(That’s kind of what Lent is: a time-room in which we are asked to take a good hard look at ourselves. Without even a flimsy paper gown to hide behind.)
This morning the Holy Spirit casually tossed in my path a review of a book on happiness. Things seem to happen that way if we’re awake enough to pay attention. Years of spiritual practice—and a couple of cups of Maxwell House—sometimes pay off with an obvious word from the Lord.
Anyway, according to the reviewer, the author of the book contends that we are all born with a “set point” for happiness: for some of us the glass is always half full, while others of us take a worried look at that glass and try to decide whether a quick trip to the nearest convenience store is in order. (“I’d like a half-glass of happiness, please.”) Regardless of circumstances, says the author, each of us hovers within a few plus or minus degrees of our personal set point.
I’m not sure how far down the road I am willing to go with this theory, although it has been true to my experience that when a group of folks are together on a sinking ship, some of us hide in our emotional cabins, peering out the portals and imagining only dark waters full of spooky-eyed sharks with nasty hangovers and a bad case of the munchies, while other folks energetically search the pantries and storage rooms for any little floaty objects that can be duct taped together in order to fashion a raft that will without any doubt in their minds safely carry them across the uncharted but friendly seas to their new happy home on the other side.[i]
Creations by Lilly © 9 December 2010
[One of the cats for whom I serve as chef, domestic aide and portable heat source made this kibble art for me the morning on which I was to be abruptly liberated from a very bad situation. God’s fuzzy prophet speaks a word.]
The part of the theory with which I do whole-heartedly agree is that we cannot increase our happiness quotient by setting out head-on to be happier; rather, if we want to be truly and lastingly happy, we must focus instead on cultivating two pervasive qualities: gratitude and forgiveness. To this I shout a loud Amen! While the book is not a “Christian” text, in this pronouncement it digs straight to the root of Gospel joy.
Joy in the Christian tradition is much more than mere happiness. It is a manifestation of the Christ-life in us. It does not wax or wane with how well our finances, career, relationships, garden or even our hair is doing. It is not a Doppler radar image of what’s going on in our surrounding area; it is a more like a weather vane pointing where the Spirit blows inside us.
In chapter five of his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul contrasts the works of the flesh (best not to even mention them in a G-rated blog) with the fruit[ii] of the Spirit—and a lovely, multifarious fruit it is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-3). Note that all of these luscious layers of the fruit are outwardly directed, having everything to do with how we treat others in response to the Spirit’s indwelling, and not so much about how we feel inside. Christian joy is above all else a response to the glad tidings of the Good News, the acting out of our firm belief that Christ triumphed over death and sin, taking us right along with him to Salvation.
There’s a whole bunch more to say about joy in the Scriptures—there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 422 references to it in the Old and New Testaments combined—but we don’t have the space to do it here. For purposes of this blog, let’s turn to the Rule instead. That will make a much quicker study because Benedict uses the word gaudium [joy] only twice in seventy-three chapters, both times in chapter 49 on “The Observance of Lent” (v. 6 and 7). Not exactly where one might expect to see it.
1. Verse 5 exhorts the monks to add more prayer and abstinence to their usual spiritual disciplines (Benedict calls these practices their “service”) during Lent. He gives the reason for this extra effort in verse 6: “so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” The Scripture passage to which he alludes provides us a hint that Benedict knows this offering will not be easy. Here is the full text: “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6).
A friend of mine once told me about an old monk in his abbey who, upon learning that one of the novices had left the monastery, asked, “Why?”
“Because he wasn’t happy,” answered a Brother.
“What do you mean ‘he wasn’t happy’?”
“Well, he didn’t like it.”
“Like it? Who likes it?!!”
Behind this humorous anecdote is the great truth that growing spiritual fruit takes labor—namely, prayer and some healthy self-denial. And we can’t expect a good harvest with days that are only sunny and fair; a certain measure of rain is required, as well. These latter are not typically our most enjoyable days. Stick with it, though; they help the fruit become sweeter—plumped up with the Spirit’s joy. Keeping in mind this crucial piece of information, we can, indeed, learn to receive the grayer days with a grateful heart.
2. Verse 7 repeats the call for a brisk Lenten workout, ending with the motivation for all the effort: so that we may “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” The Great Feast of the Resurrection celebrates Christ’s victory over all that is amiss in Creation and in God’s daughters and sons. It holds out to us the offer of forgiveness and full union with the Godhead. It models for us the forgiveness and communion which we are called to offer one another. How eager ought we to be for such complete joy!
As good as they might feel, gratitude and forgiveness are not ends in themselves. Nor is joy an end in itself. Lent, either. Their purpose is only to show us a glimmer of our love’s destiny. Easter is the reason for the season of Lent. What could possibly make us happier?
Get the Lead (or Ink) Out
Benedict was an imminently practical fellow, so as his disciple, I will try to follow his example. Here is one small prayer practice[iii] you can undertake as a first step toward cultivating gratitude and forgiveness: Get yourself a journal (an inexpensive spiral notebook will do nicely), a trusty #2 pencil or perhaps a favorite pen, then sit down every evening and write in your journal 5 Things for which you are grateful that day. Then make a second list of 5 Things for which you need forgiveness that day—things that you have done or said or thought and/or things which you have failed to do or say or pray. It is a good and manageable practice not just for Lent but for every season.
This prayer is a form of that venerable tradition of the daily examen.[iv] When we take time to reflect back on our day, we begin to see the ways in which God has been present to us and the ways in which we have failed to make a loving response to that gift. Counting our blessings is an obviously positive task; counting our sins sounds much more like a mental hair shirt. But if we give it all back to God—the good, the bad and the ugly—then we don’t have to carry our own burdens, anymore. Jesus will do it for us. When our load has been thus lightened, we can truly “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love!” (Prol 49) Therein, my sisters and brothers, is the secret to lasting joy.
Grace be with you,
[i] My sincere apologies for this sentence to every junior high school English teacher I ever had. It is a bit much even by my loose standards.
[ii] Note that “fruit” is in the singular. Maybe it implies that where one quality is, the others will be also—albeit in different proportions at different times in our lives. Both a comforting and an encouraging notion, I think.
[iii] Thanks for teaching me this one, LaurenMurphy!
[iv] For more on the examen, take a look at http://ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/.