One of the cruelest self-delusions of divorcing parents is that “children are resilient.” What is usually meant by that is that children will “recover” from the harm caused by divorce. Those kids, after all, surely want the same thing that their parents want for them: to be happy. This is yet another example of the modern vice of subordinating the common good to the perceived desires (“happiness”) of the individual – the many must accept the path to happiness of the individual as defined and decided by the individual. This habit of mind and action is at least in part due to the misunderstanding of the word happiness, or perhaps the eclipse of joy, which is something very different.
One friend of mine described the time his parents sat him down and asked him what he would think if they got a divorce. “No,” was his answer. But it gets better. When they asked him, “Don’t you want us to be happy?” his answer remained the same: “No.” His parents stayed together. He, as a boy, wanted an intact family with a father and a mother. This is what he and his siblings needed. This was the higher good. It is also God’s design for our lives, that we work out our salvation in fear and trembling within our vocations.
But what of wanting them to be happy? Is it callous to say no to someone’s happiness as they see it? Perhaps, if he had some sort of infused insights from a saint, he could have answered: “I do not want you to be happy, but I want you to be joyful. Whatever thing you think you will gain by breaking up this family is likely a carnal pleasure – meaning it will pass and is something likely entirely attached to this life and not the next. But right here in this family we can pursue God together, and despite any challenges we can in fact attain Him – not because of our own efforts, but because He makes Himself available to us by grace. Therefore, you should avoid thinking that seeking carnal or earthly pleasures – or being free from limits to those things – will make you truly fulfilled. No, I do not want your happiness, but I do want your deeper, spiritual desires to be filled to the brim.”
“Happiness” is not a bad word, but it is at least lesser than “joy.” It seems to be something more temporary or even temporal. It comes and goes. It is a mood or response to present circumstances. Some people are more or less disposed to it generally, and others seem to rarely find it, and neither of them seem particularly praiseworthy or blameworthy for that. For the present, we can simply leave it at that.
“Joy,” on the other hand, is one of those words that books can be written on, yet, like beauty, it is something you know best when you have witnessed or tasted it. There are those who exude it, and oftentimes it doesn’t seem to be dependent on their present circumstances. In fact, a mark of joy is that it seems untarnished by adversity, perhaps even strengthened by it. The saints have repeatedly said that joy is the true mark of holiness, and the reason is that it is a result of the love of God. As Aquinas says, joy is not a virtue in itself, but “charity is the cause of joy,” which is the possession of “the Divine Goodness.” Joy is a part of the virtue of charity, and its proof. We are joyful because we love God, and He loves us. Having attained that state, and understanding that there is nothing higher and that it cannot be taken away, we cannot help but be joyful.
Aquinas said man cannot live without joy, and if he attempts to he will always descend into carnal pleasures – because they are a substitute that provides a temporary high when we lack things that are truly higher and raise us to their level when we enjoy them. This can explain what might seem like the harsh word of St. Basil, writing to a lapsed monk who, like a divorcee, went back on a vow. He opens his letter bluntly stating, “I do not wish you joy,” which he qualifies sharply: “because there is no joy for the wicked.”
With this might come a temptation to force joy into our repertoire. We want to love God, so let’s act joyful to show we love God. Yet, it cannot be forced. My wife often speaks of avoiding the “we’re a happy Christian home” act when people come over. What she means is that we can’t run around trying to clean in a hurry for people coming over – yelling and grumbling all the day – and then slap on smiles for the guests and laugh it all off later. If things get tense when we’re in preparations, we’ll try to slow down and reconcile before receiving guests. Or, we can have this generally if we treat those at home with gruff terseness yet float around the world as a “friendly guy.” Yes, there can be truth in deciding upon a happy disposition even if we don’t “feel” it – that itself can be an act of love – yet when we say that joy is the mark of the saint, we don’t want to make it an act.
So, how can we “get joy?” Strictly speaking, we can’t. Again, Aquinas tells us that joy is a byproduct of charity, of the love of God. We possess joy when we possess God. But we don’t possess God as an achievement, but as a gift received, which is why joy is numbered under one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). We men want to lead and take charge. We want to achieve. We want to succeed. And none of those things are bad if ordered. But spiritual goods are of a different order than all of our earthly affairs. They must be acted upon, yes, but they must first be received. This is why the spiritual life of men is so enriched by the spiritual reality of what we are: sons of God. Sons are powerful because they receive power. And they are joyful in the simple embrace and presence of a loving father. The exuberance visible when a father and son are at sincere and unforced play together is something to behold. And it is, perhaps for many of us, one of the most beautiful images of joy.
Joy is not a new skill to cultivate. It is not a “best practice” of Christian men. It is a sign of our life in Him. If we lack it, it does beg some hard questions. But, if take God’s offer seriously, it is something we can enter. And that word of “entering” is critical. This is how God describes it, when He says that the faithful servant is invited into “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). All of our desires were put there by God. Some of them can be twisted to different degrees into something evil, but they were created good, especially since they were meant to point beyond themselves to our deepest desires, which is union with God.
In the silence and recollection of prayer, joy is something we can enter. If joy is a sign of “possessing God” (or being in God’s possession), then it is most fundamentally a fruit of prayer. It is a gift offered to us. It is present to us in the comforts from which we might be reading this, or in the songs sung by Maximilian Kolbe as he was being starved in a pit by the Nazis. It does require that we lay aside our own designs, our own imaginings, and perceived desires, and seek to love God above all things, because if we have Him, we lack nothing. To give this gift which fills us totally, is a part of the very reason and gift of the incarnation, of the life of Christ that is now offered to us:
“All this I have told you, so that my joy may be yours, and the measure of your joy may be filled up” (John 15:11).
* *I know that the topic of divorce can get fierce with personal perspectives. I grew up in a divorced home and understand that some families simply can’t last in a stable place, and they can find some sense of peace in living for God within the realities of a broken home. My point here, however, is in the fact that the sheers number of and attitude toward divorce stems from false ideals of human happiness and desire.
From St. Augustine in the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas:
And what is our joy, which he says shall be full, but to have fellowship with Him? He had perfect joy on our account, when He rejoiced in foreknowing, and predestinating us; but that joy was not in us, because then we did not exist: it began to be in us, when He called us…