Since we have the advantage of knowing that Jesus has won the victory over death, you would think that living with joy, whether in Lent or any other time, would be relatively easy. But that is not the case for most of us. We struggle with the challenges of life, with mundane routine, with issues and concerns that don’t seem to resolve in ways we think best. Maybe it is simply the human condition. Maybe we don’t truly understand joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4 4-7
“Joy is experiencing the presence of God especially in the Eucharist and prayer,” said Clare Becker.
“Yet Christ is also present in those snippets of the day when I feel his warmth and assurance even when I’m overwhelmed by distress or indecision,” said the longtime member of St. Lambert, Sioux Falls who now resides at Laurel Oaks, part of Avera Prince of Peace, Sioux Falls.
“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.” 1 Peter 4:12-13
“Joy is not going around extremely happy all the time,” said Deacon Thomas Hartman. “Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we can’t feel sad, lonely, angry – we don’t have to suppress these feelings but accept them knowing with peace that God is with me in them.”
“Also knowing we have support of many brothers and sisters in Christ to share the burden,” said Hartman, from Milbank, who is in his final stretch of preparation at Holy Apostles Seminary before ordination to the priesthood for the Diocese of Sioux Falls in June.
“I think sometimes people miss out on joy because they expect joy is the same as happiness,” said Sister Vicky Larson, an Aberdeen Presentation sister currently working in St. Paul, MN.
“Certainly, joy is sometimes happy such as when I have played “peek-a-boo” with my toddler nieces or nephews and they get the giggles or when I have sung camp songs with junior high students at Presentation Leadership Camp,” she said.
“But I think joy is not always the same as feeling happy. Joy can accompany the sense of satisfaction I feel when I know I have worked hard to make a difference for a patient or for a student nurse. I think joy can sometimes encompass profoundly sad experiences if I also look for hope in the promises of Christ,” said Sr. Vicky.
“For me joy is that fruit of the Holy Spirit which seeks another for its fulfillment,” said Becker. “Reaching out to others I strived to find Christ’s presence. Each person I meet is an invitation to encounter Christ and an opportunity to be Christ-like to another.”
Age does not seem to be a factor in seeking, recognizing and living with joy.
“I look around and I’m lucky, despite challenges,” said Barb Schwan, 86 and a resident at Davis Court Apartments, part of Avera Mother Joseph Manor Retirement Community in Aberdeen. She endured a broken leg which because of complications landed her twice in the community rehabilitation unit. “You need a good attitude and faith helps,” said Schwan who grew up Catholic in Roscoe, SD but has lived in Aberdeen since 1953.
Her toughest test came five years ago when in less than five months she lost her husband and a daughter. “I just prayed and prayed, faith got me through it,” Schwan said.
Her fellow Davis Court resident, Hazel Anderson, who is 89, said living with joy comes from and has everything to do with her faith. “I had to grow into it (over time) … I read about what Jesus went through and try to live every day for him,” she said.
O’Gorman High school junior Michael Kovash said people with joy see the potential for beauty in everything.
“Where does this come from? It comes from being met by Something that meets their needs,” Kovash said. “When someone has discovered that which fulfills their deepest needs, the response is a profound positivity towards all of their circumstances. Every moment there is a possibility for a beautiful encounter! Someone who lives with this certainty has infinite reasons for joy.”
Kovash cites the experience of the faith he witnessed in the homeless during two recent trips – the March for Life in Washington, DC and the Communion and Liberation Encounter gathering in New York.
Why was their faith more evident?
“Because they need it! We need it just as much as them but their need is more evident to them because they have physical poverty. Joy is easier to come to when one has a profound knowledge of his own need. Because if I don’t need Christ, why is He important? In the light of my destiny, what matters most is what I need. Therefore, we need to live with a deeper knowledge of our need and our thirst for Christ,” said Kovash.
Scripture makes explicit this connection between knowing the poverty of our lives, whatever that may be, and the glory offered in Jesus Christ. We believe that through Christ we can find joy whatever crosses are in our lives. In fact, we can rejoice in those crosses.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…. So you have sorrow now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” John 16:20, 22
“Having experienced the sudden and unexpected death of my dad last summer, I have missed my dad, I have cried and felt a whole host of confusing feelings that are a normal part of grief, yet I experience joy when I see my dad’s best qualities and characteristics living on in the lives of my siblings and their children,” said Sr. Vicky.
