The joy that concerns us here is the joy of the spirit, the joy that is nearer to peace than to pleasure, and nearer to love than to either peace or pleasure. It is therefore a joy that resides in the intellect and the will rather than in the lower faculties. It does not much delight the emotions; its satisfaction is for the soul itself.
It is not a joy in which there is no sorrow — because sorrow and joy can coexist in the same subject and at the same time. Nor is it one that is proof against deception — because souls can think they have true joy when they have false, can think they have no joy when in fact their trust in God is joy. But it is one that cannot be found by the worldling. It does not mix with its worldly counterpart.
It is not the kind of joy that the worldling particularly wants. The world wants enjoyment, wants having. True joy is not in having, but in giving.
To have, in this context, is to amass; to give is to engender. The joy that a soul engenders is not an enjoyment that is fabricated out of external material; it is a habit of soul that is possessed. Such a joy may be either natural or supernatural; it cannot be false.
It is joy as a supernatural quality, joy in the spirit, that will be considered in what follows.
Joy calls for self-giving
In this giving which brings joy, two conditions must be observed: first, there must be a whole giving, or the joy as well as the gift will be not worth having; second, there must be a will to give for the sake of the recipient — in this case, God — and not merely for the sake of giving, or for the joy of giving, or for the fear of not having given enough.
When all is not given, there is no guarantee that joy will follow. It has to be everything: “Father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life also.” The abundance of joy that comes with the life of Christ comes only to those who receive Him as Christ — that is, as the Christ who redeemed mankind by His Passion.
To count on the joy of Christ without being ready to suffer with Christ is to use the merits of Christ without taking the trouble to follow Him who merited them. It is only when we have given ourselves to Christ — which means giving ourselves to His kind of life, which was all the time under the shadow of the Cross — that we can start talking about the joy that we have earned. And by that time, we shall know that we have not earned anything. By that time, we shall know better than to start staking out our claim to joy.
The giving of our whole self means giving all the love that is in us — even the love that is given to us by others — to God. He must have control over the activity of our hearts, over all that comes in as well as over all that goes out.
The giving of our whole self means allowing God to arrange our happiness for us, giving Him freedom of choice. To force our own type of happiness is to do away with our chance of finding true joy. When we give ourselves to God, we give ourselves to His happiness, not to our own. Once we have made Him our whole happiness, He gives us Himself in such a way that we learn to share His joy.
The giving of our whole self means giving all fear to God, especially the fear that we are serving Him badly and that we shall never serve Him better. It is true: we do serve Him badly. We are unprofitable servants. We may never serve Him any better than at present. So be it. All this is handed over to Him in an act of trust in His mercy. For the rest, it must be left to Him. This is trust. Perfect trust means perfect love, and love that is perfect casts out fear.
So it means that we give Him our past, our present, and our future. We give Him our time on earth to be spent as He wills and to come to an end when He wills. For some, it is harder to give God time than to give Him anything else. Or, put it another way, some find it harder to accept time at God’s hands than any other cross. They are impatient and want to get on. But man must give Him the benefit of judging time.
“What is this that He saith, ‘A little while’?” men are apt to cry out with the Apostles. They get restless in the years of waiting. But the sorrow of such souls will be turned into joy. It is not even that, provided the sorrow is accepted, the joy will follow in due course. The words may surely be taken more literally, convertetur being understood to mean that sorrow becomes joyous, “is converted into” joy. The bitterness of vinegar becomes sweet to the crucified; the pain of a mother’s compassion is joy for her to endure.
Until we are on easy terms with time, then, we shall never know true joy. So long as we feel resentful either at being detained or at being hurried, we are not giving the disposition for true joy a chance. The poet who wrote, “At variance I am with life for wasting minutes of eternity” was not detached enough from time to know true joy. The poet who wrote, “I never yet could see the sun go down but I was angry in my heart” was too dependent on it.
This giving of our whole self that we have been considering means handing over to God the free disposing of life, of vocation, and of circumstances. It means allowing Him to produce what effects He wills, and when He wills, from the hopes we have and the efforts we make.
Failing this aspect of our gift to God, whatever joy we have will be subject to disappointment. But just as joy must be proof against fear, so it must also be proof against failure of endeavor. We shall have to rise above the sense of wasted energy, the sight of unsatisfactory returns, or our joy will get broken to bits against the rock of frustration.
We must learn accordingly to distinguish between a result and an outcome. A result is the work we try to achieve, the required effect of labor, the mark or impression proposed. The outcome is what in fact happens. We are right to aim at results; we are wrong to be dejected by the consequences.
Results, in the sense taken here, may be conceptions of self. Consequences are conceptions of God. So long as we believe certain results to be desired by God, we must work all we can to attain them. But we must bow in submission to the outcome. It is in the outcome more than in the original impulse or in the actual prosecution of the work that the will of God can be most clearly recognized.
This is not to say that neither the inspiration of a work nor the effort expended in it matters. Obviously, they matter more than the result, as it is the point of the present argument to prove. It is to say that the appearance of failure is not to be taken as evidence of failure, and that joy must be maintained within the ruins of defeat.
We shall have to “judge not according to appearance but according to just judgment” if our joy is not at the mercy of human opinion. If, while trying to serve God in full perfection, we still try to form our judgments according to ordinary ways of estimating the value of desire, of prayer, of secret and apparently wasted suffering, of cause and effect, we shall be torn between the rival joys of the world and the spirit. And we shall enjoy neither.
“Senseless man,”cries St. Paul, “that which thou sowest is not quickened unless it die first.” Our human judgments have to die; our understanding of happiness and of success and of what is meant by the perfect life of faith and love has to die; we have to rise up new creatures in Christ if we would possess the joy of Christ. Particularly is this the case if we would hand on His joy to others.
