Rejoice Always!: The surprisingly joyful theology of 1 Thessalonians
You would think that the book many Scripture scholars agree to be the oldest in the New Testament would garner a great deal of respect. You would think that a document written only 17 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus would be pored over by contemporary Christians. You would think that Christians would know, as with the Gospels, even the smallest verses of this document by heart.
Well, you would be wrong: St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is not well known.
Still, by common consent, it is the earliest of Paul’s letters and therefore the earliest writing in the entire New Testament. Scholars say that First Thessalonians was most likely written from Athens or Corinth around A.D. 50. As such, it predates the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. And buried in the letter is a remarkable little phrase that upends the typical conception of St. Paul as a cranky, grumpy, depressive prude.
Pastoral, Warm, Affectionate
First a little history. Paul is writing to the Christian community that he had founded in Thessalonica, located in the Roman province of Macedonia, on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. (Today the town is Thessaloniki, in northern Greece.) In this brief letter he encourages his fellow Christians to have confidence in the second coming of Jesus, which they thought would happen in their lifetime.
Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, here the apostle is not responding to any heated theological debate raging within the Christian community in the region. Nor is he scolding his fellow Christians for some litany of horrible sins. Instead, he is mainly encouraging them to lead holy lives. The beginning of the letter, in fact, contains generous praise of the conduct of the Christians in Thessalonica, who he says are an example to other churches in the region. This may account for Paul’s gentle words. First Thessalonians, says a commentator in the HarperCollins Study Bible, is “pastoral, warm in tone, and affectionate throughout.”
Now back to that remarkable phrase. Toward the end of his letter, Paul offers a triad of Christian practice. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
You could spend a lifetime meditating on that one sentence. You could spend a lifetime meditating on just the words “rejoice always.” But is it possible?
What About Suffering?
Realistically, what would it mean to “rejoice always”? First of all, it does not mean that you cannot be sad about suffering or that you have to ignore the tragedies in the world around you. But at first blush, Paul’s words certainly seem to imply that. In his book Chasing Joy: Musings on Life in a Bittersweet World, the Rev. Edward Hays, a Catholic priest and popular spiritual writer, notes that Paul’s words are challenged not only by sadness in our own life but also by injustice in the world. Rejoicing always may seem not only impossible but offensive. “To do this in our present world is extremely difficult,” says Hays, “since the daily headlines overflow with the bad news....” Isn’t injustice in the world something to lament, not grin about? “To confront evil with joyfulness instead of outrage,” he says, “feels like the cowardly complicity of silence.”
But Thessalonica in the time of St. Paul was hardly a paradise. Under the heel of imperial Rome, many in the town were living as slaves. Those who were free may have been poor, illiterate and unable to obtain what we would consider even basic medical care. The Thessalonians would have known the meaning of suffering. And the Christians among them would have known persecution, something that Paul alludes to in the first few lines of his letter.
So how could Paul ask them to turn a blind eye to the realities of life?
He didn’t. Paul was pointing to something deeper. It is easy to be joyful when you are happy. Or to be joyful during those fleeting moments when the world seems like a fair and just place for everyone. But how can you be joyful in sad times and in the face of injustice? Hays offers a suggestion, “To live in joy is to abide in God who is love, and being an authentic prophet requires loving who and what you denounce.”
Here I think of the example of the great African-American spirituals. This is not the place for a long exegesis on that rich topic, but we can say, in brief, that one of the most lasting signs of the great faith of the African-American Christians is the legacy of their spiritual hymns, pieces of joy in the midst of intense suffering. These are signs of confidence in God. As the African-American theologian James Cone notes in his book The Spirituals and the Blues, “So far from being songs of passive resignation, the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”
Deeper Than Happiness
The joy of those songs, forged in the fire of suffering, continues. One of the most vivid memories I have as a Jesuit novice is being invited to a predominantly black church in the Roxbury section of Boston. Before this I had never been in such a church. Yet from the moment the choir began singing “Lead Me, Guide Me” I felt swept away in a chorus of joy. Years later I would experience that same ebullience in the songs of the choirs in the churches of the slums of Nairobi, where Kenyans would be packed shoulder to shoulder (literally) as they shouted out the words to Swahili hymns. What these two groups (descendants of American slaves and East Africans) had in common was not simply the color of their skin but their abiding confidence in God.
Joy, deeper than happiness, is a virtue that finds its foundation in the knowledge that we are loved by God. For Christians, the knowledge that Jesus has been raised from the dead is a constant cause for joy, even in tough times. This does not mean that suffering does not bring sadness. Of course it does. But suffering is not the last word—in Jesus’ life or in ours. And that knowledge can lead us to a deep joy.
Just as I was writing this essay, I received some unpleasant medical news: I would have to have minor surgery in a few weeks—nothing life-threatening or serious, but something that I would rather not have to face. Praying about it the next morning, right before I was planning to write about joy, I realized that I wasn’t feeling especially upbeat. But gradually, as I prayed, I realized that God would be with me all through this small malady and that God would give me the strength and intelligence to deal with it, to figure it out and to live with it, as God had done in the past in similar circumstances. That put me in touch with not only peace but joy. I can’t say that I was happy. Or that I wouldn’t have wished for different news, but I still, nonetheless, felt joy. This may be part of what it means to rejoice “in all circumstances.”
