What can you have that can be lost but not stolen?
I’ll give you a few minutes to think about that …
Would you like a hint? It’s not anything physical …
It’s joy. Joy can be lost but not stolen.
Now, before you roll your eyes at what appears to be my written sleight of hand, let’s consider what joy really is.
Joy is not enthusiasm or pleasure or emotion or mood worked to a fevered pitch. Such an intense experience must by its very nature fade.
Catholic wisdom teaches us that joy is caused by love. Joy is delighting in the presence of the beloved. There is also the love known as “benevolence,” allowing one to rejoice in the well-being of a friend, even an absent friend.
“Okay,” you might say. “But sometimes my beloved is present and is really annoying and there’s no joy then!” That’s a good objection — but off the mark.
The fullness of joy, that is not dependent upon mood or circumstances or chance, is had by those who love God. “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:16-17). Christian joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
So understood, how can joy be lost, and why can’t joy be stolen?
Luke 15 shows that joy — that is, living the grace that enables us to delight in loving God rightly — can be lost in three ways.
1) The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) illustrates that Christian joy can be lost through stupidity. Sheep mindlessly wander into harm’s way. It’s useless to say to sheep, “What were you thinking?” because they weren’t thinking. An honest Christian with even a hint of self-knowledge and maturity will recognize himself in that parable. We have all wandered off from the grace of God at one time or another, found ourselves in a ditch and wondered how we got there. When we find ourselves in such a fix, it should not surprise us that we lack.
2) The parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) illustrates that Christian joy can be lost through carelessness. We take for granted the treasure that has been entrusted to us. Consequently, we don’t keep it safe, we don’t marvel at it, and we don’t clutch it to our heart. Then one day we wake up, alarmed to discover that our joy seems to have been misplaced. We carelessly misplace our treasure by failing to practice basic Christian diligence — that is, fidelity to prayer, worship and study, generous charity and witness, and the cultivation of virtue.
3) The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) illustrates that Christian joy can be lost through wickedness — that is, through freely chosen acts of the will that turn away from God. In this case, we outright reject God’s gift. Who can be surprised that we have no joy then?
Why is it that joy cannot be stolen?
We might say that joy is not the kind of reality that can be grasped and carried off. We’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh! This morning, while I was riding the subway to work, a pickpocket stole my joy!” Your wallet, maybe — but not your joy.
Yet this account is inadequate. We have to look at the familiar realities of loss and grief. On the one hand, St. Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and the book of Wisdom tells us that there is no bitterness or grief associated with the wisdom of God (Wisdom 8:16). But surely we may weep bitter tears when our sins separate us from God or we see that the sins of others keep them from the love of God.
Jesus desires that his joy may be in us and that our joy be complete (John 15:11). Our joy on this earth, which is not our true home, must be incomplete. For centuries, Catholics have prayed the “Salve Regina,” which speaks of us as “poor, banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in the vale of tears …” While we walk this earth, our imperfect Christian joy must be complemented by hope, so that we may look forward to and (with God’s grace) move forward to the happiness of heaven.
It is not sufficient for us to stop here. More must be said about why it is that true Christian joy cannot be stolen. More must be said because Christians are undergoing martyrdoms — both red and white — all around the world.
- Countless Christians daily undergo the suffering of a white martyrdom, as their governments regard them with callous indifference, sullen suspicion or calculated hostility.
- Countless Christians suffer a white martyrdom as their ambient culture mocks their faith, parodies their worship and denounces their morality.
- Daily, more Christians than we realize suffer red martyrdom at the hands of murderers either secular or sectarian.
One way or another, it seems that Christians are being ground under foot. Can we really not say that our joy is being stolen by those who wish us ill or wish us dead?
Non tollit Gothus quod custodit Christus
Here, I think we would do well to turn to St. Augustine. During his lifetime Rome was sacked by the Goths. On his deathbed he saw tribes of the Vandals besieging his city of Hippo. Still, Augustine penned these words: “Non tollit Gothus quod custodit Christus.” A strictly literal translation might be, “No Goth takes what Christ keeps.” A somewhat freer rendering might be, “No Barbarian can steal what is guarded by Christ.”
During this Season of Easter, when the word “joy” is used so frequently in our private conversations and our public worship, we may wonder whether our joy can be stolen by the various secular and sectarian “Barbarians” who want Christians either silent or gone or dead. Surely the Christians who were worshipping on Easter Sunday in Pakistan last week and survived the bombing might wonder about that.
Yes, in this life, as we noted above, our joy must be incomplete — our fullness of joy an object of hope. And in this life, those who are faithful to God will suffer. (“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” Sirach 2:1.)
Yet the risen Lord himself protects his flock! He will always give the grace we need to remain faithful to him. Whether today’s “Barbarian” is wearing a suit, a judge’s robe or a soldier’s uniform, whether he is wielding a pen, a microphone, a knife or a gun, he cannot steal that joy that Christ has won for us, planted within us and guards for us. St. Paul was right — let us rejoice in the Lord always!
When I write next, I will speak of looking for Christ in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.