Some years ago I spent a week in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It was a powerful experience. One special moment was when a Taizé brother who at that stage had been living there for over 20 years brought me to visit a shanty camp. I met whole families, including parents, children and grandchildren who were living together in ten-by-six foot huts. We spent time in one of them. They made us welcome, gave us tea, told us stories. I remember the smiles of the children and their glee. But, of course I was shocked that so many could be living in such a small room. I was feeling sorry for them. As we walked back to our own house, the Taizé monk told me that when he came first he used to feel sorry for these people. They are, after all, living in terrible circumstances, and something does need to be done, but then he began to realise that they had a happiness that many in the West don’t have.
The topic of happiness is not easy to define. It doesn’t necessarily depend on the amount of possessions we have or how much entertainment we have access to. The great philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas, pointed out centuries ago that there are degrees of happiness. I think we know that from experience. When we’re thirsty there’s nothing as satisfying as a drink of cool water! There’s happiness when we have a deep conversation with one another.
Writing about sixty years ago, Abraham Maslow, a sociologist, suggested there’s a “hierarchy of needs”. In other words, the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire the secondary or higher level needs. His theory is sometimes criticized today but perhaps he was helping us see that the degrees of happiness can be linked to how much our needs are satisfied. There is a point in that. But my experience in Dhaka indicates it doesn’t always work like that.
When Thomas Aquinas spoke of various degrees of happiness, I think what he had in mind was that there is a happiness we can have that is at a lower level, but also a happiness that is higher, one that comes from God, from the joy of the Gospel. Take for instance the example of Maximilian Kolbe. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz. Every day the prisoners would have to line up and some of them would be taken away to be executed. One day as they were standing in the line, the man next to Maximilian Kolbe was told he was to be taken. Maximilian was a priest and he knew the man next to him had a family. So he said to the Nazi officer: “Don’t take him; you can take me instead”. He offered himself voluntarily to death in order to save an unknown brother. Together with other prisoners Maximilian was put in a cell and it took days for them to die. Witnesses reported that Maximilian’s interior peace, serenity and joy somehow transformed the place of suffering. It was a place like hell but his joy transformed it for the others.
Jesus – A Joyful Person
Maximilian had been inspired by Jesus and his Gospel. So what kind of person was Jesus? We know he is the Son of God. Can we say he was a man of joy? What picture do we have of him in the Gospel?
I think we can build up a picture of him as someone who had joy within him and who radiated joy. It is interesting that even when Jesus approached people, he brought joy. John the Baptist, his cousin, spoke about his joy in seeing Jesus coming. Jesus showed he found joy in life and in the world around him. He admired nature, pointing to the birds of heaven, the lilies of the field, the beauty of creation. He talked about the joy of the sower going out to sow and the joy of harvester. He described the joy of the man who finds a hidden treasure in a field and the joy of the shepherd who recovers his sheep when one goes missing and of the woman who finds her lost coin. We are told that Jesus went to a wedding. It was a time of joy. Jesus himself also referred to the joy of being invited to a party. We all know about the parable of the prodigal son in which Jesus describes the joy of the father who embraces his son who has returned to him after having gone astray. Jesus also referred to the joy of a woman who has just given birth to a child. For Jesus, these are all signs of the spiritual joys of the kingdom of God which was a central notion in his teaching.
Jesus said that he came so that we might have joy in us. He explained how his life mission was to proclaim the good news to the poor and to bring joy to those in sorrow. (by the way it is the Gospel of Saint Luke that particularly gives witness to this message of joy).
Jesus showed joy and tenderness when he met children wishing to approach Him or when he met a rich young man who wanted to do more with his life, or when he was with his friends who opened their home to Him, like Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We see Jesus’ happiness above all when he sees people reacting positively to his word, taking it serious and shaping their lives on it. For instance, in the conversion of a sinful woman and a publican like Zacchaeus. He pointed to the example of a widow taking from her poverty and giving her all.
What was the source of Jesus’ joy? We get a clue from the account of his baptism in the river Jordan. It is a huge experience of the love of God the Father. We are told he heard the Father’s voice declaring: "You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” This certitude that “God the Father loves me” was inseparable from the consciousness of Jesus. As a result, in the course of his life, Jesus will say: “I am never alone”: “...the Father knows me and I know the Father”. At a certain point he says: “I am in the Father and the Father in me...." “...I love the Father.... I am doing exactly what the Father told me.” He even sees that his food and drink are simply to do whatever God the Father wants moment by moment. This consciousness of being loved is fundamental to Jesus: “...you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Jesus communicated that joy his disciples. He told them: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy”. In the Acts of the Apostles we read about how the first Christians went around communicating their new life. It was said that they had “great joy” (Acts 8:8). And even when they were persecuted they continued to be “filled with joy” (13:52). St. Paul wrote often about “joy”. He said “rejoice always and again I say rejoice”. On one occasion, while in prison, Paul managed to convert his jailer and we are told that the jailer’s “entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God” (16:34).
It was a joy that came from knowing “God loves me immensely”. The story is told of a small child on a ship that is hit by a storm. The ship is being thrown from side to side by the waves. Everyone is terrified. But the small child is standing there calmly. Someone says: “but aren’t you afraid?” “Ah, no”, the child replies, “my dad is captain of the ship!”. That gives us an idea of the kind of joy Christians have – we have a Father who loves us in all circumstances.
