#24 of a Series on Psalm 50 – “Restore unto me the joy of salvation.“
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22f)
We all want to be happy, and since the time of Aristotle[i], it has been the stated goal of human life for multitudes. But who is really happy? What is joy? How is it found? And lost?
Since my early training in metallurgy, I’ve always been interested in mining and minerals, so a TV series about gold mining adventurers caught my attention a few years back. Called ‘Gold Rush[ii]’ the series focuses on rough and tumble adventurers who are on the quest for gold by learning how to mine for it in remote, harsh wilderness settings. Their foibles and successes are entertaining, and their demonstrable courage at times to follow their pursuit admirable (despite the end goal perhaps).
In one episode, the miner was in an Indonesian outland, where friend and foe could not always be distinguished. But there is a profound scene, where the penniless natives who often helped the heavily equipped Western miner-strangers,) happily bailed them out of countless dangerous situations and untenable circumstances. One of the goals of the miners was to show the natives that they could be find wealth literally under their own feet and become rich. And in this scene, the miner – tired, discouraged, and sad – was directly contrasted to the simple, happy, native he’s trying to ‘convert’ to his way of thinking that somehow his life would be better and worthwhile if he just could get his hands on gold. The simple smile on the face of the native, stooped on the ground, contrasted starkly with thediscouraged face of the miner who pitied the poverty of his helpers, as he continued his search for happiness by acquiring the bright colored metal.
Of course, Christianity has countless stories of people discovering spiritual joy in an even more profound and deeper way by coming to Christ and renouncing the world. The lives of the saints tell the story again and again. As we come to this time of the year, we remember St. Nicholas as a man of joy, sharing that joy, healing and love of Christ with others. And many of the Fathers of the Church speak of this joy as a tangible and unmistakable gift for Christians.
Is it just that easy?
Well, for us fallen mortals, the experience of joy in this world may seem to be quite elusive. I would say, even for Christians.[iii] Spiritual joy (as in the New Testament) is different from what we would call ‘happiness’, which in this world can be quite fleeting. I’m thinking here of the ecstasy of the Transfiguration[iv] moment for the Apostles – filled with an abiding sense of God’s presence and a desire to ‘park it’ right there, pitch a tent and take it in a good long time. This needs to be contrasted with what came after (as discussed heretofore) when Jesus then takes his disciples aside, rebukes them and teaches them about his forthcoming Crucifixion and resurrection. Their bewilderment was seemingly not at all ‘joyful.’ I would suggest this is more like the ebb and flow of the emotional tide of most Christians go through where we have moments when we are seemingly ‘on fire’ for the Lord, and other times, when barely a lukewarm coal can be found.
When we base our perception of Christianity on this feeling of happiness or joy, or ascribe our Christian walk in those terms, we can sometimes lose our spiritual bearings and begin to seek the ‘happiness’ as for the sake of that feeling alone. And in the spirit of the previous discussion on delusion, we can try to ‘whip ourselves up’ into a false happiness or sense of security, which is not of God because it is fundamentally false.
As Psalm 23 (22) reminds us, there are valleys of the shadow of death in this life that are invariably frightening or disheartening. People, including good Christians, experience the same things as everyone else – like the grisly darkness and evils of violence and war – and have the resultant PTSD to prove it. This is a perilously heavy cross to be born – and it’s not a seemingly ‘happy’ one.
There’s No Happiness in Sin?
It can be said, I think accurately, that happiness has fled because of sin. I can remember in my seminary days, a vehement discussion among the students who were contrasting the Eastern Paschal texts (from the Easter season) with one peculiar line from the Western Paschal Rite (in the RC Church) at Easter, which proclaimed, ‘Oh happy fault, (in Latin – Oh Felix Culpa) that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” How in the world can the ‘fault’ be ‘happy’, let alone ‘merit’ the coming of the Redeemer? And the previous verse, ‘O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out!” is equally troubling. Much of this thought can be traced to St. Ambrose, and subsequently to St. Augustine whom he taught.[v] Cynically, one can read this in such a blasphemous way to see sin as a ‘plaything’ of God – creating man to sin so that He can ride in on His white horse and save him through Jesus. I’m sure that this is not what the saintly Ambrose had in mind, but he does seem to say that sin was almost a given, and because of it (alone?), did the entirety of salvation history unfold, including the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection.
It must be said that St. Ambrose is emphasizing the overwhelming graciousness of God, that while we were yet in sin, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Much of what he writes points to how God uses the events of one’s life (including the ones where sin is at work) to nonetheless draw us to salvation and life. When St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “God makes all things work for the good for those who love Him” he means all things. God is not afar, waiting for us to figure things out and turn to Him, but is knee-deep in our mess, and prompting us, showing us, and pulling us out of it.
