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Joy and Gratitude

by Br. Alban Petesch, OSB
Joy is not a notion usually associated with the season of Lent. We tend to think more somber thoughts: denial, penitence, abstinence and the like. There is that, of course, but St. Benedict tells his monks in Chapter 49 of his Rule, not once but twice, that joy is essential to this season.  One of the stumbling blocks to grasping his approach is that the term joy is often considered synonymous with happiness, although they do not describe the same experience. Happiness is fleeting, joy is lasting. Happiness exists in the moment when nothing to its contrary is present: no sadness, depression, darkness, difficulty. Joy, on the other hand, continues despite other emotions and external happenings. When I try to picture the two for myself, happiness is like the ripples on the surface of a stream which sparkle and glint in the sun but quickly disappear. Joy, however, is like the strong current deep down which always flows no matter the appearance of the surface of the water.  As Christians, joy should animate our lives. If joy is to be a strong current flowing through us, we have to learn to foster attention to the deeper realities of life and let the surface go as it will. The reality of the surface does not often depict what is below, so we must strive to not allow the daily occurrences, the demands, the emotions and the physical sensations disturb the joy that is present. One may not be, and probably is not always happy, but one should try to be always joyful. Searching for this deeper reality can be a good project for Lent.  In this sense, joy can be closely equated with awareness of the presence of God. The more cognizant I am of God’s abiding presence and action in my life, the less likely I am to be troubled and disturbed by what goes on around or even in me. On Ash Wednesday we read at Mass from the Prophet Joel who summoned the people of Israel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart…. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” This summons is for us as well, for we often turn away and forget God, lost as we are in the labyrinth of self: self-pity, self-indulgence, self-righteousness and selfishness. Wandering in this maze of self, I am more prone to fleeting moments of happiness, but also longer periods of sadness, fatigue, frustration, criticism and negativity.  But how do we avoid these pitfalls and reflect this joy? The Gospel from Ash Wednesday offers one corrective: “Groom your hair and wash your face.”  It seems rather insignificant, but putting a good face on things and engaging in the world can help to avoid the call of the ego to get entangled in the web of self. Another corrective is to give. Again the Gospel for Ash Wednesday talks about giving alms and St. Benedict suggests that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving emanates from a joyful spirit and, at the same time, nourishes that joy, because “it is in giving that we receive.” St. Benedict’s suggestions for Lent which ostensibly focus on the usual engagement of denial and abnegation are equally about giving—giving more of the self to God.  There is a companion piece to the joy of Lent, at least in my mind. It is both wonderful and essential to give to others what they need, but we also need to give thanks, thanks to God and thanks to others. Gratitude fosters the spirit of joy because it lifts me out of myself and my own little world. When we give thanks for what we do have and what we have been given, we spend less time focusing on what we don’t have or what has been withheld. When we realize how truly blessed we are, we are less likely to compare ourselves with others, resenting their gifts and opportunities, their perceived good fortune, pleasure or benefits.  This spirit of gratitude can help to keep us grounded in the present moment. If I focus on what I am grateful for right here and right now, I spend less time living in the past—both its good and bad—and less time anxious about the future—what I’ll do or what will be done to me. St. Paul tells us in the second reading for Ash Wednesday, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” Receiving the grace and blessings of this “now” in joy and gratitude will only be possible if I am present and not drifting on the current of memory or floating in the fantasy of some remote future.  So joy and gratitude can be a program for Lent, and for a lifetime. A more contemporary monastic movement shares this idea as well. In the Rule of Taizé we read: “Perfect joy gives itself. He who knows it seeks neither gratitude nor kindness. It is wonderment continually renewed before the free giving of God who grants an abundance of spiritual and material benefits. It is thankfulness. It is thanksgiving.”  Thank you, our friends, for the gifts you have shared with us, for being connected to us, for sharing the journey. May you have a truly joyful Lent!
Spiritual Reflections Spiritual Reflections

