Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.”
Often we have a tendency to assume—even, sometimes, when we know better—that if we follow Jesus perfectly, we will live a charmed life free of suffering. Thus, when we experience suffering that seems “undeserved,” we become frustrated with God and think that there’s no way we can handle what He’s asking of us.
But Jesus doesn’t negate the suffering of the Christian life. He acknowledges it fully, saying that if they persecuted Him they will surely persecute us. He tells us we will weep and mourn and grieve while the world rejoices. Yet our pain and suffering are not wasted in His plan of salvation. When we meet Jesus in Heaven, when we see the destination to which He has led us on such a long, winding journey, our hearts will rejoice. We will receive a lasting joy, greater than anything of this world.
We will experience suffering in this life, but through Christ, this suffering becomes a holy calling. We don’t need to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine—no, this trial is a gift, meant to break and re-form our hearts, making them more like His own. We can embrace our suffering and lean in to it. And we don’t need to spiral into despair, either, for this trial is not the end. A greater joy awaits us, a joy that will eclipse any memory of pain.
Our patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, was a joyful, exuberant young man who radiated hope. He loved to have a good time with his friends, sharing inside jokes and enjoying outdoor activities. But at the same time, he did not shy away from suffering. Although he easily could have stayed within the comfortable bubble of wealth provided by his family, he ventured into the poorest parts of his city, undeterred by the noise and smells, to seek those who needed company and support. He saw the beauty in each person he encountered and considered them friends. His passion for the Lord propelled him to serve, and even when he contracted a fatal disease through this service, he embraced this, too, as a gift. His love for Christ emboldened him to face every trial without fear.
Fear not. As Christians, we always have reason for hope. Inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio, may we face our sufferings with boldness and joy, knowing that all our earthly pain will pass away and that the joy to come is worth it all.
We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song. —Pope Saint John Paul II
1. Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane / PD-US
2. Photograph of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends
Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Mk 10:15). One of my favorite verses from the synoptic Gospels.
What does Jesus mean when He says we must be like a ‘child’? The short answer: “A child is a more complete human being than he will ever be again.”
A child possesses humility and simplicity in the fullest sense. A child has the capacity for total joy and total surrender. A child’s reactions to other people are absolute, his trust is without question or doubt. His values are true; he is untouched by the materialism of grown-up people.
To go back to childhood means that we must get back true values, instead of those that are based on materialism, public opinion and snobbery. Above all, we must regain the courage that is partly a boundless zest for living and partly an unquestioning trust in an all-powerful love.
This is exactly the type of child-like disposition we need when we “confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another” (Jas 5:16). It is no surprise therefore, that Jesus took them [children] in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands upon them. (Mk 10:16)
In the Gospel on 23 May, the Apostles witnessed other people “driving out demons” and they grew jealous. John asked Jesus to stop them, but Jesus did the exact opposite, saying: anyone who is not against us, they are for us.
Everyone has the right to use the powerful name of Jesus for something good and noble.
Therein lies the beauty of Christianity: Jesus is for everyone, not just for ourselves. It is in sharing Jesus with others that we experience true joy.
Some of us fall prey to spiritual and intellectual pride. Sometimes we say that we are always working for Jesus and that we know Him very well. It is exactly in this that we are not true followers of Christ.
We need to recognize the good in others and not grow jealous. In our world today, there are so many of us who grow jealous when others around us do something good. We get jealous that WE were not the ones who did the good deed, that WE didn’t get the praise and credit.
But the real call to the cross is this. Can we put our selves (ego) down and raise others up, are we (really) happy when others do good things in society? Can we feel true joy that someone out there is contributing to the good in the world?
We need to be generous in attitude — appreciating that someone out there is continuing the mission of Christ.
Prayers today for those struggling with spiritual pride. May you have a generous heart and rejoice in the fact that others in this family of Christ are continuing His Mission!
Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?
Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.
But must it be this way?
It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.
The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.
As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities? Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?
We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God. It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.
In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.
This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.
My high school batch at St. Paul College of Pasig, a Catholic school for girls here in the Philippines run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, just celebrated its homecoming. We prepared for it for a year, a year that was spent reminiscing about high school memories and organizing a grand celebration dinner.
Among the fond memories of our high school days, a favorite is that of the Intramurals. The Intramural athletic competitions were, and still are, a big thing in our school. Rivalry between batches in volleyball, softball, track-and-field, swimming, and chess events was intense, although everyone played fair and clean most of the time. Even members of the non-athletic majority, such as I, were expected to take the Intramurals seriously as we formed part of their batches’ pep squads in the cheering competitions. The cheering competitions were the biggest events in the Intramurals. We practiced hard for hours amidst the demands of high school homework, and each batch tried to outdo each other in coming up with the most sophisticated and most artistic pep squad and cheer dance routines.