As I’ve said, sadness is an appropriate and natural response to suffering. God desires, I believe, that we be honest about our sadness and share it in prayer with God. Knowing that God is with us, that God accompanies us, can lead us to a deep-seated joy that can carry us through difficult, and sometimes unbearable, times.
Likewise, “rejoice always” does not mean that we should simply “look on the bright side” in the face of injustice. The anger that rises in you over an unjust situation may be a sign that God is moving you to address that injustice. God may be speaking to you through your anger at what you see, through your disgust over what you have read, your shock over what someone has told you. (How else would God move people to action?) This is particularly the case when it is an injustice visited on another person, since anger over an injustice to yourself (rightful though the anger may be) may be tinged with selfishness and a sense of wounded pride.
An example: let’s say you passed a homeless person on the street sitting beside a fancy restaurant and saw diners coming out, having spent hundreds of dollars on their meal but failing to give the man even a glance, let alone a few dollars or a kind word. You might be angry or sad. You would probably be moved to give the fellow some of your own money and maybe even spend some time with him. But you certainly wouldn’t say to yourself, much less to him, “Be happy!” Witnessing the injustice, you would try, as far as you could, to lessen it. Out of such strong emotions and holy anger are born great works of charity.
Where is the joy, then? It comes from a loving trust in God, in the awareness that God is working through the compassion you feel, in the knowledge that God desires a just world where the poor are treated fairly and in the trust that God will help those who heed his voice to help bring about justice. So there is joy.
Joy, Prayer and Gratitude
One important key to St. Paul’s suggestions is that all three parts of his triad of Christian practice—joy, prayer and gratitude—are intimately bound together. Let’s consider how.
Joy springs from gratitude. When we recall things, events or people for which and for whom we are grateful, our joy increases. Prayer also supports the other two virtues. A contemplative awareness of the world and an attitude of prayerful attentiveness make it easier to see life’s blessings. Finally, joy moves us to gratitude.
Likewise, our gratitude over good news can lead to joy. Joy can also move us to pray. In our joy we want to be with God, to share our joyful life, gratefully, in prayer—just as we would share joy with a friend.
Thus, each virtue supports the others in a complex spiritual interplay. Prayer awakens gratitude. Gratitude leads to joy. And joy moves us to prayer. In this way, we are able to follow Paul’s gentle advice to the Thessalonians almost 2,000 years ago.
Many modern believers think of St. Paul not as the Apostle of Joy but as the Apostle of Gloom. He is usually (and unfairly) characterized solely as a stern moralizer, intent on frustrating authentic human emotions, obsessed with tamping down human sexuality more than with recommending something positive. But here in his earliest letter, Paul is doing just that.
Of course there were other Christian communities that needed to hear sterner words. But to the Christians at Thessalonica, and to Christians today, the Apostle Paul advises three things. And the first of these is joy.
From St. Paul
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.1 Thes 5:12-20.
I would like to ask you, Fr. Martin - how do you define "joy"?
Joy is often described separately from "happiness" when discussing God but is seldom decoupled from happiness when looked at in everyday human terms. When it comes to faith we are told that we should be able to experience "joy" even when we don't experience "happiness." It almost seems like one more thing to feel guilty about for those who may not feel "joy" or "happiness" as emotions even though having trust in God, confidence in God, faith in God. This is a very difficult concept to grasp as an ordinary human being. Is trust in God, confidence in God truly the same as "joy"? Perhaps another word is needed.
Most human beings tend to think of "joy" and 'happiness" as sort of siamese twins - it's hard to understand how we can have joy without also feeling the emotion of happiness. I have great trust in God, but I don't equate that to being the same thing as joy. I am immensely grateful to God for countless blessings, all totally undeserved of course, but that gratitude does not equate to a feeling of joy. What does this kind of "joy" feel like? Is it purely an intellectual concept with no emotion involved?
Henri Nouwen talks about this also, and he also says that one can (and should) "choose" joy. Once again, I find this to be difficult to grasp when applied in the "real" world. Perhaps Anthony DeMello's discussions of detachment would help here. He so clearly differentiates between who we are and the emotions we feel. (e.g. I am not depressed, but I might feel the emotion of depression).
Is there really only one expression of joy to quote in Paul's letters, which are about 2/3 of New Testament scriptures. Is it surprising that the overall impression of Paul is of a grumpy (and somewhat misogynist) man - one lacking in human joy?
Your linking of prayer and gratitude to joy make sense, but it is still very difficult to understand joy as decoupled from human happiness in the here and now as opposed to sometime after we have died - it seems to be a more intellectual concept - that "happiness in God" does not necessarily impart feelings of happiness.