Joy and Gratitude

by Br. Alban Petesch, OSB
Joy is not a notion usually associated with the season of Lent. We tend to think more somber thoughts: denial, penitence, abstinence and the like. There is that, of course, but St. Benedict tells his monks in Chapter 49 of his Rule, not once but twice, that joy is essential to this season.  One of the stumbling blocks to grasping his approach is that the term joy is often considered synonymous with happiness, although they do not describe the same experience. Happiness is fleeting, joy is lasting. Happiness exists in the moment when nothing to its contrary is present: no sadness, depression, darkness, difficulty. Joy, on the other hand, continues despite other emotions and external happenings. When I try to picture the two for myself, happiness is like the ripples on the surface of a stream which sparkle and glint in the sun but quickly disappear. Joy, however, is like the strong current deep down which always flows no matter the appearance of the surface of the water.  As Christians, joy should animate our lives. If joy is to be a strong current flowing through us, we have to learn to foster attention to the deeper realities of life and let the surface go as it will. The reality of the surface does not often depict what is below, so we must strive to not allow the daily occurrences, the demands, the emotions and the physical sensations disturb the joy that is present. One may not be, and probably is not always happy, but one should try to be always joyful. Searching for this deeper reality can be a good project for Lent.  In this sense, joy can be closely equated with awareness of the presence of God. The more cognizant I am of God’s abiding presence and action in my life, the less likely I am to be troubled and disturbed by what goes on around or even in me. On Ash Wednesday we read at Mass from the Prophet Joel who summoned the people of Israel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart…. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” This summons is for us as well, for we often turn away and forget God, lost as we are in the labyrinth of self: self-pity, self-indulgence, self- righteousness and selfishness. Wandering in this maze of self, I am more prone to fleeting moments of happiness, but also longer periods of sadness, fatigue, frustration, criticism and negativity.  But how do we avoid these pitfalls and reflect this joy? The Gospel from Ash Wednesday offers one corrective: “Groom your hair and wash your face.”  It seems rather insignificant, but putting a good face on things and engaging in the world can help to avoid the call of the ego to get entangled in the web of self. Another corrective is to give. Again the Gospel for Ash Wednesday talks about giving alms and St. Benedict suggests that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving emanates from a joyful spirit and, at the same time, nourishes that joy, because “it is in giving that we receive.” St. Benedict’s suggestions for Lent which ostensibly focus on the usual engagement of denial and abnegation are equally about giving—giving more of the self to God.  There is a companion piece to the joy of Lent, at least in my mind. It is both wonderful and essential to give to others what they need, but we also need to give thanks, thanks to God and thanks to others. Gratitude fosters the spirit of joy because it lifts me out of myself and my own little world. When we give thanks for what we do have and what we have been given, we spend less time focusing on what we don’t have or what has been withheld. When we realize how truly blessed we are, we are less likely to compare ourselves with others, resenting their gifts and opportunities, their perceived good fortune, pleasure or benefits.  This spirit of gratitude can help to keep us grounded in the present moment. If I focus on what I am grateful for right here and right now, I spend less time living in the past—both its good and bad—and less time anxious about the future—what I’ll do or what will be done to me. St. Paul tells us in the second reading for Ash Wednesday, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” Receiving the grace and blessings of this “now” in joy and gratitude will only be possible if I am present and not drifting on the current of memory or floating in the fantasy of some remote future.  So joy and gratitude can be a program for Lent, and for a lifetime. A more contemporary monastic movement shares this idea as well. In the Rule of Taizé we read: “Perfect joy gives itself. He who knows it seeks neither gratitude nor kindness. It is wonderment continually renewed before the free giving of God who grants an abundance of spiritual and material benefits. It is thankfulness. It is thanksgiving.”  Thank you, our friends, for the gifts you have shared with us, for being connected to us, for sharing the journey. May you have a truly joyful Lent!
Spiritual Reflections Spiritual Reflections
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