From the conversations and social media interactions among my batch mates, it is clear that the spirit of the Intramurals is still alive among us – especially since we could never forget that we were the champions of the cheering competition during our junior year.
It seems that sports competitions were a big thing, too, to our school’s patron saint. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he used athletics as an example to illustrate the determination and sacrifice it takes for a Christian to reach the highest goal in life, which is union with God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 10:7).
In other words, St. Paul was cheering on the Christian community in Corinth, “Go! Fight! Win!”
I like the way St. Paul viewed the struggle for sanctity as a sport.
Often, we balk at the suggestion that we should aim to be saints. We tend to think that sanctity is reserved for an elite few, and that the rest of us are doomed to either spiritual mediocrity or damnation. We want to be good but we find it hard.
St. Paul himself knew how hard it is to aim to be a saint. His writings reflect his awareness of his sinful past, and even post-conversion he wrote about “the thorn of the flesh” and having had to be delivered from his “body of death”.
Perhaps it is because he knew how discouraging the struggle against oneself can be, that he wrote about it in terms of sports to encourage his readers. Sports are tough and demanding. They involve pain and hard training. But they are fun, too. They are all about a sense of accomplishment when one wins, hope for another second chance of victory when one loses, and camaraderie with one’s teammates in any case.
It is depressing to examine one’s conscience every night and discover that one has committed the same faults and sins as the day before. But it is less discouraging to see one’s repeated falls as the reps that an athlete must do to master a technique. The struggle for sanctity is not about loathing oneself for being a sinner and beating up oneself to become what one is not. The struggle to be a saint is a spiritual sport. One can win with training (developing virtue), proper nutrition and hydration (the Eucharist and the other sacraments), proper treatment of injuries (the sacrament of confession), following the advice of one’s coach (spiritual direction and the teachings of the Church), the right mental attitude (the theological and cardinal virtues), and teamwork (the support we get from each other as members of the Mystical Body of Christ). Like any other sport, it is enjoyable; one fruit of training in this spiritual sport is joy.
St. Paul’s reference to a “perishable wreath” refers to the fact that during his time, victorious athletes got nothing more than crowns of leaves for all their efforts. Today’s athletes receive more durable prizes – metal or plastic trophies, or medals of gold, silver, or bronze – but just the same, these prizes serve no further purpose than to be displayed. Nevertheless, athletes invest a lot just to win these prizes. The prize for winning the spiritual sport of pursuing sanctity is priceless, and surely worth all the effort involved in attaining it.
When we are defeated in the struggle to be good, we can either give in to discouragement, or we can, like a true athlete, train for the next match and try again as many times as needed to win. One day, we will be able to say, like Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith “ (2 Timothy 4:7)
During the Lenten season, we seek to turn back from sin and to God. Each of the practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—helps us to do this. While Lent is not a season of merriment in the Church, it should nevertheless be a season of hope, and one of joy.
Sin is a turning away from God. It is disobedience to His will for us, and it is the preference of something—anything!—else to God. Indeed, because God is not composed of parts , these three statements are in fact one and the same statement. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives an analogy of a good life and a good society to the sailing of a fleet of ships. To reach the fleet’s destination, the ships must be well-sailed; they must be well-coordinated so as to not interfere with each other; and they must have a clear destination and route to reach that destination. Sin in this analogy takes on three forms—the individual ships may be badly handled; or the ships are collectively poorly coordinated, so that they stray apart (or crash together) regardless of handling; or they have the wrong destination in mind, so that they do not end where they ought .
These three conditions for a good fleet correspond to three conditions found in a good life and a good society:
The well-run ship is akin to person’s own self-mastery.
The well-coordinated fleet is like the harmony between members of a society.
The proper destination for the fleet is an analog to both the individual’s and the society’s being “ordered” to the good.
The first condition means that each man has developed the virtues so that his intellect (captain) governs his will (bosun or boatswain ) which directs his passions (crew) and can overcome his desires or appetites (fears, obstacles). The second means locally that men will help each other to increase in virtue, that they will work together towards common (and sometimes individual) goals; and on a larger scale that laws will be just, that they will enable each person to do what is right and inhibit his ability to do what is wrong. The third condition is the defining principle or “final cause” of a good society and a good life. It means that both man and society must seek (and be guided by) the highest good, which ultimately means to discern and pursue God’s will for each individual and for society as a whole.
In his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas describes three sources of temptation. These are the flesh, the world, and the devil. While these three temptations a can strike at any level, they correlate most directly to each of the three conditions of the good life and the good society:
Temptations of the flesh strike at us directly attempting to ensnare us through the will, or indeed through the passions or the appetites. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the flesh tempts us by seeking “its own pleasures, namely, carnal pleasures, in which often is sin. He who indulges in carnal pleasures neglects spiritual things.” These temptations put us in internal discord. Several of the deadly sins strike us here—in particular, lust and gluttony, and to some extent sloth.