“Though the first Christmas without dad was incredibly painful, I also felt joy at the celebration of the birth of Jesus. My grief did not go away, but it did not overshadow my joy,” she said.
“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” Luke 6:22–23
Lent might be a great time for growing in our understanding of these truths of our faith. The season can remind us of our own poverty through the traditional acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The liturgy itself seeks to aid us.
“Lent is a great time to show that the Gospel is effective,” said Deacon John Devlin, who serves at St. Michael, Sioux Falls and was also recently trained to be a Global Fellow for Catholic Relief Services. He encourages use of the Rice Bowl as a good tool for families.
“We hope that families really use this to bring prayer in their homes, maybe prayer they would not ordinarily do, for people in need around the world and in the United States and the missionaries who are working on their behalf,” he said.
Another idea is the simple meal on Fridays in Lent “to encourage people to unite themselves with the poor around the world in eating what they would eat. It helps us become aware of what others are dealing with on a day to day basis,” Devlin said.
The Rice Bowls, available in every parish, come with a Lenten calendar, prayers and suggestions on how to deepen our Lenten experiences of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. There is even a Rice Bowl app for smart phones, Devlin said, “with daily alerts that might assist you in living Lent in a better way this year.”
Hartman encourages some self-reflection in our Lenten practices.
“… it’s a great time to reflect on suffering and embracing the crosses that God entrusts us with, but we can also take on some sufferings voluntarily and give them to God,” he said. “When we realize the great love of God for each of us, we desire to return the love given. As Christ gave himself completely for us, so we desire to give our self completely to him.”
“It’s also a practical training tool, that if we do these acts of penance, we learn to embrace suffering in little ways. This prepares us for sufferings that come our way that are greater. Faithful in small matters equals faithful in larger ones,” said Hartman.
The ranks of the saints are full of witnesses of how to live with joy, whether in Lent or anytime.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
“In my presence and in the presence of others, try to be always joyful, for it is not fitting that a servant of God appear before the brothers or other men with a sad and glum face,” said Saint Francis.
St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, begins her autobiography with this line, “Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.”
And though not found in her writings, this saying is often attributed to her and seems to fit with her concern of taking ourselves too seriously, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”
St. Pope John XXIII was noted for his joy and humor. When asked how many people worked at the Vatican he famously responded “about half of them.” His humor remained intact as he faced cancer and death. “My bags are always packed,” he said.
This brings us to St. Thomas More, who was to be executed for not supporting King Henry VIII as head of the Church.
Most might recall him saying “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
But the joy of his faith and his trust in God, despite the troubling thought of leaving his family, remained with him to the very end.
As he neared the scaffold and the executioner he asked a few bystanders, “see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” As he put his head on the block, he moved his beard out of the way, advising the executioner, “My beard has done no harm.”
St. Thomas More, and all the saints, managed to avoid the five impediments to joy listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
INDIFFERENCE neglects or refuses to reflect on divine charity; it fails to consider its prevenient goodness and denies its power.
INGRATITUDE fails or refuses to acknowledge divine charity and to return him love for love.
LUKEWARMNESS is hesitation or negligence in responding to divine love; it can imply refusal to give oneself over to the prompting of charity.
ACEDIA or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God and to be repelled by divine goodness.
HATRED OF GOD comes from pride. It is contrary to love of God, whose goodness it denies, and whom it presumes to curse as the one who forbids sins and inflicts punishments. (CCC 2094)
Contemplating these seems to fit well with Becker’s plan for living Lent.
“Lent is that period of time to grow in my faith, to re-discover the immensity of God’s love, to distance myself from daily distractions and to journey more intimately with Christ,” she said.
“I am invited to accompany Jesus through those final days of perfect obedience, pain, emptiness, redemption and glorification,” Becker said. “And there is joy in walking so closely with Christ knowing that no suffering I could ever endure would not have already been experienced by him for my redemption. What a great joy to be so loved!”
Devlin said he’s open to helping people and parishes have a deeper and more joyful Lenten experience by using his CRS Global Fellow training.
He’s available to preach in parishes or speak to service groups “about what’s going on and to heighten the awareness of Catholics … there’s a fundraising element, but that’s not the main purpose,” he said.
“They want people to know, to go to their website and to realize what a beautiful beneficial agency this is representing them (Catholics) to the poor of the world,” he said.