Several years ago, I attended a women’s evening of reflection. The featured speaker opened her talk with this line: “Every child is born with a gift to share, a burden to carry, and a job to do.” I thought for a moment about my then-toddler daughter, Felicity, who struggled with a then-unknown diagnosis. As a mom, I sensed there was something amiss, but it took some time to discover what caused her distress on a daily basis.
Since then, her personality has unfurled slowly, as tulip petals in early spring. She is now ten years old and I’ve been told that her compassion, sensitivity, and perceptive nature are remarkable among her peers. Yet she still sees these as a burden.
When we are suffering a specific cross, it’s easy to label it as cumbersome and tedious. Indeed, it is. But reframing our lives in such a way that we can see the gift, too, in the struggle, takes an immense amount of insight and fortitude.
Most of our crosses are wrapped in some sort of hidden gift, too. Sometimes these are the same. For Felicity, her sensitivity is both a burden and blessing, because she is weighed down by the collective suffering of those around her, but she is also able and willing to accompany those who feel lonely and lost and afraid.
Finding Joy in Chaos and Messes
Messes and chaos are commonplace in most households. For moms of multiple children of varying ages, moms who have kids with disabilities, and moms who have toddlers and babies, the messages we hear from daily devotionals and Catholic radio seem distant and irrelevant. Since my husband and I have welcomed three additional children to our family, ages 4, 2, and 1, I battle guilt at my inability to “discipline” myself for long stretches of silence and solitude everyone tells me is necessary for prayer.
Maybe you have heard these messages, too, and they have been translated into internal tapes that fuel your sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. If holiness is attainable only by way of calculated prayer, what modern mother has a chance?
It’s true that God didn’t create chaos; chaos comes from the enemy. We know this, because in the Old Testament, God spoke in the “still, small voice” – not in the thunderous noises, atop a high mountain, or through the gusty gales. Still, because He is a God of mercy, He enters into our calamities. He is present with and through every tribulation and every moment we feel our brains are hijacked by “Mom, I can’t find my socks!” or “Mom, where is my hairbrush?”
Sometimes we can’t find joy. But we can create it.
Difference Between Joy and Happiness
The world tells us, “You do you” or “Do what makes you happy.” God tells us to seek authentic joy. Since joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, this means it is a result of how we choose to live. Fruits are consequences or tangible evidence of our interior disposition.
Happiness, like all emotions, peaks and then dissipates. When we base our choices on feelings, we will end up sorely disappointed and disillusioned. Joy, however, is a constant that can be present amidst our darkest struggles and most jarring questions. It is based on our fidelity to God—not necessarily spending that uninterrupted hour of silent prayer at Eucharistic Adoration (though, ideally; I wish this were the case in our situation)—but rather a consistent coming back to God in our thoughts and desires.
The Problem With the “Happy Catholic Narrative”
Catholic author and editor David Mills coined the term “happy Catholic narrative” to include spirituality based on ‘looking at the bright side’ or ‘counting our blessings’ when we are suffering. Remember that joy is not always found. There will be seasons in life when even the most perfect sunny day does nothing to brighten our spirits. This is also true when a psychological diagnosis, such as depression, is present.
When well-intentioned people, including theologians, feed us the cliches that all we need is ‘a little more Jesus’ in our lives, it can plunge us further into the spiral of grief and isolation. Sunny spirituality, or the “happy Catholic narrative” is a subtle way we bypass the Cross and therefore do not acknowledge our helplessness and need for God.
In the chaos of daily life, we tend to numb, deny, or dismiss our pain and suffering. God wants to enter into our suffering and show to us, by way of His own Passion, how we can walk toward the Cross with hope and, yes, even joy. Creating joy along the way of our journey of suffering might mean actually crafting something beautiful—journaling, painting, gardening, knitting, cooking—that delights and warms our hearts and those around us.
Joy cooperates with the virtue of hope when we remain focused on resurrection, both the small and secret resurrections that happen every day as gratuitous gifts from God and our eternal reward in heaven.