Photo by Lachlan Gowen
This time of year can be really hard. While choirs sing of comfort and joy many people find themselves tending more towards discomfort and despair. For reasons of physical and mental illness, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, family distance or discord, economic instability… sometimes the emphasis on joyfulness in this season only serves to highlight the lack of joy in our own hearts.
Of all the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, joy is the one that I have disregarded the most. As someone who has dealt with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, and who has watched family members and friends also struggle with their mental and physical health, “joy” seemed like nothing more than an empty word that suburban moms hang on their walls among other feel-good words and platitudes. It doesn’t come naturally to me. And in the face of all the pain and destruction of this world, it's sometimes hard to see a place for joy at all.
Now, I think my idea of joy might have been flawed. As Pope Francis says, “Joy does not mean living from laugh to laugh. No, it’s not that. Joy is not entertainment. No, it’s not that. It is something else. Christian joy is peace, peace that is deeply rooted, peace in the heart, the peace that only God can give. This is Christian joy. It is not easy to foster this joy.”Pope Francis’ word choice is interesting – that to have joy and peace we must foster them. We must develop them, gently, within ourselves.
Last fall I was talking to a Sister of Life about anxiety and she wisely pointed out that peace is something we all already have. It is deep within us, and sometimes we lose track of it in the midst of our worries and despair. She said that peace is a calm pond but that it can become a muddy heap with all the junk we collect, and we need Christ’s help to clean it out.
Cleaning our spiritual pond is a lot of work. Most days I don’t even know where to start. It can be painful even to look at it – all these sins, memories, imperfections, lies, fears, all staring back at me. It’s easier to wallow in despair.
But then I think of St. Teresa of Avila’s exhortation: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!” And so, armed with the deep desire to be a saint, into the mess I go.
In order to find peace and joy we must, almost counterintuitively, lean into our suffering instead of numbing it and running away from it. But it is important to note that we don’t do this alone.
The Catechism states that, “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (CCC 2015). In our suffering, no matter what it looks like or how it shifts over our lifetime, we are united to the crucified Christ.
Mother Teresa once told one of her Sisters that “Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you.” I heard this quote for the first time in high school and had no idea how to understand it – how could the kiss of Christ hurt? But as He bends His head from His cross, straining against the nails, how could it not hurt to see Someone we love so much in this much pain? And, sometimes, a thorn from His crown will press into our own forehead as He kisses us. To know that we are sharing in the suffering of God, even in the smallest way, is not the kind of joy that we find painted on a rustic piece of wood above the mantle. It goes much deeper than that. We find it in the wood of a manger and the wood of the cross. It is eternal.
And not only are we united to Christ through our suffering, but through Christ we are united to every person. Fr. Pat McNulty writes that “We approach the fullness of our union in Christ on earth when we begin to realize that in Christ we too are those who are like us in our pain right now. And in Christ we can cry out as them before the Father, right now, as we are! Not for them – that’s caring. Not with them – that’s compassion. But as them. That’s love” (I Live Now, Not I, italics in original).
In short, whatever you have gone through or are going through is not wasted. Through your suffering you are united to the One True God, and to everyone around you who is also suffering. Through your suffering you have a tremendous opportunity to unite yourself to the entire Body of Christ, making your entire life a prayer for those who are lost or voiceless. Your suffering helps to alleviate the suffering of others and to console the heart of Christ.
So, what can you do, concretely, as we approach Christmas? Meditate on the Holy Family. Imagine yourself walking with them, accompanying them and accompanied by them on the journey to Bethlehem. We are about to celebrate the moment when God Himself entered the world and took on the ability to experience our bodily and psychological suffering. So, look to this small child for hope, and take refuge among His human family. Approach the manger with gratitude for everything you do have. And if you can’t think of anything, give thanks for the opportunity to glorify God by living this life to the best of your ability for another day.
The peace you are looking for is Christ crucified within you, looking at you with love. Joy is not a platitude, but a reality that Christ wants to share with you. You are not alone or lost. The battle has already been won. Let us rejoice.