The Value of Joy in the Spiritual Life

I just started reading James Martin, S.J.’s newest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

I was excited as soon as I saw this book being advertised, for I have long bemoaned what Martin himself has experienced – that “many professional religious people (priests, ministers, rabbis, and the like) as well as some devout believers in general give te impression that being religious means being dour, serious, or even grumpy.” Certainly not all – I know many religious and lay that are joyful people…but also far too many that fit Martin’s description.

Martin begins by talking about the meanings of humor, laughter and joy from both secular and religious perspectives. As to humor and laughter, there is no significant difference in the secular and religiuos approaches.

With respect to joy, however, the religious understanding is very different from the secular one. Martin writes,

Joy is not simply a fleeting feeling or an evanescent emotion; it is a deep-seated result of one’s connection to God. Although the more secular defintiion of joy may sometimes describe one’s emotional response to an object or event, wonderful though it may be (a new job, for example), religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God.

Understood that way, it is not difficult to understand why we see joy on the faces of so many holy people – I think of the way St. Francis is often described, or of my own experience meeting the Dalai Lama. It is also easy to undertsand why joy is one of the traditional fruits of the Holy spirit – a gift, Martin suggests, we ignore at our peril.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book.


What We Can Learn from Early Franciscan Lay Women

Almost two months ago, my friend Darleen Pryds sent me a copy of her book, Women of the Streets: Early Franciscan Women and their Mendicant Vocation. I put it on my “to be read” pile, where it promptly got buried. (If your “to be read” pile looks anything like mine, no further explanation is necessary.) I finally picked up the book this past weekend and was delighted that I did.

When people think of women who followed in the path of St. Francis, the image that comes to mind is that of St. Clare and her sisters, who lived cloistered lives. But there were a number of lay women who were inspired by Francis and his tradition to follow their calling in public, not in a cloister. This book teaches us something of four of those women: Rose of Viterbo, Angela of Foligno, Margaret of Cortona and Sancia, Queen of Naples, all born within the first century of the Franciscan Order. Each of these women, as the author observes, modeled their spiritual lives on Francis, not on Clare.

The four women highlighted in this book lived very different lives, but faced similar challenges, some of which had to do with view of the roles of women vs. men and some having to do with the views of the roles of laity vs. religious. (The latter is illustrated most strongly by the experience of Margaret of Cortona.) In other words: challenges not dissimilar form those faced by many people today who struggle with living out their calling in an authentic way.

As I read the book, I reflected on the fact that our education of young Catholics today includes so little education about the saints – certainly less than I had in my Catholic school education in the 60s. But even when we do teach about the saints, I suspect people like Rose of Viterbo never get mentioned. That is sad, because she is such a powerful role model for all Christians, but particularly for the young. Described by one of her biographers as an “amazon of Christ,” despite her youth she was a powerful preacher and teacher who was fearless in her willingness to speak truth to power. The model provided by Angela, who combined passion for Christ with a deep humility, is equally strong. The same is true for the other two women we meet in the pages of this book.

The book is “intended for both an introductory academic audience and a general audience interested in studying role models of lay religious for personal and spiritual reflection. To aid the latter, each chapter of the book ends with some wonderful questions for general discussion and for spirtiual reflection.

I am deeply grateful to Darleen for sending me her book, which I otherwise might have missed. I hope many others benefit from it.