Worldly temptations are temptations towards a good which may not be ours to possess. According to St. Thomas, the word tempts us with “excessive and intemperate desire for the goods of this life,” and also with “the fears engendered by persecutors and tyrants.” These temptations put us at odds with our neighbors, with society as a whole, and even with the Church as a community. The deadly sins of avarice and envy are principally provoked by temptations of the world, and wrath may be our response to our neighbors when so tempted.
The devil is the subtlest tempter, as St. Thomas notes.
“The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined… he does not at once appear to suggest something that appears to us as evil, but something that has the semblance of good. Thereby he would, at least in the beginning, turn a man from his chief purpose, and then afterwards it would be easier to induce him to sin, once he has been turned away ever so little.”
These temptations lead most directly to discord with God and his Church as Magister. The principal deadly sins which are associated with these temptations are pride and wrath, and to a lesser extent acedia.
Three more things should be said here regarding these three types of temptations. The first is, all three can tempt us to do evil or to avoid good. Both are forms of sin, which is why our confession asks for forgiveness both for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. The second is that all three temptations can work together . The third is that any of the deadly sins may strike through any of these temptations or combination of temptations, even if some temptations lend themselves more closely to certain deadly sins.
Just as there are three sources of temptation—the flesh, the world, and the devil—so there are three Lenten practices which combat these temptations. These are the aforementioned practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each of these practices helps us to better resist temptation in general, but we can also see that each one is especially good at strengthening us against a particular type of temptation:
Fasting helps us to gain mastery over our desires, and fights temptations of the flesh. Note that fasting here need not mean only “eating little” or even “eating less,” though this is the literal translation. It can mean giving up any thing which gives us pleasure, be it eating chocolate or spending time on facebook or reading dime comics and penny dreadfuls, etc. This is the reason behind the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” This is also why giving up something innocuous is still beneficial to us.
Almsgiving helps to order ourselves as members of a good society and fight temptations of the world. By freely giving away from what we have, we learn detachment from our worldly belongings, and are reminded that all we have—time, talent, treasure—are so many gifts from God. We become less covetous of that which we will give away.
Prayer helps us to discern the will of God for us, and it also helps to fight temptations of the devil. In prayer we turn back to God, we praise Him for his goodness, we thank Him for His blessings, we ask Him for His grace, and we request His guidance in our lives. Indeed, we pray that He will “lead us not into temptation,” which is different from asking that we will not be tempted. We are here asking that God will not withdraw His graces from us, because it is when He does this that we are most apt to actually consent to the temptation rather than resisting it.
I think that there are two things which are left to be said in this brief essay. The first is that we should, when undertaking penances, bear in mind the difference between self-discipline and self-punishment; between mortification and torture. The second is related to this, which is that we should therefore approach the Lenten practices and penances with some sense of Joy. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen writes in his reflection on the Seven Last Words that
The Christian fasts not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the soul… The Christian does not fast because he believes the body is wicked, but in order to make it pliable in the hands of the soul, like a tool in the hands of a skilled workman….
We are to mortify bodily hunger and thirst, not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it, lest it become a tyrant…. When such surrenders of the superfluous food and drink are made for the soul’s sake, let it all be done in a spirit of joy. ‘And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that though appear not to men to fast, by to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” [Matthew 6:16-18].
We are, in addition, to cultivate a spiritual hunger and thirst. Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.
Far from being a gloomy rejection of our pleasures, the penances of Lent are a joyful movement towards God. Part of this is becoming masters of ourselves, including of our bodies, and another part is in becoming a good society. We are undergoing a sort of spiritual growth, and with this comes some growth pains. We will expect some struggles in this, and it takes discipline. We will fail, perhaps often: but we will also draw ever nearer to our heavenly home, which is cause for joy.
As for our failures, our sins: they may be many, they may be grievous, but God’s mercy is more abundant. As John Henry Cardinal Newman notes in his Meditations and Devotions,
“Lord, our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by you. You count our sins, and, as You count, so can You forgive; for that reckoning…comes to an end; but Your mercies fail not, and Your Son’s merits are infinite.”
 Featured image is a photo of Ein Gedi, Israel, by Rob Bye, posted on Unsplash. I have cropped it slightly.
 That God is absolutely simple—and thus not composed of parts—is a doctrine of classical philosophy which has been adopted and expanded upon by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 43). The Fourth Lateran Council’sConfession of Faithbegins, “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”
 To this might be added another situation, that they know where they want to go but do not know where they are. Discernment means learning not only the desired final state or outcome, but the “initial conditions,” and indeed the correct path to get from the latter to the former.
 I suppose to extend the analogy further, when the individual goes bad, the will becomes like the quartermaster of a pirate ship, complete with veto power of the captain (intellect) on behalf of the crew (passions etc.)
