There is an approach to the Christian life that I find particularly tiresome. It is that emphatic cheerfulness in which all must take part, that demand that you will be joyful. But Christian joy is in fact a great part of our faith. In a few years we will mark the fortieth anniversary of a relatively obscure Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino, “Rejoice in the Lord” (1975). In anticipation of that anniversary, let’s look at some of his insights about Christian joy.
First and foremost, the pope underscored that true joy is internal. Like charity, it is not overbearing. He noted the need to teach people “how to savor in a simple way the many human joys that the Creator places in our path.” He then enumerated several kinds of joy: “The elating joy of existence and of life; the joy of chaste and sanctified love; the peaceful joy of nature and silence; the sometimes austere joy of work well done; the joy and satisfaction of duty performed; the transparent joy of purity, service, and sharing; the demanding joy of sacrifice.” It’s not a list likely to make an extrovert smile.
In this exhortation the pope focused on the spiritual dimension of joy, noting that its manifest absence in the modern world comes from man having “desacralized the universe” and then “desacralizing humanity.” Christians must, he wrote, become sources of authentic joy, and to do so, they must first have listened to and taken within their hearts God’s holy word. It will be the only way to help heal a world in which “God seems to him [mankind] abstract and useless,” a world where “hope, and the value of individuals, are no longer sufficiently ensured.” These observations, sadly, are still relevant.
Before the consistory in which he received a cardinal's red hat, Timothy Dolan outlined seven points needed in evangelization, the fifh point being joy, in particular, smiling. Dolan is a Falstaffian figure now confronted with a politically aggressive culture of death. On the spiritual front of that fight, joyful smiling can go only so far.
Here is where monastic spirituality, much admired by Pope Paul VI, can inform the discussion. A charismatic festival of praise, for example, takes a lot of energy and so could not be repeated every day, several times a day. In contrast, the monastic schedule with liturgical prayer punctuating the day can be sustained with much less energy. Rows of Gothic arches may seem monotonous, yet day after day they will support an entire cathedral.
Steadiness is challenging. Pope Paul VI concluded Gaudete in Domino by returning to the theme of joy’s spiritual source. He wrote of “the original and inalienable dimension of the human person,” namely, that “his vocation to happiness always passes through the channels of knowledge and love, of contemplation and action.” Head and heart, prayer and work; a Christian life needs balance. For the pope, it was all summed up in the Paschal Mystery, especially as celebrated in the liturgy of the Mass. “Let participation in this celebration,” he proclaimed, “be at the same time very dignified and festive!” Dignity and festivity: Once again, the challenge of balance.
Jovial men such as Cardinal Dolan enrich the Church, as do reserved men such as Pope Benedict XVI. The Church must maintain room for both temperaments. While we are all called to evangelize, how we express our motivating joy cannot be one-size-fits-all.
Pope Paul VI’s wise assessment of the varieties of joy bears renewed consideration. Introverts prefer to live and let live, but in an era when shyness is being described as a pathology, when smiling seems about to be declared ecclesiastically mandatory, we do well to ponder the joy of doing one’s duty, whether a gold star is in the offing; the demanding joy of sacrifice, whether anyone notices; or the austere joy of a job well done, simply because anything worth doing is worth doing well. If in the midst of such quiet joy our ordinary courtesies and our daily prayers help bring someone closer to Christ, there will be much rejoicing in Heaven, a place of eternal rest.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.