I may understand your questionings. I, too, long for joy; or happiness; or just some regular good feelings. I have such envy for those who seem upbeat all the time. Whay I really mean is I want to feel good more often than I do. People are always giving me tips: snap out of it; don't be so negative; look on the bright side; peaple are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. And, these tips have value. It is sort of like spin-doctoring your own disposition, your circumstance, your luck and so forth.
However, that is not joy. Not to me. Joy is knowing that I am not alone. Joy is what keeps me keeping on. A roofer may be miserable in the full summer sun as he spreads bubbling asphalt but he is joyful that he is not unemployed. Now and then a breeze comes along and gives him a cool surprize and makes him happy.
Happiness may be part of joy. Joy will erupt in happiness. But, unlike happiness, it doesn't disappear when the feelings do.
As metaphors go this one is imperfect. But, the point is I am convinced I am not alone. Several methods help me to maintain this confidence, including: prayer, being wary for God-moments and frequent reception of Holy Eucharist. When happy feelings waver joy allows me to offer up my suffering in prayer and worship so that it is not wasted. I can do that because I am not alone. The point of the incarnation is that in Jesus God became one of us. And, if one of us he is with us. We will never be alone.
In that light James' phrase "happiness in God" works for me. This is not a successions of happy feelings, but a happiness/joy in an unending presence.
Anyhow, that's my spin.
I guess it’s normal to get tired of praying, hoping, trusting, apparently without even a hint of resolution, indeed sometimes having outcomes worse than better! Even Jesus was not spared from that dilemma, for having prayed in the Garden for deliverance from the horrors ahead, ended up arrested, beaten and executed. Things couldn’t get any worse than that, for someone who prayed hopefully, trustingly.
Yet, as Jesuit priest James Martin points out, in 1 Thessalonians, St. Paul tells the Church not only to “pray without ceasing,” but to also “rejoice always.” How can one do that superhuman thing? It takes Faith to begin to understand a little what St. Paul is talking about and before him Jesus too, who said, “Pray always and do not lose heart.” St. Paul “complicated” it by adding, “rejoice!”
This imponderable reality of the spiritual life loses some of its darkness in the light of Faith, which paradoxically is itself a “dark light” but fortunately a “light” nonetheless. Through life’s debris of multiple decades I’ve noticed a glimmer of understanding that vaguely fades in and out, wherein we learn that the whole thing revolves around the difference between the natural Gift of Happiness and the supernatural Gift of Joy. Happiness is the result of material satisfaction like enough to eat, adequate lodging, sufficient clothing and good friends, etc. Joy is a direct Gift from the Holy Spirit which paradoxically allows buoyancy no matter the hardships. This is hard to comprehend but is open to all and when we get there we know it.
I’m no theologian but I think it safe to say, God continually attempts to perk us up often by way of natural happenings that seem inconsequential . He’s always trying to “tune us in.” Like once, when Martha-like, I was “troubled about many things” sort of weary of praying, when unexpectedly on my way to Mass I saw perched on a metal railing a Praying Mantis, a little creature I had never before seen in the neighborhood. Here was a creature continually in a position of prayer - “kneeling” and Our Lord’s words came to mind, “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Now Fr. Martin’s reminder in 1Thessalonians to “rejoice always” adds buoyancy to my endeavor to “pray without ceasing!” It gives light to Faith’s darkness. Praise God!
This linking of joy and religious belief leads to another question. In looking at the world of people most would agree that "joy" is not the exclusive possession of christians or of religious people in general. I know agnostics who have "joy" and non-Christians who have "joy" and many very devout believing Christians who do not seem to have "joy".
Fr. Martin (and others), how would you describe "joy" in a way that does not link it to religious belief?
to left: Giotto's Saint Francis
One winter day St. Francis was coming to St. Mary of the Angels from Perugia with Brother Leo, and the bitter cold made them suffer keenly. St. Francis called to Brother Leo, who was walking a bit ahead of him, and he said: "Brother Leo, even if the Friars Minor in every country give a great example of holiness and integrity and good edification, nevertheless write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that."
And when he had walked on a bit, St. Francis called him again, saying: "Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what is still more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days, write that perfect joy is not in that."
And going on a bit, St. Francis cried out again in a strong voice: "Brother Leo, if a Friar Minor knew all languages and all sciences and Scripture, if he also knew bow to prophesy and to reveal not only the future but also the secrets of the consciences and minds of others, write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that."
And as they walked on, after a while St. Francis called again forcefully: 'Brother Leo, Little Lamb of God, even if a Friar minor could speak with the voice of an angel, and knew the courses of the stars and the powers of herbs, and knew all about the treasures in the earth, and if be knew the qualities of birds and fishes, animals, humans, roots, trees, rocks, and waters, write down and note carefully that true joy is not in that."
And going on a bit farther, St. Francis called again strongly: "Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor could preach so well that be should convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that perfect joy is not there."
Now when he had been talking this way for a distance of two miles, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: "Father, I beg you in God's name to tell me where perfect joy is."