For the completeness of the gift to God, there must be the giving of prayer. This implies more than just praying; it implies giving over to God the direction and the operation of our prayer, letting Him handle it so as to allow us no say in its process and to take away from it — if He judges fit — all sense of security.
To give his prayer to God in this way is to give what touches the interior man closest. From the outset, on the day that he began the spiritual life, he has envisaged giving his power of human love to God. That he should now be called to surrender his power of loving God as well as his power of loving people is almost more than he bargained for, nor does it seem to make sense. But it is the only way to the life of pure faith.
Not until the manner of the soul’s progress toward union with God has been left unqualified to the disposition of grace can the soul be said to have abandoned itself wholly to the will and love of God. The pace of advance, the changes from one state to another, the direct and indirect fruits, the direct and indirect trials: all this is at His disposal.
If it is objected that this last condition of self-giving precludes the idea of finding joy, then the answer is simply that it does. But so also does the idea of the seed dying preclude the idea of the seed living. That a man must lose his life in order to find his life is a contradiction according to human wisdom, but it is a fact of experience to those who are moving in the spirit.
It is only when a man has given up all claim on joy, natural and supernatural so far as this present life is concerned, that he is ready to know what real joy is. In some cases, it is only when people have given up all hope of joy in this life, natural and supernatural, that they find themselves experiencing quite a new joy at an undiscovered level in their souls.
But nothing of this secret interior happiness can declare itself without both assiduous and unconditional prayer. The happiness is not so much in the prayer as because of the prayer. Indeed, there may be no joy in the actual exercise, but only weariness and a sense of impotence and disgust.
Lacking gladness in prayer, the soul will be glad to pray. This, because it means generosity, matters far more than devotion. Generosity again, self-giving, is the only sure test both of joy and of love.
Devotion may come and go; aridity may come and go: the soul is never kept in the same spiritual mood for long. What signifies is not the mood, but the soul’s continued exercise of love in the face of variations of mood.
“I have learned in whatsoever state I am,” St. Paul admits to the Philippians, “to be content therewith. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things, I am instructed.” Here is detachment. Here is the fruit of self-giving. Here is, in effect, joy.
“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me,” St. Paul goes on. All things — I can even rejoice.
Joy calls for generous giving
The second condition in the activity of giving — namely, that it should be for the benefit of the recipient and not for the pleasure of it — is no less important than the first. Failure to fulfill the second condition proves that the first has not been fulfilled either. If I make my sacrifice in the hope of finding joy at last, I am not giving up myself, but rather taking myself with me. I am establishing myself as the recipient of my own gift — a ridiculous position to occupy.
There are many good people who give for the sake of giving, and it is to be hoped that they will gain supernatural merit. There are three quite separate factors at work in the act of giving — natural generosity, vainglory, and supernatural generosity — and although they tend to intermingle, the quality that is uppermost in the will determines the character of the act.
It is the element of vainglory in the act of giving that reduces the chances of joy. Natural generosity brings its own joys; they are real and worthwhile, but unrelated, except indirectly, to the life of prayer, which is the main concern of this book. Supernatural generosity, as we have seen above, brings its own joys; they are far more worthwhile than the others, but nobody who has not experienced them will be able to see how they can feel at all real.
Within the sweep of vainglory would be included more than merely the hope of winning recognition. Vainglory is any sort of satisfaction to self that is looked for in preference to the glory of God. I can glorify myself vainly by stirring up artificial devotion in prayer, by taking up penance as an escape, or by doing works of charity for the glow of well-being that accompanies them.
Lastly, it is the fear of not giving that prejudices the perfection of the gift. The whole thing becomes now too reflexive: the giver is more occupied with himself and his dreads than with Him to whom he is supposed to be surrendering himself in an act of love.
“Are my motives good enough? Am I doing this because I am afraid? Do I really love God? Is the gift worthwhile? I shall never be happy if I do not give — and give more and give now. Never happy? Well, in that case, I must. But it will not please God when I give like this, simply because Iam afraid of offending Him if I do not — or worse, because I am afraid of being unhappy.”
And so it goes on. Meanwhile, the gold tarnishes, and what love there once was in all this wears thin. There is no joy in all this.
Better not to look at the gift, but look at the Person you are giving it to. Better not to look at yourself, at your crisscross of different selves, at your doubts and your fears and your desires for joy. It only confuses the main thing, which is love. Nothing else matters. Leave joy aside; that can follow after. It is a byproduct anyhow.
“I do not count myself to have apprehended. But one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind, and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press toward the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus.”
Once the soul has learned to love and pray and think objectively, the question of joy solves itself. It comes at the disposal of grace. The interior life is not the introspective life. Mystics are not auto-magnetic. If the life of prayer teaches a man anything, it is that God is responsible for his life and prayer and thought, and that the more he goes out of himself into God, the better. It is the man of prayer who sees more clearly than other men that Christ is indeed the life of the soul, the light of the world. Everything else is borrowed. God alone is life itself and light itself.
God is joy, too; joy is inseparable from life and from love. Christ has come that we might have life and joy, and have them more abundantly. He has come also that we might have love, and that is why we have suffering as well as joy. Suffering, not joy, is the appropriate act of love.
“Greater love than this no man hath: that he should lay down his life.” But in laying down his life with Christ, the follower of Christ finds joy. Although he may not know it, it is because he has already found love. It is what he has been searching for all along.
“For when I seek Thee, my God, I seek the blessed life. I will seek Thee that my soul may live. For my body lives by my soul, and my soul lives by Thee.”
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Dom Van Zeller’s How to Find God…And Discover Your True Self in the Process, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.