 In his science fiction short story, “The Feeders,” Michael Flynn has this brief dialogue between two characters (Heinrich, the main character, and his former seminarian comrade, Georg) on temptation:
“What are they,” he [Heinrich] whispered.
“What are what?”
He had not realized he had spoken aloud. “The three sources of sin,” he said, casting the first random thought into his mouth.
“Oh.” They walked a few paces further. “The world is one,” Georg said. “It provides opportunity. A pretty girl. An unwatched billfold. A careless enemy. Then, the flesh provides weakness. We call that Original Sin. It makes us prey to the temptations of the world. Then, finally: the Devil.”
“And what does the Devil do?”
“Why, as we stand there weakening before temptation, the little pumper-nickle creeps up behind us and gives us a push.”
If this is a sightly different synthesis of the three sources of temptation from what is offered above (and by St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer), it is one which compliments rather than contradicts what has been said above.
Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing….If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place. —Simone de Beauvoir
Over dinner, I related the stories of the martyrdoms of St. Lawrence of Rome and St. Thomas More to my atheist friend, to which he curtly responded, “They joked when they were just about to die? I don’t buy that.”
“Thomas More had a trial—everything he said was recorded in court documents,” I countered.
These two saints are famous for their pre-mortem quips. St. Lawrence, patron of deacons, cooks, and comedians, exhibited true courage under fire: as he was being grilled to death, he cried out, “Assum est. Versa et manduca.”1 (“It is roasted. Turn me over and take a bite.”)
Thomas More, though not physically tortured, surely underwent intense emotional turmoil in the Tower of London, knowing that if he only swore the Oath of Supremacy, he could be reunited with his loving family, who had been plunged into poverty by the loss of their breadwinner. Yet, as he ascended the scaffold, he said politely: “I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.” Just before his head was chopped off, Thomas More exhorted the executioner to be careful of his beard, saying, “This hath not offended the king.”2
A couple of other English saints displayed the same ready wit. Blessed John Sugar said on the scaffold, “Be ye all merry, for we have not occasion of sorrow but of joy: for although I shall have a sharp dinner, yet I trust in Jesus Christ that I shall have a most sweet supper.”3
St. John Roberts was not to be outdone: “Even as he was dying at the Tyburn gallows, Roberts astonished the crowds with his high spirits, joking, ‘Here’s a hot breakfast despite the cold weather,’ as he looked down at the fire burning to boil his remains.”4
How could they have laughed in the face of death? All of them lived in times of religious persecution, and they gave up all they had to profess the faith.
How can we, too, laugh in the face of death?
Because we know that death is not the end. Death is a new beginning, where we may come at last face to Face with the source of all Life, Love Himself.
St. Paul wrote with harrowing honesty to the Corinthians: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19) He continued: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep: For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”
I recently attended the annualSpirit in the City conference in Brisbane, where Archbishop Mark Coleridge addressed us on Christianity and paganism. He said: “Pagan culture is essentially self-referential and imprisoned in a self-worshipping world. Do ut das: I give so that you give to me.I am the real focus. It is a world of doing deals in a strict logic of exchange, where you sacrifice to capricious gods to keep them nice. It is a world where Death is the ultimate non-negotiable.”
Archbishop Coleridge reflected that the pagan catch-cry carpe diem, “seize the day”,encapsulates how their hope is fragile and in the end evaporates. He continued, “Christianity brings to birth a new world which looks to the other and worships the Other. It bursts free of the tyranny of the self.
“With Easter, death no longer has the last word. Easter gives us a genuine hope, not a cosmetic hope, born out of what seems to be hopeless. The Bible records a story of blood, sweat, and tears out of which comes a cry of hard-won jubilation, unimaginable in the parameters of the pagan world. The logic of exchange is broken; God overturns every previously non-negotiable status quo.”
My good Buddhist friend once listened patiently as I explained the Resurrection to her. I acknowledged, “It’s mind-blowing!” But if there is an omnipotent God, couldn’t He do the seemingly mind-blowing impossible? Couldn’t He choose to become human, die, and rise from the dead? Is the doctrine of the Resurrection less reasonable than belief in reincarnation?
Bono grasped the difference between grace and karma: “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled… it’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.”5
Christians are free to laugh in the face of death, because death is not the end. Instead of the ultimate despair of atheists like Simone de Beauvoir, we possess an eternal hope, a lasting peace, a profound joy.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of sobriety.
