by Jean Fox.
One word has been coming to me throughout this past week. It is an unexpected word, considering that Ash Wednesday and the Lenten time have come to us, and that the world is in extremely dark times. But that word, which has been coming to me from all sorts of sources, is “joy.”
I’ve heard it on the radio, I’ve heard it through talking with various people, and it has come to me from the Luke News, the newsletter of a treatment center in Washington, D.C.. And finally it has come from my reading of the writings of Catherine Doherty. Whether they’re from today or from twenty years ago, all of these sources have wedded the word “joy” to the cross of Jesus Christ. So what does that mean?
The Garden Enclosed
Well, Fr. Pat McNulty spoke in his homily about the “Garden Enclosed,” which exists in each and every one of us. This is the deep place in our hearts and souls, the place where Jesus and you live in a hidden world, a place which no one can touch and no one can influence, except yourself.
This is the place where the “Hound of Heaven” pursues every one of us and will not let go. It is the place where, as time passes, we realize that God has been with us every minute of our lives, and that he has been quietly, persistently, offering us gifts of love and peace, goodness and truth and beauty.
We are the keepers of that Garden Enclosed, and sometimes we put up a steel wall around it, or we allow the door to open only a crack to this sacred sanctuary where God dwells within us.
The Secret Place
During this Lent, I urge all of us to go into that secret place, that Garden Enclosed, and get reacquainted with that place which no one can touch or hurt, because Love has chosen to live in the world, and Love has chosen to take up his domain in each and every one of us.
Yes, the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—lives in us. We receive the Eucharist, we are forgiven our sins, and we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, forever and ever.
But what we do with this is another question.
Do you really believe that everything that happens to you today is permitted by God? Do you believe that to know joy is basically to live only in the present moment?
Some spiritual directors tell their directees one unswerving principle: the past is over, and tomorrow has not yet come. You cannot change the past except by forgiving those who have hurt you, and you cannot control the future. You have only the now to deal with. If you choose to trust in God and in the flow of life, you will likely experience joy.
What does this mean? It means surrendering to whatever today brings, to our circumstances, our work, our relationships, our feelings—to everything that constitutes our daily lives. To accept whatever the day brings is simply to float or to enter into daily life in a non-resistant way.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t have the capacity to determine certain things that happen in a day. Far from it. But it does mean that we have to enter into the flow of life rather than resist it. Our joy will come in simply accepting everything that happens to us today.
Another key factor in joy is gratitude. Years ago a man named John, a man who called himself “the king of A.A. on the West Coast,” told me that his first sponsor told him that each day he had to thank God for five things that happened to him. John answered, “I have nothing to have gratitude for, because my life is miserable.”
But his sponsor kept at him and said, “Every day, even if the thing is miniscule—such as you shut a door without smashing your finger—give thanks to God for it.”
And so, this man, who was struggling to find his life again, simply because he was desperate, began doing it. He told me that by the end of a few months, there was a trickle of new life in him.
Yes, I Am
Then by the end of the first year of being faithful to this—and he was faithful only because his sponsor asked him, whenever he saw him, if he was doing it—John, who by this time was an honest man, said, “Yes, I am, even though I don’t feel anything.”
Well, by the end of the second year, John was experiencing, in the depths of his soul, a strange new life.
Then eventually, after years of really adhering to the A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) principles, he discovered that this strange feeling was joy.
On the practical level, the other principle in finding the path to joy is to put simplicity and order into our lives. This focuses us, not only on being present to the moment, but on placing our whole selves into what we are doing. Then a reverence for life begins to develop.
And another thing is that focusing on genuine openness and communion with ourselves, with others, and with God, helps us to make positive and healthy connections. In our daily relations with one another, there will be many difficult times, but from them we learn compassion.
It is the Gospel that tells us that God constantly offers us grace and love right now, no matter how deficient our past has been. So we need to be open, to not give up, and not to allow pain from our past to prevent us from stepping out in faith and trusting that we will experience the joy that can come from every encounter we have with another person.
Catherine Doherty’s encounter with joy was long-standing because she knew, not only in her soul, her heart, and her spirit, but in every fiber of her being, that she was plunged into the living God. And in spite of disappointment, struggle, difficulties, and pain, nothing could stop her from choosing to say every day, “This is the moment of beginning again.”
At this time of year, Holy Mother Church offers us Lent. This is a great gift from the Church, an opportunity to get a good tune-up, a scrubbing, a going back to the basics again. It is an opportunity to look at our daily lives and to shake off all the encrustations and the beginnings of bad habits that might be adhering to our thinking or our way of seeing the world.
The Church gives us this time so that we can really get refreshed and cleansed through prayer, fasting, sacrifice, almsgiving, and atonement. And so, having cooperated with the graces that have come to us this Lent, when the glory of the Risen Lord appears on Easter morning, we will be ready to meet our Beloved.
Never has a Lent been more important. Every newspaper and every newscast tells us of terrible happenings throughout the world. We must be prepared for whatever is coming by taking up the means provided by Mother Church. We must get ourselves ready, no matter what the future, to live in peace and holiness, without fear and without concern for our own lives.
This is practically impossible, since we are children of a civilization that has watered down much of our Christian heritage. But if terrorism or war comes to us, whether we live or die, all we need to say is, Glory be to God! Glory be to God!
May our joy be complete—whether we are called to martyrdom, or whether we are called to continue to take up our cross every day, to help Jesus bring this world back into the union with himself and one another that he has promised us. Let us begin, with great faith, hope, and trust.
From a letter to the staff by Jean Fox, then director general of the women of MH, March 10, 2003.
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