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The secret of holy joy: You don’t need to “get the joke” to laugh

Mother Teresa, Calcutta, India

Tim Graham/Getty Images

CALCUTTA, INDIA - DECEMBER 05: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Anna O'Neil - published on 10/06/16

How can people who suffer still be joyful?

I was scrolling aimlessly through Facebook when I came across a joke that hit me just right, and I burst out into surprised giggles. I looked over to see my toddler, who had been studying my face, as he often does, just as his own face was lighting up with a delighted smile. Then he started laughing too, quickly building up to his signature robust exclamation of joy that is two parts laughter and one part punctuated shouting, for the pure fun of making the noise.

All at once I thought I might have just found out how it is that people who suffer can still be joyful: It has to do with how they keep their eyes turned towards God, how they have oriented their whole selves towards Him.

Because of her recent canonization, I have been seeing Mother Teresa’s radiant, beautiful face everywhere I look, and my eyes always go right to that huge smile. And I remember how, besides the horror and death and pain that she was so constantly exposed to, Mother Teresa lived through dark night of the soul that spanned most of her life. I blush to compare her joy with my own bad temper in the face of any imagined inconvenience that can quickly make me, as I will wryly tell my husband, “just really cranky right now.”

I know, and you probably do too, living people who seem to have a piece of that same joy Mother Teresa had. These remarkable people have this mysterious ability to go through their day with a smile, no matter what that day has thrown at them. It isn’t that they have easier lives than we do; many times they are much harder. What is the secret? How do they keep that smile on their face?

Sometimes I am tempted to say, “Oh, it just comes naturally to them.” And yes, it may be that their joy comes from a naturally cheerful disposition, but I know perfectly well that isn’t the whole story.

A cynical voice inside of me has sometimes wondered whether these joyful friends of mine, and even Mother Teresa herself, were really being genuine. What if, it slyly suggests, these holy people were just making a heroic act of the will, putting on a happy face to make Christianity look more appealing to those still unconverted?

But then, I can’t look at Mother Teresa’s picture for any amount of time without seeing clearly that she was far and away more authentic than I am. Did she know something I don’t? Did God let her in on some secret consolation?

No. She was reading the same Gospels that we read. She was a human being, and not more. She didn’t know God’s plan for the world, and she didn’t need to.

My son’s laughter was not less genuine than mine because he didn’t know why I was laughing. Even though he didn’t get the joke, he could sense my delight, and reflect it back. He could participate in my happiness because he was watching me so very closely. He was concentrating on my face. He was focused on me with his whole attention, with the love and wonder with which any toddler looks at his mother. I am his whole world right now, and so he was watching me, taking me in.

Maybe this is what the saints do with God. Maybe it’s what anyone who has joy is doing: reflecting back the joy of God.

My son didn’t need to know why I was happy. He just needed to know that I was happy. If he hadn’t been so focused on my face, he would have missed it. Maybe anybody who is so close to God, whose life is so oriented towards God’s face, sees His joy as well, and reflects it back to the world, like bright light shining on diamonds.

Their joy isn’t less genuine because of their suffering, and just because they are joyful doesn’t mean they don’t suffer. But because they, more than any of us, were looking so intently towards the face of God, they could participate in His own joy regardless of their suffering.

God alone knows the secret of His joy. God hasn’t told us what He will do to heal the hurt and right the wrong, and I have no earthly idea, sometimes, how someone can see the evil in this fallen world and still be joyful. But you don’t need to know His plan to authentically partake in God’s joy. You just need to keep your eyes turned towards Him, to keep focused on Him with all your attention, will, and being.

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