I have some sympathy for millennialists, those who believe that the end of the world is near. One has only to turn on the nightly news for a week or two in order to get the impression that violence stalks our every move, that this politician or that one will bring about the collapse of civilization, that we need to watch our neighbors with distrustful eyes (who know what really goes on behind their doors?), and that the world is generally going to heck in a hand basket. Even though we all know that the news media thrives on doom and gloom, we can’t help but be affected. What rational person wouldn’t feel mistrust, anger, and fear when our whole world seems threatening?
Psychology teaches us that negative emotions like anger and mistrust are secondary emotions, built upon more fundamental ones like hurt, sadness, and fear. I’ve spent quite a bit of time unpacking my negative emotions (particularly those stemming from my military service) to uncover the underlying issues that prompt them. I wish that they were like shadows, which, when exposed to light, disappear; in fact, these negative sentiments are tenacious. Even in the best of circumstances, it takes work to try not to live one’s life dominated by them. Living in our media-saturated society makes it even more difficult.
I know enough history to understand that our times are not unique when it comes to fear and uncertainty. This was certainly true in the thirteenth-century Europe of Francis and Clare. War and violence was ever-present and close by. Hunger and disease lurked around every corner. Hatreds were officially sanctioned and encouraged. Even the institutions that were supposed to protect the common person—the Church, monarchies, and feudalism—were corrupted. And yet, out of this all came St. Francis and St. Clare.
Francis and Clare taught us that the temptations of the world are just that, of the world, and that living simply allows one to focus on the more important matters of the spirit. When I think about Franciscan simplicity, I usually think in economic terms: reducing possessions, giving money to charities, volunteering time, and so on. All of this is necessary, of course, but I’ve recently been thinking more about Francis’ and Clare’s emotional simplicity. Their early biographers make clear that one emotion in particular that defined the saints: joy. They taught us that joy comes from the love of God and our love for God, and we are told they were joyful in every situation they faced.
Recall how Francis explained “perfect joy” to Brother Leo, the story in which he imagines a brother accusing him of being an imposter, denies him entry to a friary, and then beats him on a cold winter night. I’ve always had some difficulty with that lesson, probably because my own imperfect reaction would not be joy, but I think I understand his meaning.
Happiness is an emotion that is aroused in us when we buy a new car or get a promotion at work. It’s dependent on our circumstances occurring in accordance with our desires. Joy is an emotion that occurs within us when we develop an appreciation/thankfulness for the constants of life, such as nature, freedom, relationships with people, or through having faith in something larger than ourselves.”1 [emphasis mine]
Francis and Clare understood that joy is not about responding to a particular event, but rather by being so habituated to being joyful that nothing in the world can take it away. And to become habituated to joy, we must cherish and nurture our love for God so that we may feel His love every moment of our lives.
What a monumental task! I doubt anyone would call me a joyful (“joy-filled”) person; truth be told, I can’t think of many people whom I’ve met who were truly joyful. But the saints, by their examples, inspire us to continue to strive to be joyful, even though that goal seems hopelessly far off.
Mother Church, flawed though she may be, gives us tools to use as we endeavor to reach our goal, the sacraments being most important. Our Rule, too, encourages us to keep The Lord in the forefront of our day. The more we do that, the closer we come to Perfect Joy. At the risk of being cliché, it’s the journey that matters.
Living with difficult emotions is hard, especially when they become chronic. But, as Francis said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” We can pierce the shadows with the light of faith and opening ourselves to the Godlight of Love.
May your Christmas and New Year be filled with Light!
1“Joy or Happiness.” Alive.com. 1 Jan 2005. Web. 9 Dec 2015. http://www.alive.com/health/joy-or-happiness/#sthash.QdhvoiE5.dpuf”