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Joy - a Sign of God

Ron Rolheiser, OMI - Wed, Jul 7th 2021

There is only one true sadness, not being a saint! French novelist, philosopher, essayist, Leon Bloy ends his novel The Woman Who Was Poor with that much-quoted line. Here is a less known quote from Leon Bloy which helps us understand why there is such a sadness in not being saint. Joy is a sure sign of the life of God in the soul.

Joy is not just a sure sign of the life of God in the soul, it is a sign of the life of God – period. Joy constitutes the inner life of God. God is joy. This is not something we easily believe. For lots of reasons we find it hard to think of God as happy, as joyful, as pleased, and (as Julian of Norwich says) as relaxed and smiling. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for all of our differences, have this in common. In our popular conception, we all conceive of God as male, as celibate, and as generally displeased and disappointed with us. We struggle to think that God is happy with our lives and, even more important, that God is happy, joyful, relaxed, and smiling.

Yet, how could it be otherwise? Scripture tells us that God is the author of all that is good and that all good things come from God. Now, is there a greater goodness in this world than joy, happiness, laughter, and the life-giving grace of a benevolent smile? Clearly not. These constitute the very life of heaven and are what makes life on earth worth living. Surely then they take their origins inside of God. This means that God is joyful, is joy.

If this is true, and it is, then we should not conceive of God as a disappointed lover, an angry spouse, or a wounded parent, frowning in the face of our inadequacies and betrayals. Rather, God might be imagined as a smiling grandmother or grandfather, delighting in our lives and energy, at ease with our littleness, forgiving our weaknesses, and forever gently trying to coax us towards something higher.

A growing body of literature today suggests that the purest experience of love and joy on this earth is not what is experienced between lovers, spouses, or even parents and their children. In these relationships, there is inevitably (and understandably) enough tension and self-seeking to color both its purity and its joy. This is generally less true in the relationship of grandparents to their grandchildren. That relationship, more free of tension and self-seeking, is often the purest experience of love and joy on this earth. There, delight flows more freely, more purely, more graciously, and mirrors more purely what is inside of God, namely joy and delight.

God is love, scripture tells us; but God is also joy. God is the gracious, benevolent smile of a grandparent looking with pride and delight at a grandchild.

However, how does this all square with suffering, with the paschal mystery, with a suffering Christ who through blood and anguish pays the price of our sin? Where was God’s joy on Good Friday as Jesus cried out in agony on the cross? As well, if God is joy, how do we account for the  many times in our lives when, living honestly inside of our faith and our commitments, we do not feel joyful, happy, laughter, when we struggle to smile?

Joy and pain are not incompatible. Neither are happiness and sadness. Rather, they are frequently felt together. We can be in great pain and still be happy, just as we can be pain-free, experiencing pleasure, and be unhappy. Joy and happiness are predicated on something that abides through pain, namely, meaning; but this needs to be understood. We tend to have an unhelpful, superficial notion of what constitutes both joy and happiness. For us, they are incompatible with pain, suffering, and sadness. I wonder how Jesus would have answered on Good Friday as he hung on the cross if someone had asked him, “Are you happy up there?” I suspect he would have said something to this effect. “If you’re picturing happiness in the way you imagine it, then no! I’m not happy! Today, of all days, particularly so! But what I’m experiencing today amidst the agony is meaning, a meaning so deep that it contains a joy and a happiness that abide through the agony. Inside of the pain, there is a profound joy and happiness in giving myself over to this. Unhappiness and joylessness, as you conceive of them, come and go; meaning abides throughout those feelings.”

Knowing this still does not make it easy for us to accept that God is joy and that joy is a sure sign of the life of God in the soul. However, knowing it is an important start, one we can build on.

There is a deep sadness in not being a saint. Why? Because our distance from saintliness is also our distance from God and our distance from God is also our distance from joy.

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