When we look around us, we find that many of us are lacking passion in whatever we do, be it in our work, relationship or in Church ministry. How is that so? How could we have started on something so passionately, as in a project or even in an intimate relationship, but now no longer have that fire, that enthusiasm that got us started in the first place. We have fallen into routine, mediocrity and become lackadaisical.
The root of it all is a lack of love in us. When the passion of love is lost, joy is absent. When there is no joy in doing what we are doing, everything becomes an obligation, a commitment we try to live up to for fear of breaking our promises. So like the religious leaders and the contemporaries of Jesus, we are satisfied with an external performance of our duties and fulfilling our responsibilities. We become calculative with our time, our involvement and ministry activities. Married couples live like intimate strangers, not feeling, sharing or caring for each other. They behave more like business partners looking after the family inc. Parents give the impression to their children that they are a nuisance and a burden to them, restraining their movements and activities and even hampering their career.
Clearly, for such people there is no joy. When joy is taken out of work and ministry, then it becomes drudgery. Such activities are no longer empowering or uplifting. These sentiments are just the reverse of that of the man who found a hidden treasure in the field and the merchant who found the pearl in today’s parables. They were so filled with indescribable joy and enthusiasm when they found their pearl of life. They were cognizant of the value of what they found in relation to whatever they possessed. Hence, they were even ready to give up everything for the treasure they perceived will make them fulfilled and happy in life.
Without doubt, joy is the clear sign that we are passionate in what we are doing; and joy is what pulls us to continue to do what we are doing. But where does joy come from? Is joy sufficient to sustain us in our ministry, work and relationship? Is joy always the cause of our passion? One can be passionate and yet not find true joy. Why?
When we observe closely those who are passionate in their work and ministry, many also do not find true joy and happiness. What they find is only apparent joy. Why is this so? The truth is that we can be passionate for many reasons, even for selfish or at least less noble motives. We can be passionate about something because we are ambitious, trying to achieve a goal so that we feel good about ourselves and before others. We might be diligent, meticulous, and responsible; giving our whole being to whatever we do, merely to earn some credit and laurels for our crown. For such people, joy is found almost always at the end, rather than in the process, since they look forward only to the reward and forget that joy is found in the course of giving ourselves entirely to what we find meaningful to do. Even then, such joy is only temporary. Very soon, when the emotions fade and the celebration is over, one returns to emptiness and loneliness.
Joy is also incomplete if our passion is derived from our interest in something. It could be a hobby or anything that occupies our mind and heart, e.g. gardening, art, music, pets, etc. Such joy is never complete even though it gives lots of satisfaction, because it is focused on self. Hobbies are self-fulfilling in that they are more for one’s pleasure than giving joy to others. Of course, it could also be used to give pleasure to others. If that is the primary motive, then it becomes a service of love and we move to another level of joy, namely, love of others, which includes animals as well.
If we contend with merely working for success, achievements and finding pleasure in life, we will not go very far in experiencing true and lasting joy. So we must move to another level of joy, which is love and relationship. Compared to worldly and human pursuits, human love brings us closer to what true joy is all about. Love and union are but a prelude to absolute and pure joy. It is a prelude only because human love is finite, limited and egoistic, even whilst it seeks to be altruistic. Still, for human beings, this would be the highest level of joy that one can attain. Indeed, many of us have experienced the joy of love in relationship, the joy of union, of being in the arms of someone who loves us. Such joy cannot be purchased with silver or gold. It is simply a given and simply received as a gift. Unfortunately, human love is so fragile and it can be lost anytime due to infidelity, misunderstanding, temptations and death. When that happens, joy ceases.
That being the case, where can true and lasting joy be found? This joy can only be found in God alone. That was what happened to Moses. He encountered the face of God. The consequence of that meeting resulted in his face being radiantly white. Moses’ face was radiating and exuding joy. This is the joy that Jesus speaks about in the parables of the treasure and the pearl.
So if we want to have true, absolute, ultimate and lasting joy, it has to be a joy that comes from encountering God, or having God reign in our hearts. Only this kind of joy will be enduring, like that of Moses who was always radiant whenever he met the Lord.
It is therefore necessary to search our hearts and ask the true nature of our joy. As Jesus remarked, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:21) So what is your treasure and pearl? Is it your ambition, your pet project or your loved ones? If your joy is based on these alone, you have made them your absolute treasure, which is tantamount to giving them the status of God. Then you would have committed idolatry, the former of self and the latter of things and creatures. What is not absolute cannot last! Real and lasting joy comes from finding the absolute treasure.
This ultimate treasure can only be God alone and no other! That was what St Paul realized at the end of a long search for joy and fulfillment. He thought his status, his academic and religious credentials; his religious works, could give him security and joy, until he met Christ. Indeed, St Paul found everything else as dung, compared to knowing the love and power of the Lord in His passion, death and resurrection.
Truly, the greatest joy is in the love of the Lord. This has always been the sentiment of all the saints. The great mystic, Blessed Angela of Foligno realized that although she had renounced everything, there was still something she did not do, and hence did not experience fullness of joy, which was to desire God and God alone. She wanted God but also other things. When she grasped this, she cried out, “I Want God!” And God Answered Her: “I shall fulfill your wish.” At that moment, her soul was united with God and she was in perfect joy, experiencing total freedom from all things that restrained her from the fullness of joy and love. To desire God is to desire the Kingdom of God!
How then can we find this amazing and transcendental joy? The first way is by pure grace alone, as in the case of St Paul’s conversion. His conversion is exemplary of the parable of the man who found the treasure hidden in the field. So, too, there are many conversion stories of people who have been transformed by the grace of God. The more radical and unexpected the encounter with God’s presence and healing grace, the greater is the transformation. This could be considered the mystical stage of spirituality.
The second way of encountering God is by the ordinary way, namely, through ascetical means of struggling to be faithful to our prayer life, study, penance and mortifications. This approach requires human cooperation and effort. This does not mean that grace is excluded. It only means that we need to strive and show our sincerity in desiring God before He shows His face to us. What we do ascetically is but to prepare the way for grace to show itself. This, then, is the way of contemplation on the face of Christ as exhorted by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte”.
Consequently, we must pray for the grace to meet the Lord and encounter Him deeply, if we are to be filled with joy, a joy that would lead us to spread this joy to others. That is why, to love God above all things does not mean that we cannot love other creatures or created things. On the contrary, we will love them even more, but not for them as such, but for the love of God and from the love of God. Everything we do now is for others, not for ourselves; and not even primarily for them but for the love of God so that God might be glorified, known and love.
Once we discover this joy, we must make a decision to choose Christ as the only joy of our life. Choosing Him is a decision that we have to make. We only need to say “Yes” to Him and He will reign in us and the kingdom is ours.
Finally, for those of us who have found the Lord and had a God-experience in Jesus, we need to return to this Christ-experience again and again. Forgetting this experience will lead us to mediocrity, indifference and lukewarmness. That was what Moses did. We read that again and again, he would return to meet the Lord so that he could pass his orders to his people. We, too, must relive this experience, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist when we “do this in memory” of Him. Otherwise, we fall into the same pitfall of those who have received the grace to encounter Christ but through neglect and tepidity, become worse than before their conversion. Let us bear in mind the warning of Jesus, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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