“We are creatures of a Creator, and he created us because he thought we’d enjoy it. He thought we’d love it,” my characteristically joyful friend said. He was giving a short reflection on prayer, but it was these words that have resonated with me the last several months. At the time, I wasn’t particularly enjoying life—I was enduring it, as we more often do—and his words recalled to me a fundamental belief I had adopted years earlier from The Brothers Karamazov. At a moment of great sorrow and disappointment, the hero, the young novice Alyosha, hears the Gospel reading on the wedding at Cana and remembers his late mentor’s teaching: “Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited. He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness . . . He who loves men loves their gladness, too.”
But surely this is not the time for wedding feasts and gladness, what with the pandemic at its height and the political ruckus raging. There is a season, after all, and this is not the time for dancing, laughter, or embracing. Well, perhaps—but perhaps it is. We are under no moral obligation to absorb the sorrows of the world. On the contrary, we are called to be salt and light—to bring flavor and joy to this world. The refrain proclaimed by all God’s people on the Feast of the Baptism, that threshold of the new liturgical year, was, “You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” When? I asked God. Why not now? was his reply.
Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his book Interior Freedom, writes, “When we concentrate too much on something that isn’t right, and make it our main topic of conversations, we end up giving evil more substance than it has . . . This is not a head-in-the-sand attitude, but the optimism of charity.” On my best parenting days, I seem to retain this optimism. When my girls are squabbling over a coloring book, I point them to the cardinal at the bird feeder. The beauty of the bird has a greater reality than their pettiness. We refer to it as parenting by distraction in our house, but it’s also a call, a beckoning, to joy. Jacques Phillipe continues, “We do more to help others experience conversion and make progress by encouraging them in the positive aspects of their lives than by condemning errors. Good is more real than evil, and it can overcome evil.” We all know it is often easier to tickle the tantrum out of a toddler than to address the actual whining. But while positive reinforcement may work with varying degrees of success in child-rearing, coaching, and on psychiatric wards, does it really work in our own souls? A certain level of grief seems appropriate for the day. How do we cultivate joy—this seemingly elusive fruit of the Spirit? Let’s turn back to The Brothers Karamazov for a hint.
As Alyosha hears the Gospel read, he considers the “gladness of some poor, very poor people . . . Of course they were poor, since they hadn’t wine enough even at a wedding. The historians write that in those days, the people living about the Lake of Gennesaret were the poorest that can possibly be imagined . . . and another great heart, his Mother, knew . . . that his heart was open even to the simple, artless merrymaking of some obscure and unlearned people, who had warmly bidden him to their poor wedding.”
We are witnesses to all types of poverty these days. We may be experiencing material or spiritual poverty ourselves. We don’t deserve suffering, but we don’t deserve celebration either. Both are gifts. Don’t reject the gift of joy. Where you find it today, thank God the Father for it, invite Jesus to share in it, and ask the Holy Spirit to multiply it.
Finally, Alyosha’s contemplation on the Gospel passage culminates in a vision of his beloved Fr. Zosima at the wedding, who tells him, “Begin your work, dear one, begin it . . . He has made himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing the water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short. He is expecting new guests, He is calling new ones unceasingly forever and ever.” It is at once both a vision of heaven and earth, a beckoning to draw water joyfully for all his children.