And St. Francis replied; "When we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of the Place and the brother porter comes and says angrily: 'Who are you?' And we say: 'We are two of your brothers.' And he contradicts us, saying: 'You are not telling the truth. Rather you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away]' And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls-then if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that that porter really knows us and that God makes him speak against us, oh, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there!
'And if we continue to knock, and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying; 'Get away from here, you dirty thieves-go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won't eat or sleep here'-and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, Oh, Brother Leo, write that that is perfect joy!
And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and the painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call, and crying loudly beg them to open for us and let us come in for the love of God, and he grows still more angry and says: 'Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I'll give them what they deserve.' And he comes out with a knotty club, and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the ground, rolling us in the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that he covers our bodies with wounds-if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of Him, oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!
And there are many who have accepted persecution and suffering with patience and who do not hate who are not even Christians. So. it seems that joy is not dependent on one's religious beliefs.
There seems to be two kinds of joy being discussed - one is rooted in religious belief but others may understand and describe joy very differently. It would be helpful if there were two different words - or at least one might qualify the Christian understanding simply by using the word "Christian" as an adjective for joy to clearly convey meaning. Fr. Jim says that "Joy has an object and that object is God." But the word "joy" is a noun, although there are archaic usages where it is used as a verb. Nouns do not have "objects". It seems that "Christian Joy" may be the work of God, but it doesn't seem accurate to describe joy's object as being God. Perhaps belief in God and faith in God's love is the source of Christian joy, but it is not the object of Christian joy. One could say that God is the source of Christian joy - which seems to translate into defining "Christian joy" as a "belief" that eases emotions of anxiety and fear in the face of suffering of some kind. Perhaps this is what Louis is describing as his understanding. However, how then are Christians who don't experience this kind of "joy" to understand their faith? It almost seems a judgment on Christians who have faith in God, who trust God, who pray and try to live according to the gospels who do not have this ephemeral sense of "christian joy" as though somehow they are doing something "wrong."
Dear Anne, the “perfect joy” story poetically expressed by the idealist, Francis of Assisi, is a Christian (Franciscan) attitudinal model wherefrom joy of soul can arise. It’s rooted in the Pauline teaching that, we, as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, complete in our bodies through suffering what was “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. Actually nothing was “lacking” but the flesh and blood relationship between the Church, humanity, creation, and Christ especially the Church. is so real, so tangible, that on the Cross Jesus gathered collectively all suffering down the ages from the beginning to the end, making it his own to complete in mystery the Redemptive sacrifice of the Cross. True Christianity is salvific. Yet paradoxically we must do all we can to alleviate suffering as Jesus did! If you like mystery stories Christianity is the best!
As Fr. Martin pointed out “God” is the object of true supernatural Joy. When you have it you know it! But all virtues have natural manifestations , including Joy which may be activated by attachment to a “God image” (something to hope in, to trust in.) So, something closely akin to true joy may be experienced even by atheists, who place all their hope and trust in non-belief, becoming for them a “god necessity.” At least, so I believe, but I’m no theologian, thus this explanation may limp. God bless you in your quest for the source of perfect joy. Francis found it!
I can understand God being a source of joy, but I do not understand God as an "object of joy." That doesn't make sense - even grammatically.
I can understand joy arising from helping to alleviate suffering as you say in your second post, but the Francis story implies that doing good - alleviating suffering - does not bring joy. The story says that unless one suffers profoundly, and experiences this suffering with "joy and patience" one cannot experience "perfect joy." It's a circular type of reasoning since one must already know how to experience suffering with "joy and patience" in order to attain "perfect joy."
You say: ".....activated by attachment to a “God image” (something to hope in, to trust in.) So, something closely akin to true joy may be experienced even by atheists, who place all their hope and trust in non-belief, becoming for them a “god necessity.” I doubt that the non-belief of athiests is a "god necessity" nor that putting their "hope and trust" in a negative (an absence of belief in God) produces "joy" for them. Instead, many experience joy in, for example, "alleviating suffering". Some find peace and serenity in their understanding that this life is all there is and we need to work as hard as we can to live good lives and help others (love one another), help build the world here and now - not really different from what many Christians would describe as building the "kingdom" of God, which is here and now, but without the belief in eternal life for souls. In some ways, that almost seems to be more "pure" because athiests who live loving and compassionate and generous lives are not motivated by a post-death "reward" but simply by their innate desire to alleviate suffering when they can.
Many Buddhists seem to live in a state of "joy" in the sense that they have learned not to "suffer" from their own suffering. They experience the suffering, but they learn "detachment" and if successful, very often greet the sufferings of life with great interior peace and serenity which seems to be what FR. Martin and Paul are talking about really. Many athiests emphasize compassion (as did Jesus and as does Buddhism). I am not an expert on Buddhism, but they seem in some ways to live and teach the gentleness and compassion taught by Jesus better than many Christians. Some christians almost seem to twist the christian message a bit. The story of Francis above seems to negate the "joy" of being "Christ to others" in trying to alleviate suffering - in compassion and love -, and says, in essense, that only severe suffering on one's individual part, borne with faith, brings "joy." It seems a somewhat perverse message in some ways - it seems so negative at times, with so much emphasis on sin (and guilt) and suffering (punishment). In another essay, Fr. Martin discussed the need for Christians to have a "sense of humor" and to give an appearance of living joyfully. But, as I recall, he does not get into the reasons underlying the perception of christians held by many as being humorless and joyless. Perhaps that is because this is the emphasis they were taught?
