Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This and other exhortations in Scripture have shaped Christian tradition with the understanding that joy is meant to be part of our life. It’s traditionally counted among the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22, CCC #1832). Spiritual writers have often commented on its importance, including Pope Benedict XVI, who called it “a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Christians.”(1.) Indeed, since Christ Himself prayed “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13), we might infer that joy is part of what He wills to give us.

But what does this joy mean in practice? What is it like, and how does it relate to times of suffering? Some homilies on Christian joy, no doubt preached with good intentions, can give the impression that if we pray, have faith, and generally keep a proper disposition toward God, we will always be serene and cheerful and radiate our happiness to the world. An otherwise lovely hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” reasons along these lines:

If our love were but more simple,

We should take Him at His word,

And our lives would be all sunshine

In the sweetness of our Lord.

If we don’t sense intuitively that this is asking too much of human nature, we’re likely to find out by experience. Even the most upbeat of personalities feel sadness at times, and not everyone is made with an upbeat personality. The idea that a Christian’s life must “be all sunshine” can also lead to insensitive treatment of the suffering; it would be callous to tell someone overwhelmed with grief, anxiety, illness, etc. that if they would only pray and have faith, everything would be fine.

Furthermore, we have reason from the Gospels to think that our Lord doesn’t ask continual lightheartedness from us. He blesses those who mourn and promises them consolation (Matthew 5:4), but doesn’t tell them to cheer up. He shows the human pains of His own heart, too, shedding tears at the tomb of His friend (John 11:35) and sweating an agony of blood before His Passion (Luke 22:44). If Jesus wept and trembled in times of suffering, His followers could hardly be reproached for not smiling at such times.

What, then, does joy mean as a part of the Christian life? While I am not a moral theologian, some thoughts in Scripture and other sources have shed light for me on the subject, and I hope they may do the same for others.

I think the first thing to understand is that God does not require feelings from us. We may sometimes be able to encourage or discourage them, but we can’t hold on to any feeling for long. Thus, if we can resolve to do something or exhort others to do it, it must be more than having an emotion. As C.S. Lewis observes, “A promise must be about things that I can do, about actions: no one can promise to go on feeling in a certain way. He might as well promise never to have a headache or always to feel hungry.”(2.)

The context of Lewis’s remark is a discussion of the love that couples promise each other, and indeed married love may be a good analogy. We speak of a husband and wife having a “happy marriage,” but we know this doesn’t mean they live in a continual state of romantic passion. It means that their relationship is (overall) wholesome and healthy, that they live their self-gift for each other in their little daily habits. It is “a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God.”(3.) They don’t, or need not, cease to have a happy marriage when they feel frustrated with life or with each other.

Christian joy could be compared with this happy marriage. It’s not a state of ecstasy or excitement, though it may lead to moments of that, and those too are gifts from God. Certainly holiness is no guarantee of cheerful or tranquil feelings. One can easily find examples of saints with not-so-sunny temperaments — the melancholy Augustine, the stormy Jerome — or who spent long years, even to the end, in all kinds of terrible suffering; and, as any human being would, found it hard. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, dying of tuberculosis and unable to feel God’s presence, admitted that “it is pure agony; there is no consolation!”(4.)

Rather, the joy that is “a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Christians” is a supernatural kind of joy. Not supernatural joy in the sense of being extraordinary in degree, like the Beatific Vision, but supernatural in kind. “Not as the world gives do I give to you,” Jesus told His apostles (John 14:27). Like the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, it’s something enduring, and can even coexist with intense suffering and pain. This joy is also not one we can “work up” by our own efforts, without the help of grace. The Catechism calls the fruits of the Spirit “perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (CCC #1832). Thus, we need to pray to have this joy in ourselves, trusting in God Who knows our weakness.

What kind of joy is this, then, that’s not emotional and doesn’t preclude pain and sorrow? Like married love, it’s a disposition, a habit of mind and heart, one we learn to live in. It comes from an understanding of what our Lord has done and continues to do for us. Of course we still have sorrows, in this “vale of tears”; yet, in the words of St. Paul, we don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Note that he does not urge his converts not to grieve, but not to grieve like those who have no hope.