The Eastern Fathers, from what I’ve read, take a different view from St. Ambrose. The Original Sin was a catastrophic, dehumanizing event utterly rupturing the relationship between God and man. There could be nothing essentially ‘good’ about it because it was essentially ‘not God’.[vi] It was in no way ‘necessary’ for as a number of Fathers explicitly said, the Incarnation of Christ would have happened, as God’s extension of His love to humankind, even if there had been no sin.[vii] And salvation from sin would have not been necessary, and the sense of exaltation (happiness) and fulfillment of the human relationship with God would not have proceeded from Hell (through the Cross) but in another form of spiritual ‘resurrection’ and eternal communion with the Trinity – effectively what one might call a ‘theosis’ moment.
Can sin be ‘happy’. No, not in my experience anyway. Sin always (eventually) brings discouragement, misery and death.
Can Happiness be restored?
David experienced personal misery deeply because of his sins, beginning with adultery and murder and adding anger, doubt, etc. into the mix. David’s joy was gone. But with his repentance came the hope, of a restored joy. Here is where the holy Prophet David stands up and stands out – by asking God to restore his joy! This is one of the first fruits of repentance – the inner prayer based upon restored trust that in God while we have sinned (in the past) penance gives us a way to be restored. The burden of his heart is being lifted and turning to God, he seeks a return of the joy that he knew before.
David’s joy is not in anything external – but in His relationship with the Holy One, and in salvation. While much can be said about the sense of what ‘salvation’ is, in the Old Testament – deliverance from terrible circumstances (e.g. The Exodus, or from enemies (e.g. the Babylonians), the sense of this is always, in an underlying way, spiritual. Salvation is salvation from that which is Evil, the fallen world and the Prince of this World who is our enemy. David personalizes this, because he has experienced the ‘enemy within’ but through repentance that enemy is being cast out. This anticipates, and prophecies in fact, the ultimate salvation that would happen through the coming of Christ, His Cross, Death and Resurrection.
So, if we are not joyful, could it be that we are in need of penance? Maybe. But we are not to seek penance because we are seeking joy. This is akin to us just trying to patch things up (superficially) and make everything ‘OK’. But perhaps even our less-than-pure motives can move us in the right direction! It’s like the addict who is so miserable he’ll do anything to lift him from his misery – including even turning to God.
Penance is not merely external, nor is it emotional in essence. It is fundamentally born in the recognition of Truth, that surely then bears fruit in sorrow when we become aware of personal[viii] sin, the bearing the burden of that in the soul, and the turning to God to seek forgiveness. The tears of penance are sad and bitter. In time, as the fruits of penance begin to be realized, they can be transformed by grace to tears of joy. The path to lasting joy leads from the gate of sorrow.
As a priest I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to anyone who was sad or depressed that they should go to Confession (unless I was aware of serious sin.) Maybe I should have? I do know this, that countless people have approached the icon of Christ in confession filled with sorrow and remorse and unburdened themselves of their sins, and heard the words from the Gospel, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ (Lk. 7:48)
And many, so many, have walked away light-hearted and filled with joy.
And didn’t even have to ask God for the restoration of their joy and inner peace, but just to give thanks to Him for it. Ω
[i] Per Aristotle when posed with the question what is the supreme good for man, from the , Nicomachaen Ethics: “And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever. “ As quoted from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201301/aristotle-happiness
[ii] In what might have been a Freudian error (?), as I typed, ‘Gold’ I ended up typing ‘God’! The difference cosmically between ‘gold’ and God is immeasurable, but in this world, they are too often, confused.
[iii] I’ve been reading lately St. Simeon the New Theologian, who reflects on how the joy of Christians is unmistakable sign, and many other Fathers spoke in the same way. (References upon request.)
[iv] It has been said that the Transfiguration can best be understood in light of the darkness of the Cross, and those who are immersed in it with Christ.
[v] An interesting reflection on this by Brian Kelly can be found here: https://catholicism.org/o-happy-fault.html It is a reflection on a series of Lenten reflections and the writings of Cardinal Biffi of Milan, the city of St. Ambrose.
[vi] I would like to hear a Protestant take on this. If the Original Sin resulted in the ‘total depravity’ of mankind, could it ever be seen as good in any way? Do weigh with a comment if you have any thoughts on this.
[vii] This is, of course, totally speculative. But St. Maximus among others attests to it, and even later, Duns Scotus, in the West, gives credence to the idea. https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/06/21/theology-without-the-fall/
[viii] An oft-overlooked aspect of our whole perception of sin is that it is only personal. Sometimes this seemingly gets amplified in Christianity. But much of the sin of the Old Testament was seen to be corporate, and a cursory look at the warnings of the Apostle John in Revelation to the Churches of Asia, spoke of corporate sins. Where and how do we reflect on ‘corporate’ sin in our own age? The systemic sins, especially in the Church, are borne from the individual failings in conscience, but united with others become very powerful and damaging, especially in the Church. Wars are never caused by just on person. There is always a simmering hatred/violence/pride among many that promotes it.