Perhaps a more nuanced, more complex explanation should be given - this comes across almost as an order from Paul - another "rule" to fail to keep - Rejoice no matter what - you are Christians so you MUST experience joy. And since it does not imply the common understanding of "joy" which is usually linked to feelings of happiness, perhaps using a different word would help - perhaps "peace" or "serenity" or "trust" or "faith" better captures the meaning, since they aren't linked in people's minds to "happiness."
I know few Christians who are "joyous" even though they are devout believers. But actually I know few people who are "joyous" in the sense that this tries to convey. However, I do know some people who are 'joyous" and some are Christian - but not all are. I know at least one agnostic who is among the "joyous" people I know (and he is a scientist to boot - very much tied into the cognitive world of understanding and little tied to the world of heart) and I also know Jews who seem to possess this type of peace and serenity - better terms than "joy" I think. Since I am curious about Fr. Martin's book, I looked it up but see that it has not yet been released.
But, your St. Francis story seems almost anti-joy, implying as it does that we cannot experience joy by working to alleviate suffering, but can only experience by suffering. I don't think Jesus meant that even when he advised us that ALL of us will experience suffering, as he does, and that faith can help us get some positive outcomes from suffering. But Jesus never said (that I am aware of) that only suffering brings joy. Accepting suffering and bearing it patiently may be described as endurance; knowing that God is with us may provide comfort and even help us to gain something positive in our suffering. When I feel that I am "in God's lap" I experience peace, serenity and absence of anxiety. If that is what you mean by "joy" then I agree. But it is not the most commonly accepted understanding of the word "joy".
God is the source - of love, of peace, of serenity, of joy.
Could you please explain what you mean by God as object
Dear Anne, No, I’m not saying that only those who understand God in precisely the same way that Christians understand God can experience true joy. Anyone who experiences God will experience true joy because God is not just the source of true joy, but is by his very nature, Joy itself!
What I am saying is, I believe that Christianity is God’s preferred way to true joy, but by no means the only way. I believe Christianity is God’s preferred way based on what I know about the foundation of Christianity which came into being by the action of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, truly God, truly man. Christianity is God-founded and so of necessity must be God’s preferred way. I accept this on the authority of the Roman Catholic Church into which I was baptized.
I agree it is an embarrassment that so many Christians are far from joyful, which has given rise to Nietzsche’s jab that, he could never be Christian because Christians seem so unjoyful! What a contradiction!
Just like you I don’t want our postings to go on and on, even though I appreciate our back and forth. You mentioned about email as a way to continue. I’m not opposed to that but don’t want to post my email address. My mailing address is in the phonebook and I’ll tell my wife you may be writing. But I must say I’m not the best person to answer your question, but I’m willing to give it a try. I can’t speak for him, but how about Jesuit priest James Martin?
Once when I was having a particularly hard time with a business situation, my sister told me what an elderly nun had mentioned during a spiritual retreat. "Thank God for the bad things that happen to you." How's that for a spiritual exercise? Not something I wanted too much to hear at first blush, considering the circumstances. But I suppose if you can get there, if you can thank God for the bad things that have happened to you, then God, the Person of Goodness, will be the underpinning of your life. And that would be a joyous, sometimes happy, sometimes blissful experience, and sometimes not. But it would be a life built on a durable foundation of joy, something towards which we as pilgrims can aspire.
Fr. Martin is so concerned about the lack of joy in Catholics/christians that he has written an entire book on the subject. However, the general joylessness of christians is not new - as your quoting of Nietzsche demonstrates. But, the perception of joylessness among Christians goes way back - how far? I don't know. Certainly joylessness is even more marked among many Protestant christians, and a US history class that discusses the early Massachusetts colonies and Puritan and Calvinist Protestantism also shows that there has been little joy among christians in this country since its founding. I cannot "prove" this perception, but in the modern world, the only people that seems to be more joyful than not are the Buddhists.
So, the question is this - why is Christianity in general both perceived and experienced as a religion that is mostly without joy and happiness? A theoretical and academic understanding of "joy" as a way to find good in the bad and in suffering, or as another word for trust or faith or gratitude may bring comfort and solace, but why is there so little joy that is accompanied by the positive feelings of happiness?
Do you suppose that this lack of joy in religion in general and in christianity in particular is one reason that so many have walked away from the churches - choosing instead the path of "spiritual not religious"?
