Embracing a calling to joy


By Corrine Winters

Corrine Winter

Recently, a student asked why we hear so much about the joy found among the poor in Latin America, but various media outlets list the “happiest” countries as those in northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Switz­erland and others. Of course, that leads us to wonder about the definitions people are using when they describe people as happy or joyful. Do they refer to contentment, to self-satisfaction, to the ability to find pleasure or enjoyment in daily activities? What are joy and happiness, where do they come from and how are they sustained and expressed? When we say that Christians ought to give witness to the joy that the good news brings, what are we looking for?
Jesuit theologian James Martin writes on the relationships among joy, happiness and pleasure. In a short popular article, he discusses the compatibility of joy and sorrow insisting that a life of joy does not exclude genuine grief over personal losses. He does suggest that joyful living is a choice. Living joyfully includes:
Fostering a commitment to keeping things in perspective. I may feel frustrated after failing to achieve a particular goal, but how important is it? How much of my time and energy does it really deserve before I turn my attention to more important things? Faith, asserts Martin, provides me with a sense of priorities that can prevent wasteful sadness or depression. He advocates fostering a sense of humor as a means of letting go of things that might otherwise take up too much psychic energy.
Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) also challenges us to think about joy from a faith perspective. In the opening paragraphs, he attributes true joy to the acceptance of the message of Christ and presents it as a remedy for “the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart (EG 2).” The Gospel calls us to turn our attention to the needs of the world — for the Gospel and for changes to both Church and world structures in accord with the Gospel’s message.
So joy absolutely cannot come from a shallow avoidance of difficulties. In fact, efforts to avoid struggles lead to exhaustion and a sense of defeat. By contrast, joy comes as one walks into challenges with generosity and determination. It is associated with risking rather than with clinging to security. “Christian triumph,” he states, “is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil (EG 85).” For Christians, cross and resurrection are never separated. There is no rising without the commitment to mission that is often painful; and there is no suffering that obscures the promise of resurrection.
The pope’s exhortation, published this past November and more recently available in paperback editions, follows on the 2012 Synod of Bishops on “new evangelization.” Since his first encyclical was written together with his predecessor and its style suggests that a great deal of the writing was accomplished by Pope Benedict, this is the first work we have from Pope Francis himself. Having read only a small portion of the exhortation which is over 200 pages long, I find it both challenging and encouraging and plan to make it a focus of my Lenten reading and reflection.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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