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St. Francis of Assisi’s secret for living joyfully


Borisevich Sergei | Shutterstock

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 12/13/20

Gaudete Sunday is the perfect time to reflect on the true meaning of joy.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day that marks the halfway point of Advent. Gaudete means “joy,” so it’s the day we get to light the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath, the day the organ plays a little bit more boisterously at Mass, the day we really start to look forward to the dawning light of Christmas.

Joy is a strange concept, a state of being we typically only notice when it rises up from our emotions. We are joyful when we feel joyful. But joy itself is not an emotion. Emotions come and go, but a person who is truly joyful remains so even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Joy is a virtue that is stronger than how we feel at any given moment. It’s strong and steady, encompassing sorrow, disappointment, and even injustice. The reason we often notice joy as a feeling is because it’s so powerful that it’s able to overflow into our emotions.

There’s a story about St. Francis of Assisi and how, one day on a walk with another monk named Brother Leo, he explains the concept of perfect joy. They’re out on a cold winter day, shivering through the thin rags they considered coats, when Francis tells Leo that even if they become the holiest of all monks it would not be perfect joy. They walk through the cold a bit further, and Francis says that even if the monks become miracle-workers it would not be perfect joy. They walk on in silence, and Francis elaborates more, saying even if they become the wisest of all people, renowned for prophetic insights, this too would not be perfect joy.

Francis continues describing magnificent visions of glory and success, saying that none of these would be sufficient. Finally, Brother Leo has had enough and asks Francis, “Teach me what is perfect joy.” The answer Francis gives is surprising; “If, when we shall arrive…all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger…and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors…if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him…here, finally, is perfect joy.”

If standing in a mud pit during a cold rain after being physically attacked is his idea of joy, St. Francis must have a different definition than I do.

Digging deeper into what he means, though — I think he’s right. His insistence is that suffering is joyful when it is an act of love. I’ve always been somewhat dissatisfied with the explanation that joy is simply something within us that helps us be happy even when life is burdensome. Even though joy isn’t a feeling, it certainly feels to me in those moments that I have lost it. Joy has to be more than the ironclad self-discipline to ignore external circumstances. Francis knows the secret. For him, it’s specifically brought about by love of God. He wants to think about God, be near God, talk about God. If he can suffer and be more like God, all the better.

For us, joy springs up from the same source. We have joy through our love for God, knowing he is near in all circumstances. More broadly speaking, we’re also joyful when we can be with someone we love and when good things happen to them, whether that be a spouse, family members, or friends. Thinking about it this way also shows us how joy can go hand-in-hand with experiencing the difficulty of life. If joy is connected with love, it stands to reason that we suffer when those we love suffer, and that, too, is joy because it’s a sign of our love for them. Even when we feel like we’re the only ones for whom life is a struggle, we still know that God is with us and He is suffering with us because He loves us, and that, too, is joy.

The mistake we so often make is to convince ourselves that we’ll have even more joy if we just get that one more thing — that promotion at work, the new car, the new house, the prestige of another academic degree, the way people respond to us, if a difficult circumstance would just go away… I convince myself that one more change will finally bring joy. It never does. I just start looking for the next thing. St. Francis knows better than to get involved in this endless chase, because he knows that joy is all about love. Making one simple decision to work at better loving those around us, this is the secret to living with joy in any and all circumstances.


Read more:
How to foster true Christian joy on Gaudete Sunday

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