There is great spiritual hunger in the land, great interest in spirituality and clearly the churches are no longer able to depend on the old formulas to attract members. Dismissing those who leave (and who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious") as shallow and undisciplined is an avoidance mechanism - a way to avoid reflecting and looking deeply into the Christian church to try to discover where it might be going wrong in the 21st century.
Moderrn people in developed and educated nations are no longer illiterate, no longer uneducated, and now are seldom "held" through either superstition or fear which were probably the main reasons people stayed religious throughout much of history. Now that the stick is less effective than it once was, what will replace it?
Father Martin? Any comments here?
I would first like to say that I certainly don't see you two as "blog hogs," but simply two persons from within (originally at least) the Catholic spiritual tradition who are engaged by the topic. I certainly have no problem with each of you experiencing several exchanges within the dialogue if those exchanges arise naturally. No one else is excluded from entering by your comments as far as I can tell. Several such as myself appreciate and gain insight from the exchange and variations.
Anne, I guess all I can say is I have seen different things than you have. Haven't you seen the joy and happiness in the eyes of two people who thoughtfully and with conviction exchange the vows of matrimony and their commitment to each other? Haven't you seen the tears of joy in the mom and dad in the play of their granchildren who are spiritually and physically nourished by a couple true to their child and each other? Haven't you and some you know ever experienced the joyous relief as you exited the confessional? Wasn't that a form of happiness? Have you ever walked in the footsteps of the hundreds of thousands of the past hundreds of years up the bell tower of a church such as the duomo of Florence, experiencing a movement through the earth and a sense of the eternal as you emerged from within the interior of the dome to the cupola, with the magnificent view of the bowl of the city of Florence surrounding you an imaginative evocation of paradise? Even Napoleon himself, that egotistical libertine, said that the happiest day of his life was the day of his first communion (what an example, I know!) Or felt a relief and happiness at the end of teaching poetry to a class of murderers and various violent crimes at a maximum security prison?
It is easier to proclaim Nietzschean "happy" joy if like Nietzsche you advise your readers to forget about death. But such a philosophy that deifies ontology and ignores teleology is in the end a romantic evasion of life, a form of intellectual dishonesty and spiritual cowardice. It is only when Nietzsche turns to the concept of tragic joy, the myth of Sisyphus, and the concept of eternal return that his mythology approaches adequacy. And when he turns to that subject, tragic joy, it is not a "happy" topic or way of being, as far as I can tell. Nietszche, like so many romantics disregarding human limitation, resented being a creature and masqueraded as his own creator. As they say, God is not dead, but Nietzsche surely is.
And these observations do not actually address the questions I asked.
My question is about the Why - why is the general perception of, and apparently also the general experience of christianity so joyless? Why is christianity so unattractive to so many in the current era - among the first generations to have choices that those living in earlier centuries did not?
This does not address individuals, not exceptions to the general, which is what your observations address. The common perception of christianity seems to be that it is joyless - and this perception is apparently pretty obvious to Fr. James Martin also - why else would he write an entire book about it?
It seems that if someone has to write a book about why christians should be joyous instead of joyless as so many are, then something is wrong somewhere in how christianity is being handed down - Fr. Jim himself, in his interview about the book, talks about priests and bishops et al who never crack a smile. The neoconservative Catholics are acting as temple police everywhere these days -pouncing on "abuses" in the liturgy (they will have a field day on that come December - a whole new set of possible abuses for them to discover and report to the bishops), horrified that people in the community might converse in the church before or after mass. They even hate the exchange of peace. Is it surprising that outsiders (and even insiders) see the church becoming more cold and more joyless with each passing year?
What do most christian churches emphasize? Sin. What is the primary emotion that this emphasis arouses? Guilt. What do Catholics hear from childhood - Christ suffered indescribable tortures because human beings are so bad, so sinful, so guilty of so many things that Jesus was tortured to "redeem" them. What kind of God would ask that? And they are reminded of this in every church, where the crucifixes emphasize suffering (most Protestant churches' have "empty" crosses which emphasize the resurrection - a far more positive and joyful emphasis). The Catholic church emphasizes all the missteps one can take, and that they must repent, and do penance. It's true - we are sinful, we must repent. But, it is so unbalanced - Jesus talked about love far more then he talked about sin. Where is the "good news"?
Dear Anne, Don’t feel that you were a “bother” with the postings- I appreciated them. If anything it’s a “bother” to me that I was unable to adequately answer your questions. Why do Christians behave less than joyful and act grumpy so often? I guess for the same reason we all often don’t live up to how we should be. St. Paul put it this way in one of his Letters, “That which I want to do, I don’t do, and that which I don’t want to do, I do.” Sounds like me! About grumpy joyless Christians, St. Teresa of Avila once prayed, “From sad face saints O God, deliver me!
So, thanks for the postings and I wish you Peace and all that’s good!
