Archive for October, 2012

October 28, 2012

Opening Up to Joy

Lately I have had the privilege of reading a particular book by Fr. James Martin, S.J. entitled “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life,” which focused on an oft-forgotten truth: that faith leads to joy. I can say that I have immensely enjoyed it, so much so that I would want to recommend it to anyone who has had a less-than-stellar spiritual life. And who could argue? Looking at this world, it is indeed easy to get drowned in all the injustice and suffering that the world has to bear, so much so that our beloved Pope has declared this year to be a “Year of Faith,” which would hopefully lead to a more discerning and sensitive Church, springing from this call to rediscover our faith that leads to the joy of the Resurrection. One has to swallow the bitter pill and concede – in light of the Pope’s declaration – that we need remembering precisely because we have forgotten.

But what have we forgotten? I believe that an essential element of our faith that needs remembering and rediscovering is the sense of joy in our faith. I remember a time when a good professor friend of mine caught up with me as we were walking down the brick road during a rainy Thursday afternoon, where he told me that he was shocked at how this student of his felt an intense sense of guilt at her own problems precisely because this teacher, it seemed, has taught her that “there are more people (the poor and the marginalized) that suffer a great deal more than her.” He said: “Alam mo, nasaktan ako dahil hindi naman iyon ang punto ng tinuturo ko. Hindi ko sinasabi na dahil may mga mahirap, kailangan din nating magdusa. Oo, kailangan nating makiramay, ngunit hindi na ba posible ang maging masaya? Iyon ang punto ng Prodigal Son, diba? – Na kahit nagkamali siya, tinanggap pa rin siya ng tatay niya nang buong galak.” His frustration, I believe, is one that many of us can share: that we place too much of a premium in giving our whole selves that we often forget that this giving is energized, made possible, by a love greater than death and sin, by a love that leads to joy, a joy that has led to the Cross, of which has given us life eternal, and that which has now acquired this humble imperative to share this joy to “all the ends of the earth.”

And this is where I would like to start off this short reflection. I would like to offer a wager: to walk with me in this short reminder of why we are essentially made for joy, and that working with the poor and the marginalized does not entail giving up a sense of fidelity that at the end of the road – which always eludes us – is none other than the joy of seeing Christ face to face, and sharing this joy “to let all creation sing.” I myself have been guided by Fr. Martin’s book, along with some key insights from Pope Benedict, St. Anselm of Canterbury, and a very well-known theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar, and I believe that writing this short piece is but one of the many ways I can share this joy of being joyful to others, especially in a world that would rather be serious about things. With these preliminaries done with, we can finally proceed.

Remembering Joy

Fr. Martin couldn’t have said it any better: that joy seems to be off-limits in the Church, and it is more interested in navel-contemplators that are dead serious about being serious. One cannot deny this fact: how often do we see priests smile and laugh at themselves? Of course, media has always been a thorn in the Church’s side by portraying this tepid seriousness that somehow dictates what one ought to feel in the Church, but the bigger problem is that the Church – clergymen and laypeople alike – perpetuate this image of a no frills, no joke kind of piety that just sucks the life out of everyone around them, drawing away people who may have genuine concern about their own spiritual lives.

We also have to recognize the “rising popularity” of liberation theology, especially in our context here in the Philippines. Some elements within the Church, either by ignorance or by sheer will for seriousness, put forward a kind of liberation theology that puts too much emphasis on struggling against injustice and sin, leaving no room for a quiet sense of hope in things one cannot see, and of course, the joy that springs from a care for self and others.

Apart from the manifold of reasons that has led to what I would like to call a destructive kind of seriousness, I think there is but one chief reason why we have been too serious in our faith, and not enough levity and mirth to share: that we have forgotten the essentials of our faith. It with this point that I wholeheartedly agree with the Pope in his call to “rediscover the content of the faith that is preserved, celebrated, lived, and prayed” for this “Year of Faith.” And one of the essentials of our faith, I daresay, is that our faith should lead to joy.

What is joy? – More than the light and giddy feeling we have whenever something funny comes up, spiritual joy is much more different, much deeper: spiritual joy is none other than recognizing that God is always here with us, and that every decision, every opportunity to respond to the needs of His creation is an invitation to open up to joy, because opening up to joy is itself an invitation to become closer to God. Surely this might seem too loaded for some; let us unpack it some more: joy is to be happy and content because God is with us, and to share this joy with others is to be grateful for God’s presence in our lives. In other words, joy is to be enthusiastic – enthusiastic comes from the Greek en-theos, which literally means, “to be filled with God.”

Joy has its roots in our very tradition. The Psalms speak of an overflowing joy, a joy too much to contain that God’s creation burst out in song. The beatitudes start with the phrase “Blessed are those…” which, if one were to look at the original Greek, “blessed” can be taken to mean “joyful.” The famous parable of the Prodigal Son ends with an affirmation of the returning son with a grand feast – a sure sign of joy! – and despite the elder brother’s anger, is still met with the loving arms of the father, who proclaims that the son is now alive again. What joy in realizing that one is alive again!

The Bible is also filled with comical scenes that somehow invite us to take pleasure and joy in what we read. Fr. Martin notes that much of Biblical humor is alien to us since we haven’t had the privilege of inheriting their social context. For example, Jesus admonishing the Pharisees with witty remarks was found to be funny during their time. The woman who cried her heart out because she found a piece of lost coin might be too overbearing for us moderns, but for the Jews, this certainly was funny. Even the fact that a tax collector – Zacchaeus – went up to a tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus was already funny to them. So much can be lost in context, and one of the most essential things that can be lost (and has indeed been lost) is the sense of joy. I couldn’t agree with the Pope more in retrieving our tradition and rediscovering our faith, because indeed, in remembering our heritage, we are led to open up to joy.

