Dear Donagh,

…. What is the role of joy in our human development?  So much emphasis is always on suffering and its redemptive power…. Is there a path of joy? Miriam

I sincerely hope so, Miriam!  It’s true that many people are quicker to talk about their miseries that about their joy, but that's just a bad habit picked up, probably, in childhood.  When children are joyful they jump and shout and knock things over; so they get little sympathy.  But when they are ill or sad they get all the sympathy in the world, and even special treats.  In this way they learn that (in some situations, at any rate) there’s more to be got by being miserable than by being joyful – a lesson that some of them remember for the rest of their lives. 

I did a quick check (easy nowadays) and found that the word ‘joy’ occurs 68 times in the New Testament (NRSV), not counting synonyms.  St Paul listed the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22).  These are, sort of, finger-prints of the Holy Spirit; when you see them you know the Spirit has been around.  The first, as you would expect, is love; but immediately after it comes joy. 

What is there to say about joy?  For a start we would need to distinguish it from a few other things, such as happiness and satisfaction

Happiness is a sort of natural background…. It is always there, unless it isn't!  Events and circumstances can drive it away; a gloomy disposition can keep it away most of the time.  But if nothing is bothering us, it tends to come back.  One way to drive it away is to pursue it!   “The pursuit of happiness” is a very odd phrase.   The way to be happy is to forget about whether we are happy.  It has to happen by itself; a clue to this is its etymological connection with the word ‘happen’.  Happiness happens.  Just stop trying to top up your ego, I tell myself, and then you will be happy.  I can’t think of anything more dismal or self-defeating than ‘pursuing’ happiness.  When we do, the best we can get is a kind of greedy (and temporary) satisfaction at having got what we wanted – while happiness slips through our hands.  

Joy, on the other hand, is a surprise.  It is not a general background (that would be exhausting).  It can strike at any time, even when we are unhappy.  It is the human spirit leaping upwards and outwards with vitality, like a Spring lamb; it comes straight from God.  The surprise success of the simple men Jesus sent out was against all predictions; it was a surprise.  Jesus’ reaction: “Filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, he said, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children” (Lk 10:21).  

Unlike happiness, joy doesn’t expect to stay forever; one moment is enough to keep us going indefinitely.  Happiness and satisfaction are for cats and dogs; joy is for human beings! 

Yes, in Christian spirituality there is frequent reference to suffering.  The central icon of the faith is the Cross of Christ.  This has prevented Christians (for the most part) from romanticising the faith and presenting it in pastel colours.  But sometimes the emphasis on suffering was excessive; then there was the danger of psychological illness lurking there.  Pursuing suffering may be just as unwise as pursuing happiness. 

An interesting case was Henry Suso, a younger confrere of Meister Eckhart.  He was much given to self-imposed penances in his early life, but God made clear to him: “Until now you have been punishing yourself with your own hand, and if you felt pity for yourself you stopped whenever you wanted.  Now I will take you away from yourself and hand you over defenceless to be dealt with at the hands of others....”  He didn’t need to pursue suffering anymore; suffering would pursue him!  In the end, he came to a wonderful balanced wisdom: “Austerity practised in moderation is better than immoderate practices,” he wrote.  “But if one finds it difficult to find a middle road, it is more sensible to remain a little on the easier side than to venture too far in the other direction.” 

Then, writing about real suffering (not the self-imposed kind), he gave this remarkable distillation of experience: “There is nothing more painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered.  Suffering is short pain and long joy…. Suffering makes a wise and practised person.  People who have not suffered, what do they know?  All the saints are the cup-bearers of a suffering person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they cry out with one voice that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink….  Suffering is the ancient law of love; there is no quest without pain; there is no lover who is not also a martyr.”

In that passage you have suffering and joy mentioned together (and love, for good measure).  But his last word is joy: in his autobiography he mentions it 95 times, not counting synonyms….  In that short book he outpaced the New Testament itself! 

I hope this is of some help, Miriam. 


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