Perfect Joy

Perfect Joy

Fourth Sunday in Lent

On this 4th Sunday in Lent, only three weeks before Easter, we are invited to rejoice, more precisely to give ourselves over to an exuberant, triumphant joy. One might wonder what could possibly be reason for jumping with joy in a world that has so many causes for inconsolable lamentation.

Were we to question our faithful people as to the reasons for which we are to rejoice, some who are more familiar with the Gospel might recall that Our Lord prayed that His disciples would be filled with joy (see Jn 17:13). They might also recall that concluding the beatitudes, He tells the disciples that they are blessed if they are hated and reviled for His name. When that happens, He commanded, rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven (see Lk 6:35). The apostles were soon to discover how true that was. After Pentecost, they are taken and whipped by the high priest for preaching the name of Jesus. St Luke tells us: They went from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus (Act 5:41). St Peter will write in his first epistle: If you partake of the sufferings of Christ, rejoice that, when his glory shall be revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you be reproached for the name of Christ, you shall be blessed: for that which is of the honour, glory and power of God, and that which is his Spirit resteth upon you. (1Pe 4:13-14).

That is where joy in the midst of suffering began. The holy martyrs understood this well. Their joy on the rack, the scaffold or the grill bears witness to a supernatural joy, that is totally inexplicable in human terms. Such manifest interventions of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints are not at all infrequent in Christian history.

Even though the story is relatively well known, I suggest that we reflect today upon St Francis of Assisi’s perfect joy, that scene where he is walking in cold rain in company with Brother Leo, both of them suffering greatly from the cold. St Francis calls to his companion: “Br Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.” A little further on, St Francis called to him a second time: “O Br Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.” After walking on for a little while, he cried out again: “O Br Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.” Proceeding a few steps farther, he called out again with a loud voice: “O Br Leo!  if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters — write that this would not be perfect joy.” A bit further on, he once again exclaimed: “O Br Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Br Leo, as you might imagine, was wondering greatly where all this was leading. When he had gone on for the space of two miles, he mustered up the courage to question the saint: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.”

St Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, ‘What you say is not the truth; you are but two impostors going about to deceive the world and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall — then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Br Leo, that this is perfect joy. And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers, to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ — and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Br Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy. And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, ‘These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick — 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, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

“And now, Brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Ghost which Christ grants to His friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it? (1 Cor 4:7). But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14). Amen.”

In those last words, my dear friends, lies the secret of Laetare Sunday, the secret of why the Church summons us to joy on the very eve of the passion of Our Blessed Lord. If only we could truly be filled with the Holy Spirit and understand that there is no greater grace on earth than to suffer for the Name of Jesus, to share in His passion. If only. But how are we to attain that grace, you might be asking? The first step is to esteem it, to want to attain to true spiritual joy through detachment from all that is created. Then, if we really want it, the next step is to ask for it. Is this not why St Ignatius has us ask for the grace of poverty, humiliations, wrongs and abuse? It is only by coming to desire such things that the path is open to true joy in this life.

The Imitation of Christ tells us: “Leave consolations to God to dispose of as pleases Him best. But for you, prepare yourself for tribulations and to consider them as the greatest consolations… When you shall have arrived at this that tribulation is sweet and pleasing to you for the love of Christ, then think that all goes well with you, because you have found paradise on earth. As long as you cannot bear suffering and you seek to avoid it, all will go wrong with you, and tribulation will follow you wherever you go. If you resign yourself to what has to be: that is to suffer and to die, you will immediately become better and you will find peace”  (Book 2, ch. 12).

To conclude, my dear friends, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who, the immense majority of men, drag their cross unwillingly and by hating it make it much, much heavier; and those who, the very small number, carry their cross with patience and love, and in so doing make it much, much lighter. Theirs is true and lasting joy. They have nothing to fear, for they have found peace. May we be among them. Amen.