Joy is not the primary goal of the Christian life; rather it is one of the results or “fruits” of that life. Because we cannot fake true joy, the Christian life does not consist of a forced smile and the platitude that “everything will be alright.” This false or forced joy will ultimately let us down. True joy must somehow coexist with the actual circumstances of our lives.
When Jesus preaches to his disciples before his passion, he tells them, “you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (Jn. 16:22). A couple things to note: first, his disciples are in anguish. Are we not? This will always be a part of our condition in this world. Alluding to his resurrection, Jesus promises that his disciples’ hearts will rejoice when he sees them again. Now we live in both mysteries—the passion and the resurrection. We are in anguish and yet rejoice.
Second, the joy Christ promises is such that no one can take it away. This is not an encouragement to miserliness. We are not to grasp possessively the resurrected Lord. As Jesus says to Mary Magdalene in the garden, “Stop holding on to me” (Jn 20:17). We do not own our joy. The disciples will rejoice, Jesus says, when he sees them again. We rejoice because he sees us, and in response, as we sing at Vespers throughout the Easter season, “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord.” The ultimate source of our joy is God’s gaze on us, which draws from us a response of praise and adoration.
But our awareness of God’s gaze on us is much more fickle than his love. As John Cassian says,
To cling to God unceasingly and to remain inseparably united to him in contemplation is . . . impossible for the person who is enclosed in perishable flesh. But we ought to know where we should fix our mind’s attention. . . . And when our mind has been able to seize it, it should rejoice, and when it is distracted from it, it should mourn and sigh, realizing that it has fallen away from the highest good” (Conferences, 1.XIII.1).
If our attention to God can so easily be distracted, how is it possible to receive this joy that no one, no circumstance or trial, can take away? The answer lies in the source of joy. Joy comes from love. As St. Thomas says, “joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because one’s proper good exists and endures in the thing loved” (Summa theologiae II-II, a. 28, q. 1). God is always present to us. God loves us and draws us close to him, and by loving God we are drawn to him. Furthermore, God, who made us for himself, always exists and endures. By knowing the presence of the God we love, we rejoice. By knowing the truth of God’s existence and goodness, we rejoice. We often fail to live in ways accordant with these truths. Nonetheless, if we “reflect on Jesus” (Heb 3:1), the impermanence of our attention to God will be dwarfed by the permanence of God’s gaze upon us.
Jesus encourages his disciples, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (Jn. 16:24). If we ask, the joy that no one can take away will be made perfect, complete. Unlike anything visible in this world, this promised joy is permanent because the love that causes it is permanent. Drawn from our impermanence into God’s permanence, “we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). While remaining in our eternal God, no one can take our joy.
Image: Guido Reni, St. Philip Neri in Ecstasy