June 25, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Joy brings pleasure, but it is also our duty

Cynthia DewesKeeping a stiff upper lip is very British, but it’s also very American and, in fact, very human.

If we think of stressful times in our history such as the Great Depression, both World Wars, etc., we remember that keeping a good attitude was essential to national success.

We need this when we face individual problems, too. These can range in seriousness from the baby breaking grandma’s antique butter dish to parenting disabled kids to burying adult children. I speak from experience. And it becomes almost impossible if you are a Jew living through the Holocaust or someone else in a terrible situation.

Now, that is not to say that false cheer is good. We can’t deny reality by saying we’re doing well when we’re obviously not. If we’re going hungry or losing our homes, we can’t pretend that we’re fulfilling our dreams. If grief is overwhelming and our world has suddenly changed completely, optimism is hard to come by.

But hope for ultimate joy will indeed help us do whatever is necessary to find solutions, to get on with life.

Joy is imperative for Christians. And for all of us, as Roberto Benigni’s Jewish character in the award-winning movie, Life is Beautiful, demonstrated. He protected his little son by pretending that life in a concentration camp was a game. Here, false cheer was the solution.

Most of us come eventually to realize the necessity for joy. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, described her spiritual journey, aided by Eastern meditation. It culminated in a “state of harmony to God” and “a feeling of contentment,” which she wanted to put in a “bank” somewhere and hold as “insurance against future trials in life.” She called this practice, “Diligent Joy.”

Gilbert concluded that “all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people,” from Hitler and Stalin down to one’s own self. Therefore, “The search for contentment is … not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act but also a gift to the world” because “Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way” and you cease being an obstacle to yourself or others.” It’s our duty to be happy.

Dorothy Day would agree with Gilbert’s idea of Diligent Joy. Her diaries, published under a similar title, The Duty of Delight, make that very point. Her spiritual journey began with intellectual assent to God and the Catholic Church, but continued with force of will. She used her free will to discern God’s will in pursuit of joy.

Encouraged by the Holy Spirit, Day sought holy joy in the literal application of Christ’s words. She fed, clothed and housed the poor, counseled the addicted, visited prisoners and opposed killing, even in what was considered a “just war.” She who had embraced atheistic communism and even obtained an abortion in her youth, found joy in Christian hope, and shared it with everyone she met for the rest of her life.

Father John Catoir, writing in his newspaper column, “Spirituality for Today,” reiterates the necessity of the practice of joy: “To experience joy, each person must claim it as his or her calling. We are all meant to be messengers of joy, priest and laity alike.”

Now, we can’t all share joy in the same way as Dorothy Day or Father Catoir or anyone else. But each of us can focus on our own joys of life, beauty, work, people, and grace in general. And if we do that, we can’t fail to share it.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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