live a life of indulgence as well. The more I receive the grace of love of God, the more I truly want God first and last, the more joy I will exude.

The world is rife with problems and crises of all sorts; and not only the world. How often does it seem like the church is teetering on the verge of collapse? Things don’t seem to be moving in a good direction, and we can’t seem to muster the wherewithal to get a grip and change course. To the extent to which this is our primary lens on reality we will not harvest joy. Instead, we will harvest dejection, anger, forlornness, sloth, tepidity and fear. None of these qualities is attractive; none will convince anyone of the reality of the life of grace. We must aim to cultivate the virtue of hope by which Jesus, in the midst of the apparent dissolution of his life’s work, was able to confidently and joyfully proclaim: “Fear not: I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

Lastly, life in our fallen world is full of suffering. The closer this suffering hits home, the more we are drawn to a spirit of anger, resentment and vindictiveness. Jesus suffered many grievous injustices, but he remained joyful because he lived in the assurance and conviction of the Father’s providence. He knew that the Father would transform all suffering into new life; that his suffering was life-giving. To live in Christian joy we must cultivate the virtue of faith by which, in the midst of our dark nights of suffering and loss, we can rest assured that God is actively transforming our sufferings into newer and greater life.

Father Doherty is parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and chaplain at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

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