— 2 Timothy 1:7
But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you. – 1 Peter 3:15
“One cardinal of the Church visited [Chiara Luce Badano]. He said, ‘That light in your eyes is amazing. Where does it come from?’ ‘I try to love Jesus as much as I can.’…Take a good look at those eyes on her deathbed. It makes no sense at all. Unless some of this invisible stuff is actually real….The only thing that’s going to give us that on our deathbed—not even your deathbed, but give you that to wake up in the morning and brush your teeth—is if the God Who loves you, the Author of life, and the end of the story being Heaven, is good and real. Really real…the ‘ground under your feet’ kind of real. Only if it’s that real can we have that [joy].” —Chris Stefanick, “Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship and What to Do About It”
This is the night when Jesus Christ
broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer? —Easter Proclamation (Exsultet)
But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure was taken for misery: And their going away from us, for utter destruction: but they are in peace. And though in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality.
“Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the good-natured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.
Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of ‘insecurity’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘constitutional inferiority,’ will be the dominant mode of fear.”
—Russell Kirk, The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man (via The Federalist)
When we feel us too bold, remember our own feebleness. When we feel us too faint, remember Christ’s strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ’s painful agony that Himself would for our comfort suffer before His passion to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And ever call for His help such as Himself wills to send us. And then need we never to doubt but that either He shall keep us from the painful death, or shall not fail so to strengthen us in it that He shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doeth He much more for us than if He kept us from it. For as God did more for poor Lazarus in helping him patiently to die of hunger at the rich man’s door than if He had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton’s dinner, so, though He be gracious to a man whom He delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doeth He much more for a man if through right painful death He deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss.
—St. Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation
It says in the catechism that death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Well, I have no fear of a separation which will unite me forever with the good God.
—St. Thérèse of Lisieux
I recently attended a live performance of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The cast did an excellent job portraying the well-known tale in a new and creative way while remaining diligently faithful to the book. This fidelity to the authentic work allowed for the original themes, the ones that Dickens intended to highlight, to shine through to the audience.
Dickens wrote the original story in his early 30’s when he was beginning to fade from the limelight. Besides wanting to be popular again, he sought to highlight the utilitarianism and injustice involved in the mistreatment of workers and their families that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in London. This included the horrors of child labor, the innocent victims of which Dickens desired to catechize through his engaging story.
The rich narrative of A Christmas Carol is multifaceted, with many themes for one to touch on as a starting point for great philosophical and theological discussions. The one I found most profound and edifying is the theme of Scrooge’s transformation from a money-grubbing crank to a generous and spiritual philanthropist. This manifests the truth that misery comes from selfishness and life-giving joy will spring forth from selflessness.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge was beyond tolerable with his stingy intentions of saving as best he could down to the last penny, even at the expense and health of his workers. This misdirection and disorder of his affections affected his understanding of the world around him, impeded his relationships with others, and of course, destroyed a rational perception of the goodness and beauty of Christmas.
After a miraculous experience which allows him to explore his past, present, and future, enabling him to see where he came from, who he had become, and where his decisions were taking him, Scrooge had a profound conversion. The scales fell from his eyes and he was able to see the errors of his miserly ways. He had a newfound understanding of reality and was able to detach himself from the vices that enabled his mistreatment of others, and, in turn, brought about his crotchety behavior, a behavior one can assume to be a symptom of inward anguish.
It is important to highlight that the change in Scrooge catalyzed by the visits from the Christmas spirits emphasizes the difference between a person who is attached to his or her self and possessions and a person who is detached from these things. When Scrooge fell under the former category, he was a miserable crank enslaved to the need to cut costs even at the cost of others, but at the moment he joins the latter category, he is happy and free to love and be loved by others. We can see that this freedom to love and be happy came about from his detachment from the world and the foggy outlook on life that occurs in one who focuses too much on the material aspect of reality.
Detaching himself from love of his fortune, he began seeking out those to bless with his charity, giving gifts and raising the salary of his clerk Bob Cratchit. Additionally, he detaches himself from his pride to attend the Christmas festivities of his nephew and enjoys the company of all those in attendance. Furthermore, with his time and treasure, Scrooge actually becomes a witness to others of how a good Christian should live, especially during Christmastime.
In our own lives, we might not be as bad as Scrooge was, but we can still learn from his transformation. We can easily comprehend the truth that living for ourselves at the detriment of others will leave us unfulfilled and empty. We can recognize that, even at a lesser degree than Scrooge, an overemphasis on material things can leave us craving more from life and subsequently unsatisfied.
As humans we are made for more than simply what comes to us through our senses. Christians recognize the true nature of the human person as a body and a soul. At our essence, we are more than a body, we are also spirit, and therefore belong to the spiritual realm just as much as we do to the physical. Due to this aspect of our existence, remembering that to be human is to be both of body and of soul, forgetting or ignoring that we are more than material bodies reduces the human person to less than human, it dehumanizes them. Moreover, we dehumanize ourselves when we forget this, especially if we treat ourselves as beings only in need of material things or beings that can only be happy with material things.