Joy in Remembering

How do we see this kind of joy operative in our everyday lives? – Fr. Martin tells us that there can be no other source of joy that is as effective and as profound as laughter. A heartfelt joke with a friend, an embarrassing snafu in front of people, the intense feeling of joy when walking down a street filled with falling leaves, of feeling that everything, somehow and in some profound way, is gift.

Joy also leads to a more profound sense of community. I cannot emphasize this more: there are countless cases of failed relationships and failed organizations because the people in these groups do not leave some space for joy to flower out of control. We can think of it this way, paraphrasing Fr. Martin: whoever wants to join a group that is always grumpy and sad, who are more than eager to point out one’s mistakes and make a big deal out of it?

Even more important, I think, is that joy leads to a profound sense of humility. Oftentimes we are too proud of ourselves; we take things too seriously because we like things in order. I remember a time when I was quite famous (or infamous) in this organization for my temper whenever I had some work to do. I believe that I still am that serious when it comes to work. This insistence to be “dead serious” invited me to look back and ask myself: have I hurt anyone in a profound way, so much so that they have been led away from God? And I am not proud to say that unfortunately, I have. Fr. Martin’s book invited me deeper into my desolation; have I not become a joy to others every time I transformed into “work mode?” And you guessed it right: I have not. Realizing this, I couldn’t help but laugh! I couldn’t imagine how contorted my face was whenever I was angry, as if it was always Halloween every time I lashed out. And I believe that taking myself lightly actually helped me to have the strength to ask for forgiveness to people I have hurt. Indeed, this God of ours has a sense of humor, for He wants me to laugh at my failings, in order for me to truly be sorry for my sins.

To laugh at life’s absurdities is a sure sign of God’s presence in our lives. This is not to say that suffering and desolation are necessary states for God to enter into our lives: far from it – too much sin leads us away from the joy of the Lord, and one of the most powerful forces that our faith possesses is the fact that it can withstand suffering. As von Balthasar notes, in order for Jesus to withstand God abandoning him, he must have had a profound sense of joy, a joy that rested on the frail yet constant shoulders of love. Faith conquers sin in the most profound way: it can laugh at it.

To affirm God’s presence in our lives is to finally concede – and I think this is the most important element in joy – that we are ultimately not in control. To be told that we are not in control is like being stripped naked in freezing-cold temperatures; we are at the mercy of what is around us – but precisely! And here we can borrow from our Muslim brothers and sisters in one of the names of Allah: that he is merciful beyond measure. We are at the mercy of what is around us, and when we are open to joy, God is the only thing that surrounds us, and we are entirely at His mercy – one of love. To say that we are not in control is to let ourselves be engulfed in God and with God – this is what St. Anselm would profoundly call Gaudium.

We see God at work here: in remembering our responsibility to be joyful, we are led to share this joy with others. This is precisely what Benedict spoke of when he said that there needs to be a new kind of evangelization “in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith.” In remembering joy, we remind others to also be joyful. There is no other way for the committed Christian: he or she cannot but share his or her faith in joy, as this joy mirrors the ecstasy of the Apostles upon seeing Christ Jesus on the shore, cooking fish for them, during the Resurrection morn.

To be joyful is ultimately to share in the new life offered by Christ.

With the Church: Concluding Remarks

Of course, all of this is easy and nice and dandy on paper, but is this really the state of affairs? Isn’t it the case that more and more people are leaving the Church, and that more and more priests are “coming clean” about the never-ending list of sins and injustices that they continually perpetuate, giving a social structure to the sin that infects the very house of the Lord? Isn’t it the case that there are less and less people taking up the religious vocation precisely because this “sense of fullness” can now be found outside the cloistered life? Isn’t this reason to be dead serious about the Church? Isn’t this, in the final analysis, the most important thing to confront in our contemporary Church?

These pages are not enough to express the profound misery that mires our Church today. How can we be open to something that we know will ultimately hurt us? Indeed, more than this being a misery is it being a mystery unto itself. I think one will never know why these things happen, and indeed, when we are confronted with profound terror, as did the Catholic Church with Auschwitz, we cannot but fall silent. This is a given. But I also think that despite the lack of answer, to give answers is not the point of living with the Church. What is important is that one have the humility to ask for forgiveness, and this can only be attained when we have acquired a sense of spiritual joy. And alongside this, what is also asked of us is to become the source of joy for our ailing Church. We can only perform this dual character of our responsibility when we have accepted that things can never be the same, and despite this, we continue to be joyful and hopeful, and this is done in working happily and with joy with the poor and the marginalized, of those that the Church has shunned, either by ignorance or willfully. How shall one be joyful in spite of all this suffering, one might ask? – One has to hope in the divine promise of God, promised to creation for all eternity: I will be with you.

So in the final analysis, what is important is that we remember that joy is one of the most profound signs of the presence of God, and in sharing this joy to others, we likewise share His presence – His love – to others. In sharing this love joyfully, we sustain the hope that cannot plunge into darkness. I think this is what the Pope is trying to tell us: to be strong in faith by being joyful. Too much is lost when we give too much of ourselves and forget that it is indeed from the joy that we ourselves are gift that actually allows us to give. We run out of steam. We become exhausted. We falter in our faith. The contemporary Church has given us too many problems to even begin to think about being happy in it. What the Church is asking is impossible.

“But with God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).