Here, then, is the great difference. Suffering for a Christian is not the same. We have been given an assurance, enduring and transcending even the worst of trials on earth — loss of family, loss of health, uncertain future, the wounds we’ve all suffered since early 2020 —with the certainty that they have already been confronted, and overcome, in the incarnation, dying, and rising of Jesus. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians in the very next verse: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” The death and resurrection of Jesus are the answer, not only to the riddle of death, but in one way or another to all the darkness that surrounds us.

We haven’t been given all the immediate answers. We don’t know how any particular situation will unfold. The joyous assurance of Christian faith is not that troubles won’t come, but that the gracious power of our Lord is greater than all of them, that He has already won His victory over all evil and in time that victory will be fully manifested.

J.R.R. Tolkien had an insight into how this is so when he set forth his concept of “eucatastrophe.” How this term coined for literary purposes became linked with Christian faith and hope might appear a greater stretch at first than it turns out to be. Tolkien introduced the word when explaining how the happy-ending twist resolving a “fairy-story” may do more than settle the conflict. It can be such an unexpected, miraculous, salvific moment of joy that it takes on a poignant power and points toward a great ultimate hope. It “reflects a glory backwards”(5.) over all the preceding events, giving them new meaning. Loss and tragedy, Tolkien explained, do not make the “eucatastrophe” any less valid:

It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.(6.)

It is possible, then, to grieve as is natural or appropriate and yet also hold on to a joy that we know to be true even amid that sadness.

As the reference to “evangelium” suggests, the concept of eucatastrophe does not apply only to fiction; in fact, it can be applied supremely to history, specifically salvation history. Tolkien goes on to say, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.” What more unexpected, miraculous deliverance could there be than God Himself coming into our midst to take on all the burden of our evil and misery? What more impossibly glorious climax could that story have than the Incarnate Lord breaking the chains of death, opening the doors to a renewed life for Himself and for all of us?

It’s with good reason that Mother Church continually reminds us of these mysteries at Mass and encourages us to reflect on them in the Rosary. These truths are the basis of characteristically Christian joy. They don’t take away suffering nor prevent sadness, but they do transfigure our experience, often in small ways that we might not always perceive, like an atmosphere we breathe. Through grace and our cooperation with it, we come to see things differently, in the joyful light of the Redemption.

For example, St. Edith Stein, while still an atheist, made a visit to a Christian friend whose husband had died, and was struck by how her friend bore her loss, her sorrow mitigated by a deep, mysterious strength. This encounter was a revelation for Edith, and an important step toward her eventual conversion. The future saint later recalled, “For the first time I saw before my very eyes the Church, born of Christ’s redemptive suffering, victorious over the sting of death.”(7.)

But we shouldn’t become impatient with ourselves if we don’t notice such a change in our own hearts overnight. The process of sanctification goes on all our lives, and usually, it would seem, without the soul knowing what’s happening. Learning the disposition of Christian joy is no exception. It takes many moments of daily training, many little workings of grace, to really change our natural outlook to a supernatural one.

On the other hand, for any Christian soul, the seed has already been planted. We have the faith that carries with it the joy of the great eucatastrophe; we have the Holy Spirit, Who is ultimately the agent of all good change in us. We suffer and fight and carry our crosses, big or small; but all the while we know that we have reason — infinite reason — for joy. Like a beacon over a raging sea, it always shines for us; and by steering toward it even when we can hardly see it, we bear witness to its presence. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47).

1. Pope Benedict XVI, Address at the Grotto of Lourdes, Vatican Gardens, June 1 2012. Catholic News SG, accessed October 20 2021, catholicnews.sg/2012/06/04/faith-invites-us-to-look-beyond-appearances/.

2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 107.

3. Mere Christianity, 109.

4. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, third edition, ed. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), 269.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 62.

6. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 62.

7. Teresia Renata Posselt, O.C.D., Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, ed. Susanne Batzdorff, Josephine Koeppel, and John Sullivan (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2005), 59–60. Quoted in Dianne Marie Traflet, Saint Edith Stein: A Spiritual Portrait (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2008), 41.