When we view ourselves in this light, treating ourselves as less than human, we restrict ourselves from the things that only humans can enjoy, such as joy, peace, and freedom. It is therefore essential that we remember our humanity and also focus on the spiritual aspect of reality within ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Doing this will allow us to change for the better just like Scrooge did. By letting go of the world, we will be able to soar to grand new heights.
I would like to think that if someone was given only the two different Scrooges portrayed in A Christmas Carol, without the rest of the story, and granted the choice of which Scrooge he or she would prefer to be like, most people would choose the happy, generous, and free Scrooge. When shown the rest of the story we see two supporting characters that help to identify the direction of each path the two Scrooges are going down. The first is the opening image of Jacob Marley, lonely, wailing, and in chains. The second is Tiny Tim, who, even through discomfort and inconvenience, is happy, grateful, and loved by all.
Scrooge is able to escape the slavish fate of Marley and embrace the freedom of Tiny Tim by way of detachment. We can assume that the further Scrooge continues down this path, the better his life will become. Moreover, we can assume that we too can escape the miserable chains of Marley and embrace the true love and unaffected joy of Tiny Tim if we too detach ourselves from the world.
Images: A Christmas Carol title page; Marley’s Ghost (John Leech, 1843) / PD-US
What is this existence within which we humans find ourselves? Every morning we wake up and perceive the world through our senses. A perception onto which we put all of our memories to establish what we might call our point of view, one that might differ from the point of view of another. However, we humans all live in the same world, made up of similar material with a similar shape, and for the most part, want the same thing. Every human being wants to be happy.
We can be as different from each other as Voldemort differs from Emma Watson, but the fact is, even if one finds it in different ways, everyone desires happiness. There are only positive connotations with the word “happy”. Besides in a fit of hyperbole, no one claims to want a life without it. But what is this common treasure that all seek?
What Happiness Isn’t
There are a few false notions of happiness in the world today that should be pointed out to help clear our trajectory. Some would put forward the utilitarian definition that misidentifies happiness as sensual pleasure. They would say that we must seek pleasure and avoid pain at all times, even at the expense of others, to find happiness. If this were true, what a pitiful state we would all be in! How fleeting!
While delight is an accident of happiness and pleasure might correspond with happiness, it would be impossible to remain happy if one was only happy when pleasure was experienced. First, pleasure, as well as all experiences that come to us through the senses, cannot last, and therefore, happiness would not last. Second, as great as pleasure can be at times, it cannot satisfy as happiness does. Pleasure remains on the surface and can be distinguished from the satisfaction it might accompany, yet differs from. The quenching of thirst found in drinking water might feel pleasurable, but that pleasure is only an added bonus, not the satisfaction we seek when we are thirsty.
Furthermore, if happiness is only found in pleasure then why do those who chase after pleasure the most, i.e. addicts, seem the most miserable? Unless their addiction is met, they might never be happy. Furthermore, we have the happiness of those who seek happiness outside of sensual pleasure to counter this.
There have been stories of many saints in various instances of suffering who have remained, and sometimes increased, in a state happiness. Whether it was St. Lawrence’s jovial manner while being filleted alive, St. Therese of Lisiuex’s excitement at the possibility of death, or the prime witness of the joy and happiness of St. John Paul II who knew suffering better than most, the saints show us the transcending quality of true happiness. There is no substitute or reduction that can replace it.
Happiness of the Saints
The saints show us with their lives that happiness is more than what the world offers and is possible to obtain. Thankfully, many holy and happy saints have left us with directions to find what they did.
1. St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us, “Those who love God are always happy.” As the patron saint of confessors, we can assume that the Italian saint of the 18th century knew the human condition well. One can say that those who love God desire to please Him and do His will.
2. St. John Vianney similarly states, “To pray and to love, that is the happiness of man on earth.” He goes on to explain, “Prayer is nothing else than union with God. When the heart is pure and united with God it is consoled and filled with sweetness” Prayer, love, and a pure heart. The patron saint of priests, who usually only ate 1-2 boiled potatoes a day, proves to us that man cannot live on bread alone and that happiness transcends the mundane.
3. St. Josemaria Escriva points out the source of the opposite of happiness: “Sadness is the end product of selfishness. If we truly want to live for God, we will never lack cheerfulness, even when we discover our errors and wretchedness. Cheerfulness finds its way into our life of prayer, so much so that we cannot help singing for joy. For we are in love, and singing is a thing that lovers do.”
4. “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day. -St. Gianna Molla
A beautiful reminder for us to live in gratitude. There are always good reason to be thankful.
5. St. John Paul II teaches us, “People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But He asks you to trust Him.” We are meant to be happy, but happy through Jesus. Sometimes, to give us this great happiness, He leads us to step out of our comfort zones.
