Joyfulness is one of the things I most admire in other people; perhaps one of the main marks of an authentic Christian life. I gravitate towards people who exude joy, and I aspire to do the same. Unfortunately, despite what feels like a long road of seeking to build a joyful life, the emotional ups and downs of the day-to-day make it hard to achieve. This verse, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, has become for me both a challenge and an invitation:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!”
The first time I remember setting an intention to live a joyful life was part of my undergraduate studies at Creighton University. During a semester study abroad program in the Dominican Republic called Encuentro Dominicano, we read “A Call to Discernment in Troubled Times” by Dean Brackley, SJ.
One of the points that has stuck with me through the years is the distinction between joy and happiness — happiness being a feeling in response to pleasant circumstances and joy being something deeper that doesn’t fall victim to our momentary sense of well-being or suffering. This deeper sense of joy comes from forming strong connections with community and from aligning oneself on the side of those who are marginalized by society. Ultimately, it is a strong connection with God that serves as the source of ongoing joy.
As life has gone on, I have responded to that call in various ways, but I’ve also fallen short time and again.
A few years ago, my family went to Navy Pier, a popular tourist attraction in downtown Chicago, to watch the firework show on the lake shore for the Fourth of July. We hyped up the outing for our kids, paid for parking and snacks and staked out a small spot amidst the crowds where we could sit and watch the show.
As the sky slowly darkened, a thick fog descended, moving in close while our hearts and hopes slowly sank. Soon we began to hear the popping of fireworks, but we could see nothing. The “oohs” and “aahs” that normally accompany a firework show were replaced by scoffs of disbelief and disappointment.
We knew the sparkle, beauty and wonder was there, hidden within the fog, but we couldn’t enjoy it. The anticipation we had felt was replaced by frustration, sadness and even anger. We put in time, effort and money for this show. We wanted to be dazzled! We wanted to feel awe! We wanted to feel joy. But we didn’t.
I might have thought joy was a state that I could attain once and for all, but I’ve had a rude awakening to the reality of my own weaknesses.
Timidity. Insecurity. Anger. Impatience. Disappointment. Frustration. Expectation. Pride. Laziness. These are some of the things that descend like a fog on a daily basis, inhibiting both the momentary happiness and the deeper, joyful state.
This even happens in moments that are supposed to restore my connection with God, like the Eucharist. I have a spouse who works on Sundays, so getting my crew into a church pew for Mass is on me. Even when his schedule allows, we aren’t quite as on-the-same-page regarding the priority to attend Mass as we thought we were earlier in our marriage. This, in itself, is a barrier to feeling joyful during Mass. Moreover, how can I feel connected to Jesus’ body, being lifted up above the altar, when there is one child pulling on my sweater beside me and two others fighting over a stuffed tiger in the pew behind me? Then there are the stares and judgments I feel being thrown my way.
All in all, I often end up feeling angry, annoyed and resentful during this holy gathering of God’s people.
I shamefully brought this to my spiritual director. His answer surprised me.
“Well, that’s the graced moment. Pay attention to that. Don’t worry about what’s happening on the altar. It still reaches you.”
He also suggested not forcing my children or husband to go to Mass. Another big surprise, and this coming from a priest! He wasn’t saying that my noisy kids aren’t welcome. Rather, he was inviting me to analyze what kind of Mass experience we were all having and, through my anger and resentment at our failure to live up to the expectations that I thought the Church was putting on me and my family, what kind of faith I was modeling to my children.
In this context, I have come back to St. Paul’s simple but oh-so-challenging command: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say it, rejoice!
I decided to write my own litany of joy by naming some of the triggers that kept me from practicing it, beginning with my anger and resentment points around Mass: my husband arriving late or not at all. My kids being unable to calm their energy even during the most reverent moments of Mass. And on.
Then I realized that what was missing from these challenging moments was a connection with God’s love for me; that instead of inhibiting joy, they could serve as reminders for the source of it.
To help me reconnect, I expanded my litany to include reminders about the truth of God’s love:
Husband didn’t make it to Mass? Rejoice! God is everywhere.
Arriving late to Mass? Rejoice! God welcomes you with open arms.
Noisy kids are drawing nasty looks? Rejoice! God loves the sound of children’s voices.
Kids are fighting during the consecration? Rejoice! They are part of the Body of Christ.
From there I could move on to the plethora of sticking points in my daily life that are constantly hijacking my joy.
The house is a mess? Rejoice!
Dishes are piling up? Rejoice!
Kids won’t brush their teeth? Rejoice!
God is there with you and sees your goodness, all the time.
This has helped me also respond to situations differently. My kids do not attend Mass with me every week. My husband and I are growing in our ability to communicate clearly and calmly our expectations and limitations. I have even taken to putting in earplugs once in a while when my kids are feeling loud and I’m not.
I don’t expect all parents to come to the same conclusion. Every family is unique, and what’s right for one isn’t necessarily what’s right for another. But for me, this shift in perspective has been important.
By connecting with God’s love for the world — and for me — in the midst of the densest fog, I hope to grow closer to filling each day with joy. I hope to awaken, again and again, wonder and awe at the sparkling show that is this life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.