But you legitimately ask for more reasons. I think a larger reason for lack of joy as you mention is lack of faith. Napoleon experienced first communion as the happiest day of his life because he believed he was for the first time receiving the body of Christ into himself within the context of a supportive faith community, and he radiated with that thought. If you don't believe in transubstantiation, for instance, how could you possibly take joy in that as he did? You would be participating in a false hommage to that which sustained billions for two thousand years. replaced by a ritual divorced from its content. And that would induce guilt, not joy. We live in the age of uncertainty, the age of logical positivism. It has not provided a viable alternative, but it certainly has come a long way in destroying belief in what Paul warned all Christians of: if Christ is not risen, then all your faith is in vain. Since many Christians, including Catholic Christians, have considerable doubt on that issue, they are more cultural Christians than Christians of living faith. And without Hope and living Faith, there is no joy in Christianity. As Chesterton pointed out, Christianity has been found difficult and not tried. Cultivating faith, hope, and love is a hard, long business for most of us. Too many throw in the towel midway through the journey.
Yet I don't disagree with your statement; encountering sin/guilt as what Bunyan called the Slough of Despond rather than a growth opportunity within ourselves can be a negative experience. I think Ignatius addressed that in his exercises. It's tough working through them, but the stage of contemplation, intimate colloquy with God, is the end sought. And that is a happy, joyous state. Confession, for example, does not call for us to wallow in guilt. It calls us to face our faults, resolve to do better, and get on, with a clean slate. But it does call us to repent, as John the Baptist did, and resolve to do better. Likely those that don't experience that joy in confession don't really complete that process, for pride, lack of resolve to do better, or another reason. For most of us, being a Christian is a real challenge.
I admire your courage and honest questionings.
However, I wonder if your inquiries have become a shield against experience.
You can stand in your swimming trunks all day long and discuss the tide, rip currents and temperature, but you won't get wet until you jump in.
I know tons of joyful Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. And, all of them are doing "hard time." They have tough lives and tend to be painfully honest about it at times. Many are tempted to bitterness and skepticism. But, temptation does not alway mean we have to fall into misery and be robbed of joy.
At least twice this month I woke up crying that I had to face another day. I thought of my friend who said, "I'm surprized you haven't tried suicide." I do at time give in to morbid fantasies. I am being brutally honest. I hope I do not offend you.
Nevertheless, I hang on because I know someone. And this someone is my joy. I will get through my struggles. One day at a time. Maybe, one hour at a time. This difficult time I am enduring will eventually pass. These troubles do not rob me of joy. They used to. But, I have learned to pray. I challenge you to pray. Especially, pray for God to fill you with his Holy Spirit.
If this sounds silly then that is only an indicator of how desperately you need this experience. Anne, you are loved. That is what you need to know.
You are loved.
As far as the rest goes, it too is peculiar to Catholicism. But the lack of joy is not confined to Catholic christians, but seems to pervade christianity as a whole. And I think the churches, including the Catholic church, should be asking Why rather than simply lecturing. The churches may need to do some serious reflection, but before they do, they need to do some serious listening. I once read a column by Fr. Martin that simply put down those who are spiritual but who no longer participate in organized religion. Instead of simply condescending to them, dismissing them as shallow, lazy, uncommitted, etc why not spend some time listening to them? One question might address the perceptions they have - and some questions could specifically about whether or not they see Christianity as joyless. And if they do, and obviously Fr. Martin thinks that most active christians do not radiate joy but almost have to be ordered to be joyous, it seems that instead of simply judging, they should look inward and ask themselves why so few see joy in Christianity, why so few exhibit joy as Christians.
The church's annulment laws are a sham - there is a reason it's called Catholic divorce. Those Catholics who are willing to go through a bunch of hoops, part with some money, have a willingness to be humiliated and sometimes to lie, have no trouble getting an annulment. Some Catholics refuse to do so on principal - and I salute them for their stance. The response of most non-Catholic christian faiths is both more compassionate and less hypocritical.
Bruce, Walter, and Louis. I appreciate all of your comments and posts. I confess at this point to feeling a well-needed humbling, professionally, which happens now and then when I post on forums such as these. I make my living with words in academic and corportate environments. Yet it is clear that in spite of numerous attempts, and my rephrased and changed questions, my meaning was not clear to any of you. You all interpreted my posts through a particular lens, but all of you failed to understand my points (which were meant globally rather than particularly, among other things). However, I take that as my failure to communicate well rather than your failure to correctly understand what I was attempting (in vain) to say. This forum is not conducive to a lot of editing and rewriting, which is something I do a lot of in my work. That is a luxury in this type of forum.
I wish you all God's peace - especially you, Louis, as you continue to find a way to get through each day. I well understand from my own life that faith in God helps people through difficult challenges. God has often given me peace when I have been dealing with fear and anxiety. Perhaps you call that Joy - I call it peace. God is the source of that peace, that lifting of anxiety - but God is not the object.
Not that you totally avoid an issue. Your statement that the young for various reasons don't take the marriage vows they are making seriously is a roundabout confirmation of not genuinely encountering a sacrament, making it more a cultural rather than religious experience. That is one example of the faith problem I mentioned.