5 Steps towards Happiness
Keeping in mind the wise words of the Saints shared above, we can take certain steps to not win happiness for ourselves, but form and dispose ourselves to receive great Happiness from God. A few I have in mind are:
Prayer. Yeah, I know, duh. I actually left my computer in a room alone with a monkey and he typed this. But really, it’s a good reminder. Padre Pio said, “Prayer is like oxygen for the soul”. We need it to feed ourselves spiritually, to shape ourselves and grow in our relationship with God. A relationship without which it is impossible to be happy. And of course this includes frequenting the Sacraments.
Putting others First. There is a great acronym for the word, JOY, that tells us that you can find Joy through prioritizing Jesus, Others, Yourself. Some might find this cheesy, but it still helps to remind us that we find ourselves and our happiness by serving others. It is an age old paradox, one best explained throughout St. John Paul II’s teachings as he reminds us of the peace and fulfillment we can find when we make “a sincere gift of self”.
Avoid Sin. Another way of articulating this is to keep God’s Law. Psalm 8:32 tells us, “happy are they who keep my ways”. This is because God made us to live a certain way, and when we fail to follow the instructions, we cannot find the fulfillment we desire. Furthermore, in this way sin weighs us down and in some cases breaks. While some venial sins might still plague us, we are able to stay in the state of grace and never mortally sin again!
Practice Heroic Virtue. The opposite of sin! We can see that avoiding sin would merely be the bare minimum. We want to be as happy as the saints. In this endeavor, it is good to know that in the process of declaring one worthy of canonization, a committee first looks at the life of the person to see if he or she lived a life of heroic virtue. If they pass this test, they are declared Venerable and only two miracles stand in their way of Canonization. We can find outrageous joy in pushing ourselves to always choose to be just, meek, temperament, fortitudinous, and prudent.
Hope. Even when we fail at some of these steps, we can keep our peace through hope. God is always seeking our friendship. Therefore, we always have reason to hope. The wise Fr. Jacques Phillipe teaches that we can keep our peace, even after a great mistake, by telling God the following:
1. I am sorry for what I’ve done.
2. Thank you for not letting it be worse.
3. Please help me to do better next time.
While happiness on earth will always lack that final satisfaction that only eternity with God can satisfy, it can still serve it’s purpose of leading ourselves and others closer to God while we are here. I know there are many other steps that can be taken to find happiness in this life. What are some ways you find happiness on earth today?
Everyone has, at one point in life or another, experienced a Christmas which was less merry than others – whether the cause be relationship or family problems, the death of a loved one, poverty, illness, seasonal affective disorder, or any other cause.
When this happens, the Christmas air can make one feel worse instead of better. The surrounding merriment may seem more like mockery, and the efforts of others to cheer one up may, instead, make one feel more isolated. This, in turn, can send a person into a downward spiral of feeling bad for having felt bad and making others feel bad.
What is one to do when putting on some Christmas spirit takes more effort than usual?
First, one needs time and space to grieve. Christmas is not all about pretending that sufferings are not real. On the contrary, Christmas is about the Incarnation, which was about God becoming man not only to redeem us from suffering, but to make suffering itself redemptive. The Christmas story is one of hope, but also of suffering – of Christ being born in the stable because there was no room in the inn. While the Magi gave the infant Christ gold for His kingship and frankincense for His divinity, they also gave Him myrrh which, though precious, symbolizes His death.
Then, one must exert the effort it takes to put on Christmas spirit: to smile, to take interest in the others. Often, we think Christmas spirit is all about people simultaneously and spontaneously gushing with warm feelings. In reality, Christmas spirit is the sum total of conscious decisions and efforts to show love to others through specific little words and deeds. This could be done no matter what a person’s psychological state is, and the struggle to be cheerful and loving despite feelings of interior emptiness could be offered as a gift to the Christ Child.
The idea of struggle may seem foreign to Christmas, but on the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in one of my favourite Christmas quotes:
“Unless we understand the presence of that enemy, we shall not only miss the point of Christianity, but even miss the point of Christmas. Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.)
Then, one must seek the real joy of Christmas, which comes neither from the absence of pain, nor from the sumptuous dinner, nor from the Christmas party running smoothly. Christmas joy comes from possessing Christ, and, when one has lost him through sin, by regaining Him through the sacrament of confession.
The fact that one is hurting at Christmas is no excuse to “Bah, humbug!” the rest of the world. Even with one’s pain, one can still spread Christmas spirit. Surely, the Christ Child will notice.
“Preach the Gospel, and when necessary use words.”
We live in a time when many people spend most of their lives in stressful and often-dull routines. Most people’s lives are also racked with troubles from familial tensions to personal depression. Just take a walk down the street and count how many people smile or even bother to look at you. A couple of my friends and I were talking recently, and we all agreed that there is a lack of joy in our society. “If you go to the supermarket,” one of my friends observed, “people look so miserable. And it’s like their miserable faces are their normal ones.”
