On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal

We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus

Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.[1]

So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.

St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone.[2] If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such.[3] It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.

And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.”[4] But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.

This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.”[9] Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.

That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

Seven Years a Catholic

Triptych of the Mystic Bath, Jehan de Bellegambe, 16th c. (Source)

Seven years ago, on the evening of March 30th, 2013, I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. I took St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint, and I was confirmed by our pastor at St. Brigid’s Church, John’s Creek, Georgia. He has since gone on to become a bishop and is now the Ordinary of Memphis. I, meanwhile, have had many ups and downs in the life of the spirit. From 2014 on I have consecrated each year to a different Holy Person. I have not always been faithful to the spirit of these consecrations. I have often been useless and even actively unhelpful in my service to God and my neighbor. I have been known to set a bad example, and I know that from time to time I have offended or scandalized others. For that, I am truly sorry.

But throughout the years, I have never lost trust in the grace of God and my hope in the Blessed Sacrament.

O Precious Blood of Jesus, source of all life and grace, have mercy on us (Source)

And it is in view of that hope that I consecrate this next year of my Catholic life to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. I have long had a devotion to the Precious Blood, and I hope that this coming year will bring a renewed gratitude for that Blood so plenteously shed for the whole world.

Father Faber, in that marvelous book on the subject, writes,

The Precious Blood is invisible. Yet nothing in creation is half so potent. It is everywhere, practically everywhere, although it is not omnipresent. It becomes visible in the fruits of grace. It will become more visible in the splendors of glory. But it will itself be visible in Heaven in our Lord’s glorified Body as in crystalline vases of incomparable refulgence. It belongs to Him, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, although its work is the work of the whole Trinity. In its efficacy and operation it is the most complete and most wonderful of all revelations of the Divine Perfections. The power, the wisdom, the goodness, the justice, the sanctity, of God, are most pre-eminently illustrated by the working of this Precious Blood.

Fr. Faber, The Precious Blood.
Source

It seems to me somehow appropriate as well to repair unto the Precious Blood in a time of tumult and pestilence, when dead seems to be all around. Every Christian, if a Christian he truly be, is only so by the merits of the Precious Blood. It is our common inheritance as adopted Sons of God.

And what a cause of joy! Is it any wonder that some of the finest hymns praise the Precious Blood with an exuberance and a delight that anticipates what we shall feel in the Parousia? Perhaps this is one of the great attractions of the devotion, at least for me. As someone with a pessimistic temperament and a profound sense of the centrality of suffering in the Christian life, I sometimes struggle to cultivate a joyful approach to faith. But can there be anything that kindles more joy than the absolute gratuity, liberality, and efficacy of the Precious Blood in redeeming us? I wish we could all feel what Father Faber felt when he contemplated the gift of the Precious Blood, which is neither more nor less than the whole mystery of our salvation:

The Word delights eternally in His Human Blood. Its golden glow beautifies the fires of the Holy Ghost. Its ministries beget inexplicable joys in the Unbegotten Father. I was upon the seashore; and my heart filled with love it knew not why. Its happiness went out over the wide waters and upon the unfettered wind, and swelled up into the free dome of blue sky until it filled it. The dawn lighted up the faces of the ivory cliffs, which the sun and sea had been blanching for centuries of God’s unchanging love. The miles of noiseless sands seemed vast as if they were the floor of eternity. Somehow the daybreak was like eternity. The idea came over me of that feeling of acceptance, which so entrances the soul just judged and just admitted into Heaven. To be saved! I said to myself, To be saved!

Then the thoughts of all the things implied in salvation came in one thought upon me; and I said, This is the one grand joy of life; and I clapped my hands like a child, and spoke to God aloud. But then there came many thoughts all in one thought, about the nature and manner of our salvation. To be saved with such a salvation! This was a grander joy, the second grand joy of life: and I tried to say some lines of a hymn; but the words were choked in my throat. The ebb was sucking the sea down over the sand quite silently; and the cliffs were whiter, and more day like. Then there came many more thoughts all in one thought; and I stood still without intending it. To be saved by such a Saviour! This was the grandest joy of all, the third grand joy of life; and it swallowed up the other joys; and after it there could be on earth no higher joy. I said nothing; but I looked at the sinking sea as it reddened in the morning. Its great heart was throbbing in the calm; and methought I saw the Precious Blood of Jesus in Heaven, throbbing that hour with real human love of me.   

Fr. Faber, The Precious Blood.
Source

Pray for me in this coming year, dear readers. Know that I will be praying for you and commending you always to the source of all life, all joy, all love, all purity, all sanctity, all wisdom, and all grace – the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. To whom be all glory, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Eucharistic Man of Sorrow/Mystical Vine, Anonymous, Mexican, 19th c. (Source)

Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

A View of the Sacraments in the Age of Enlightenment

I just stumbled across Pietro Antonio Novelli’s engravings on the Seven Sacraments, completed in 1779. They give a fascinating view of ecclesiastical life in the late 18th century – Novelli would have moved to Rome from Venice about this time, so it’s unclear which part of Italy these were drawn from. Either way, they’re worth a look through. All are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

NovelliBaptism

Baptism. Note the prominent Angel and Devil.

NovelliConfirmation

Confirmation. Strong and sound emphasis placed upon the role of the Holy Ghost.

NovelliEucharist

The Eucharist. The arrangement of the Altar and rail suggests that this is a low mass. Very odd that the Priest has no chasuble, but surplice and stole.

NovelliConfession

Penance. Once again, we see the Angel-Devil dichotomy. Lovely open confessional, too.

NovelliHolyOrders

Holy Orders. It is entirely unclear to me where the Altar is supposed to be in this image. Nevertheless, the Bishop is wearing a wig, which answers a question of Fr. Hunwicke’s.

NovelliMarriage

Holy Matrimony. A fairly straightforward scene with lovely, somewhat spare Neoclassical church architecture in the background.

NovelliUnction

Unction. The attendance of two servers is a custom long since out of fashion. One rather wonders when their presence was removed from the rubrics.