Anne, I will pass on what I hope will be taken as a constructive criticism which you are free to dismiss as uninformed. You can appear at times to turn a deaf ear to facts or ideas which if provided an openminded consideration might interfere with enhancing your generally pejorative view of the Church.
And would you please provide us with some external references that prove your claim that divorce is "built in" to other religions and faiths? You imply that somehow non-Catholic weddings produce more "joy" than do weddings in other traditions and apparently base this conclusion on some idea that marriage is not taken seriously by other christians and other faiths. I am sorry, but in my experience with people who are not Catholic, - couples and families - I have never encountered a wedding in a faith environment where divorce is expected, or "built in." And the joy is just as real as in any Catholic marriage I have witnessed.
The Catholic church requires its members to go through the annulment process if they wish to remarry in the church. Other than that, there seems to be very little difference except for the fact that other faiths seem to be a bit more compassionate in how they handle divorce, requiring fewer hoops. There are exceptions - orthodox Judaism requires a formal process in a rabbinical court that is similar to annulment in the Catholic church, and the Mormons also have a similar process, called a temple divorce. Anglicanism is deliberately not "centralized" and divorce and remarriage is handled somewhat differently by different "branches" of Anglicanism (there are three main "streams" within Anglicanism). Weddings in the Orthodox churches do not have the same kinds of vows "unto death". The commitment is considered to be implicit in the rituals (quite elaborate. If you have never been to an Orthodox wedding - or baptism - or to a Jewish religious ceremony (marriage, bris, bar/bat mitzvah) do go. Quite interesting). I live in a largely Jewish neighborhood, have many Protestant friends and family, and a very, very close friend who is Orthodox, and have been privileged to witness many formal ceremonies within their faith traditions as well as the lived faith of all of them.
Divorce and remarriage in the church is permitted in Orthodoxy without having to go through ecclesial courts although there is required counseling, a period of separation from the church, and a different ceremony for a remarriage wedding. So perhaps your observation that some religions have "built-in" divorce mlght include them, since they do not exchange the same kind of vows as Catholics, Episcopalians, and in various Protestant weddings I have attended. The Jewish weddings I have attended are like the Orthodox in that the verbal commitment explicitly contained in spoken vows that Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and some other Protestants use are considered to be implicit in the rituals.
The consequences of divorce in Jesus's time were quite different from that of today - they fell almost totally on the women and were far more dire than today. Then if her family refused to take her back, a divorce could literally force a woman into prostitution, destitution, or even death. Women had no rights at all. Jesus's exhortations at that time were meant to protect women from the harsh consequences of the prevailing patriarchal system in the event of divorce. Reading the bible without context is like not reading it at all.
What I mean by divorce being "built in" is simply that divorce is part of the established everyday theology of a faith system. Just as you can get married in the church, so can you get divorced. A thoughtful, informed Episcopalian couple, as I understand, knows that if in the end things don't work out in the marriage a divorce will be available to them. Despite any word to the contrary, they know their marriage is frangible, permanent or temporary at the couple's discretion, within their church. Such a couple in a Catholic wedding does not have such an assurance. And that is an essential, not superficial, difference.
No doubt Christ was aware of the plight of the divorced woman of His time, and it likely played a role in His thinking. But two becoming one flesh clearly places equal responsibility on the man and the woman. To claim that Jesus' words here merely are to protect the woman from losing her property and social status and not that God has made the couple indissoluably one flesh, that faithfulness and permanence at the essential core of marriage, equally applicable to man and woman, with no right of human beings to break the bond established by God, is where casuistry crosses the over line to rationalization. That is not to say the Church doesn't have a problem with divorce, nor that the process of annulment doesn't become a "sham" when administered improperly. The Church simply is recognizing that Christ is intolerant of some things, as he is of divorce here, and trying to be true and consistent to herself by being true to His word. It's a really hard one, as the church must find a way to come to terms with divorced Catholics. But the church, with all its failings, here and elsewhere, is Catholic, not Catholic lite.
In your final comment in #28, I think you may have identified the issue and the differences in perspective. You consider the "Peace of Christ," our common and desired emotional state, to be peace, not joyful. I, and perhaps others, would consider the holder of that peace, which is certainly the possession of a good, to experience a form of joy.
Just before I began this final entry, I received an email from a beloved 80-year-old parishioner. At 80 years of age, she asked God what He wanted her to do. He responded that He wanted her to set 150 psalms to music. About 8 months later she is at 120. She just asked me to participate in her proposed parish project to present these songs to the community. Do I look forward to learning 150 songs or large parts of them? No. Am I happy about the task? You bet. The thought is a happy (as in merry, jovial) one and a joyous one. Do I wish I had the totality of Christian experience that she has? You bet. All her prayers, I know, are conversations with God. Her gratitude and love of God and His church are so pervasiven in her. She's filled up with Faith, Hope, and Love. If such a person should tragically be racked by the torture of cancer in the future, she may not have the same merry disposition she now displays, but she will continue, I am certain, to be joyous, as she has arrived at that fulness of faith. She is all in.