Sadly, many people in our secular world have lost the joy of knowing God. We all often try to cover internal emptiness with superficialities that don’t work and never will. But as Catholics, we have the duty to be channels of Christ’s love and true happiness to the world. Showing the happiness which results from love of God is a means to attract more people to the true joy of loving Him.
The saints are those people who evangelized with the glow of the joy which everyone wants. For example, St. Philip Neri is known as the saint of laughter- he played with children in the streets of Rome and gave repentants ludicrous penances in the confessional. Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati liked to laugh at his own practical jokes. St. Rose of Lima wrote songs and could often be heard singing in her garden. The teenager Bl. Chiara Badano was known for her cheerfulness even as she lay dying with disease. St. Pio of Pietrelcina advised us to “serve the Lord with laughter.” In fact, if you look at a photo of any saintly person, chances are that he or she is smiling. This joy of Christ is what makes holy people so compelling and wonderful to be around.
Smiling is one way to show this joy. I know that “keep smiling” may sound cliché or even insignificant. But often people smile only with their mouths and not their eyes, and when sincerity is gone the worth of the smile is gone, too. A truly sincere smile can open hearts like few other actions can. (Besides, it’s more practical—a smile uses fewer facial muscles than a frown.)
Another often-overlooked, yet quite natural, way to express joy is music. I sometimes feel a bit wistful when I watch old movies or read old books and see what good times people had singing and dancing in the evenings. Now, singing and dancing in public is rarely seen, or it’s labeled as “weird”. However, music is something that practically everyone can understand and it is a way of praising God and expressing joy with our voices and bodies. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to leave the music to only the ultra-talented musicians. I don’t.)
I haven’t lost hope that we can express our joy and spread it in the world, as I see examples of others doing this so well. I see joy in the way my friend can harmonize beautifully to music without even realizing she’s doing it. I see joy in the way another of my friends often starts swing dancing spontaneously. I see joy in the way even a stranger can laugh happily and lift the spirits of those around. I see joy in the many random smiles I’ve received and remembered over the years.
“Let anyone who comes to you go away feeling better and happier. Everyone should see goodness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile. Joy shows from the eyes. It appears when we speak and walk. It cannot be kept closed inside us. It reacts outside. Joy is very infectious.” – Mother Teresa
If someone truly has love for God, it will shine through him and refract in various outward ways—whether smiling, laughing, singing, or dancing—without him even trying. Nearly all people are delighted with kindness and cheer, and react quite favorably to it. Accordingly, we don’t always have to do something spectacular to evangelize. Sometimes we just have to smile, and often that is enough to pass on Christ’s joy.
“The human being, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self.” (Gaudium et spes, 24).
One of the hallmarks of St. John Paul the Great’s teachings is the “Law of the Gift”, the paradox that the more of ourselves that we give away, the “fuller” we become. Mother Theresa echoed a similar sentiment, that “…if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” This concept is very easily overlooked but its message is very profound – that man can never achieve true fulfillment and joy without first giving himself away.
There are many ways in which we can make a gift of ourselves. We can give our time, talents, or earnings to those who are obviously in need or give back to our communities in other tangible ways. Those are valuable and meaningful acts of charity. However, in my own life, I have found that the most fundamental way of living the Law of the Gift is much more basic – it is actively trying not to consume other people.
The habit of consuming others is something we all struggle with, especially in our consumer-driven society. It is so easy to see the person behind the barista counter as solely a means to our morning caffeine, a friend as simply a person to go to a party with so we do not have to show up alone, or a significant other as a warm body to bring us physical pleasure or emotional comfort. These unique people become only bits and pieces for us to use for our own benefit instead of seen as whole persons. It is sad and dehumanizing but we do it automatically without a second thought.
As we progress through this life, we must actively fight the carnal desire within us to grope only for what can gain for ourselves. When we live the Law of the Gift, giving to others instead of consuming them, we become more aware of ourselves as fashioned in the image of God. The way we love others should be akin to His complete self-sacrificial love for us (His love spares us nothing, not even His only Son). He did not create the human heart to turn inward, to focus on itself, to go through life hoarding and consuming. When we do, we become sick and miserable. We live our lives feeling okay on the surface but empty deep down. It is only when we give ourself to others that our hearts are truly filled. Only when we live as servants, emptying ourselves, can we feel fully alive in our humanity.
If you want more joy in your life, start by living the Law of the Gift. That does not necessarily mean volunteering at soup kitchens or giving your used clothes to charity. It is actually much simpler: In all of your relationships, stop subconsciously asking, “What can you do for me?” or “What value can you bring to me?” Instead, ask “What can I do for you?”, “How are you?”, or “How can I help?” I promise if you do, your entire life will change. Your heart will begin to overflow. And the emptiness deep down will slowly disappear.
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