The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche would not exactly be described as a friend of Christians. His famous phrase “God is dead!” summed up his opposition to all things religious. It was to become a kind of rallying cry for the removal of God from all public social life, a process that is all too evident today in the secularizing trends of Western culture.
The Challenge of Joy
His glorification of the “Superman” and the “Super-Race” also contributed significantly to the terrible tragedy of Nazism.
In addition to all this, Nietzsche has put forth some direct challenges to all Christian believers. One of them is a remark aimed primarily at apologists and evangelists. He states it very simply: “The reason why people no longer believe is that believers no longer sing!”
What is he saying to us? Applied in a Christian context, the “people who no longer believe” are obviously the many non-believing people in the world today who either have never heard the Good News about Jesus and His Church or have forgotten it. The “believers” are you and I, and all who claim to know Jesus Christ and the power flowing from His Cross and Resurrection. The key to the quote, however, is his remark that believers “no longer sing.”
Singing, especially spontaneous singing, is often a sign of happiness. Have you ever been so happy that you just burst out singing? Singing gives expression to a hidden joy in the soul. Joy, in turn, is a characteristic of people who have found something significant in their lives that not only satisfies and fulfills them, but overflows outward to others. Joy saves the heart from feelings of emptiness, restlessness, or depression.
Nietzsche is saying, then, that evangelization is not effectively bearing the fruit it should because the lives and attitudes of those who say they believe in Jesus and who claim to follow Him do not look very happy. This is all the more significant when we realize that the heart of the task of all evangelists is to convince others that knowing and loving Jesus will bring them fulfillment and great joy. What a disappointment and even contradiction, then, for the evangelist himself to be lacking that joy!
A Herald of the Great King
What, then, are some forms of “spiritual sadness” that those in the ministry of evangelization may likely encounter? First, there is the sadness of discouragement, which produces a readiness to give up when difficulties are encountered. We all have to deal with potential discouragement. Often it comes from a lack of apparent results despite the earnest efforts made to evangelize. The time-lapse between the sowing of the seed of God’s Word and the reaping of its harvest can often seem like an eternity.
Every evangelist should learn not to watch the clock but to keep busy in new fields of endeavor. Jesus assures us that the seed of God’s word sprouts and grows without the farmer being aware of it (see Mark 4:27). Developing an ability to smile while we wait certainly helps!
Sadness can also spring from a sense of weariness and boredom, especially when the evangelist is required to give an effort over and above the ordinary. Seeing the price tag for real evangelization, some go into an emotional slump. St. Paul, on the other hand, says that God loves a “cheerful giver” (see 2 Corinthians 9:9).
We can lighten the burden of the works of evangelization by realistically accepting the efforts and sacrifices demanded. The last thing we want to do is to fall into an attitude of self-pity, rehearsing over and over in our minds all the efforts we have to put out. That is guaranteed to make the whole undertaking a hundred times more difficult than it really is. Still another potential source of sadness is a negative, critical spirit leading us to complain when everything is not just right. We must not naively expect that everything will work out smoothly all the time. In the work of evangelization, for example, we are bound to meet people whose personalities have very sharp edges. We must be careful not to let them get to us.
Even more so, we must avoid an argumentative attitude. When asked why he would not argue with people, Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “I would rather lose one thousand arguments than one soul!”
Spiritual joy, then, is a great help to the evangelist personally. As we have seen, it eases the burdens, protects from discouragement, and gives a light-heartedness to the task. It also can keep the evangelist “singing.”
This reality is illustrated in one of my favorite stories from the life of St. Francis. The saint had just begun his conversion. He was going about one day, like a troubadour of the Lord, singing His praises in the countryside around Assisi.
Suddenly a group of thieves came upon him. They asked him, “Who are you?” St. Francis, barefoot and dressed simply in a poor penitent’s tunic, answered, “I am the herald of the great King!”
We can only imagine how stunned the thieves were by his appearance and his answer. Then they began to laugh at him. One of the thieves pushed him into a ditch filled with melting snow and mud. “Lie there,” he said, “you herald of the great King!” Then the thieves went off, laughing at one they considered a religious fool.
What did St. Francis do? He picked himself up from the ditch, wiped off the snow and mud from his tunic, and then began to sing all over again! And he, like a real troubadour of the Lord, never stopped singing. The joy he found in Christ was too much for him to keep locked up inside.
I wonder what Nietzsche would have said about that?
This article previously appeared in Envoy the award-winning bi-monthly journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization.
Sadness Repels Others
The joy of evangelization must start with the joy of the evangelist. St. Francis was a joyful evangelist. He knew the importance of joy as a powerful weapon in our spiritual warfare. He used to say, “The Devil cannot harm the servant of God he sees filled with holy joy!”
This saint taught that the Devil goes around scattering a dust of sadness and discouragement, which he called “that Babylonian stuff.” (Remember how sad the Jewish people were during their exile in Babylon. They could not even sing the “songs of the Lord” in such a foreign land. See Psalm 137.) However, St. Francis said that if we are covered with the armor of joy, the devil scatters his “Babylonian dust” in vain.
On the other hand, if we lack the armor of joy, we can easily become victimized by a sadness that also repels others. The Poverello of Assisi used to say, “The Devil rejoices most when he can steal the joy out of the heart of the servant of God.” The saint understood that one sad brother can easily infect other brothers with sadness.
Whenever St. Francis would see a sad friar, he would tell him he had no right to inflict his sad countenance on all the others and bring their spirits down. Often he would tell such a sad friar to go back to his room or hermitage, and pray until he got his joy back. Then he could safely come and join the other brethren.
According to the analysis of the early desert fathers (called “abbas”) and mothers (called “ammas”), “spiritual sadness” was one of the eight “thoughts” or demons that tempted desert solitaries. This list included pride, vanity, avarice, gluttony, lust, anger, acedia (listlessness, apathy) and spiritual sadness. St. Gregory the Great later rearranged this list into what we call today “the seven capital sins.”
St. Gregory first reduced the list by dropping vanity, which was close to pride. He next restricted acedia to sloth, a spiritual laziness. He reduced “spiritual sadness” to envy, which is a sadness at the good of another.
As the desert monks had earlier taught, however, “spiritual sadness” is much broader than the sadness of envy. It is a general sadness bringing an unhappiness that seems to paralyze the soul and weigh it down in sorrow. Such sadness can easily be an obstacle to one’s personal spiritual growth as well as to one’s ministry.