The big experience of the first Christians was that they had entered into this joy, this trust in God that the Risen Jesus brought. The Spirit had worked in them so that they too could cry out: we have believed in love.
It was the experience of Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement. She was teaching in school one day when a priest came in and asked her if she could have an hour free a week when she might be able to help with a group. She spontaneously replied: why only an hour? I can give all of my time. The priest, struck by this generosity, said to her: “God loves you immensely”. Chiara said it was like an explosion in her life: “God loves me immensely”. She met her friends and told her family: “do you know...God loves you immensely”. From then on – and don’t forget it was in the middle of the War – she said she began to see everything as a reflection of God’s love – good days, bad days, happy events, not so happy events – all to be taken directly from the hands God who loves us immensely.
This belief was so strong that she and her first companions said that if they should be killed during the war, they wanted to be buried in the same grave, with a slab on it that didn’t have their names but simply: “we have believed in love”.
Pope Francis: Discover the Joy of the Gospel
Pope Francis has invited us to discover the joy of the Gospel. He says: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness”. This is important. It is at times of inner emptiness that we can make an experience of joy.
When I was about 14-15, I went one day to Mass, troubled about a certain situation that was worrying me and about which I could do nothing. A line from a psalm really struck me: God is compassion and kind, slow to anger, abounding in love.” I went home new, singing a new song, as it were. In my early twenties, I was at college when I felt empty inside, wondering what should I do to really be happy. I was invited to a meeting like this and I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of love among the people there. It was a big moment for me. It was as if the emptiness was suddenly filled and I recognising that until then I had been “orbiting” around myself or, more precisely, around a private relationship between God and me. But really, I needed to orbit my life around God- other people – me.
Pope Francis points out that because of consumerism our spiritual antennae can get knocked out. We go after all kinds of pleasures but our conscience gets blunted: “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too.” Francis puts it strongly: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.... They have sourpusses”.
Francis refers to people he knows that are joyful: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith” because of their encounter with Jesus. Faith is not rules and regulations but the encounter with a Person, with an event that gives a whole new direction to life.
I’ll give you an example. Ita was a girl living in Dublin some years ago. One evening she heard that sentence, whatever you do... and she thought maybe she could try and put it into practice. On her way home, she was at the bus stop when a young girl came along crying. She had been sent to buy a bottle of milk but it had fallen and broken. Ita thought she had money for her bus fare but maybe she could give it to the girl. She did this, even though it meant having to walk home that nearly took two hours! But she said that as she was walking home she felt happy, she had joy.
Francis wants us to hear the Gospel invitation that we have joy the more we stop trying to be in charge of ourselves and let ourselves be taken into the adventure of living our lives with and for others: “The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane...:” “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others”. “How beautiful it is to see that young people are communicators of the faith, joyfully bringing Jesus to every street, every town square and every corner of the earth!” This openness of the heart is a source of joy, since “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
When we live for others, when we communicate Good News to others, when we really try to offer life, when we give the Gospel, we feel inside us an interior joy. Again this was an experience of Chiara and her companions- all day long living the Gospel, trying to love in the midst of the war, and then experiencing within them in the evening a peace and joy.
We don’t always experience joy in the exact same way every day, but it’s like a base note within us all day long (maybe when the Hindus speak of the “Om” sound, there’s an echo of this joy!). Francis says: “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress”. It is said that Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced great darkness in her life but what kept her going was the remembrance of the first experience she had of the deep joy of the love of God.
When we know we are loved and that the most important thing in life is to love, then we have meaning in life and this brings joy. We experience harmony with nature and harmony in our encounters with others. It’s something we can live all day long – doing our work, in our study, in our coffee breaks... There are different nuances of that joy – sometimes it’s the austere joy of work well done; or the joy and satisfaction of a duty performed; the transparent joy of purity, the consoling joy of sharing with others; the demanding joy of sacrifice. Once we know this deep joy,
Down through the centuries, people have known joy is a distinctive feature of Christians. Poets, artists, thinkers have expressed it. Beethoven wrote his famous piece of music: “Ode to Joy”. The English mystic, Julian of Norwich famously spoke of the deep down joy we can have in trusting in God: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Today technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure. We can be grateful for that. But it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. In the Western world today, in general we have money, comfort, and material security and yet so many suffer boredom, depression and sadness. We often find ourselves in artificial paradises that cannot satisfy us. Years ago, Saint Augustine said that God made us for himself and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him (and in his Gospel).
The Gospel generates joy because it tells us who to find rest in: God. It basically tells us two simple truths: God is the Father who loves us immensely and that we are all children of that one Father and so brothers and sisters to one another. Each of us is created as a gift for one another. I am created as a gift to the person next to me and the person next to me is created as a gift for me. When we unite in the name of Jesus, each of us a gift to one another, then we experience him among us and his great desire for us is that we have the joy of the Gospel.
Chiara Luce Badano, recently beatified, had discovered this. At the end of her short life (she died of cancer at 18 years of age) she was able to say to her mother: “Mom, be happy, because I am happy”.