February 17, 2006


We are called to be stewards of joy

British writer C. S. Lewis described his conversion to Christianity as being “surprised by joy.” Lewis had a very particular understanding of joy, which he carefully distinguished from both happiness and pleasure.

Joy comes with the satisfaction of our deepest desires. Joy is what we long for always and rarely find. It is the experience of genuine unity and harmony with the world around us. It is the intimate connection with a person that makes us feel whole and complete as human beings.

The history of Christianity can be said to begin with joy—the greeting of the Angel to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold I proclaim to you news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). And, of course, the most profound experience of joy is found in the Easter mystery—Jesus’ victory over sin and death in the Resurrection. Here, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and in Jerusalem and Galilee, encounter the risen Lord and find their deepest longings fulfilled and their hearts burning with joy.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines joy as “vivid pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.” We might say that it is the opposite of restless anxiety or fear.

Joy fills the emptiness in the pit of our stomachs. It causes us to feel that our unnamed fears are groundless. Joy counteracts our tendency to be constantly worried and depressed about the sad state of affairs that the world has come to (again).

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, like the saints throughout Christian history, like C. S. Lewis and countless other lost souls who are restless and filled with longing, joy takes us by surprise. We are amazed by the grace of God, which comforts us and fills our hearts with peace.

Why, then, are so many of us Christians still lost? Why is there so much bitterness and anxiety among us? Why do we still feel desperate and afraid? Why do we bicker and quarrel among ourselves? Have we forgotten the hope we received at Christmas? Have we lost all sense of Easter joy?

In The Joy of Full Surrender, the great 19th-century spiritual director, Father Jean-Pierre Caussade, writes, “There is nothing more free than a heart which sees only the life of God in the most deadly perils and troubles.” This is the joy of martyrdom: to be completely confident in the presence and saving grace of God even in the most desperate and hopeless situations.

As Father Caussade says: “The senses, in terror, suddenly cry to the soul, Unhappy one! You have no resource left; you are lost! Instantly, faith with a stronger voice answers: Keep firm, go forward and fear nothing!”

Perhaps the fear and anxiety we Christians feel today stems from a lack of faith. Like the disciples, we fail to comprehend how God works in our world—bringing light into our darkness and healing into our brokenness. And we fail to listen for the “stronger voice of faith” among all the negative messages of doubt and despair in our world today.

Christians in the 21st century (as in every age) have been given the gift of joy. We have experienced, in a provisional way, what it means to be fully satisfied, to know lasting peace and to find true love. We are called to be stewards of the joy we have received in Christ—to nurture and develop it and to share it generously with others.

Let’s pray for the grace to be good stewards of God’s joy. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “May we never complain or be discouraged by life’s trials. May the Lord help us to follow the path of love and, in submitting to its demands, find true joy.”

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)

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