In a thread of Instagram comments I recently came across, a friend-of-a-friend/mommy blogger/kindred creative spirit referred to her young son as her “melancholic child.” She said in the comment that sometimes, when he’s grumpy, she tries to approach his grumpiness by reminding him to be joyful. Recent to that post, he’d responded to her suggestion with: “I don’t know HOW to be joyful!” This made me chuckle, but man oh man, did I deeply identify with the words of her five-year-old.
I think I might have been this “melancholic” child when I was growing up. I think I’m still sort of this melancholic child, in fact, even at age 24—and while my family loves me very much, they will probably read this post and silently agree.
My grouchiness has been, at times, chronic and scathing. It’s a phenomenon I can’t explain and one I’ve thought, for many years, I couldn’t necessarily control. I remember feeling the internal conflict inside myself as a teenager of wanting to be cheerful with my family and feeling guilty for being short with them, but also feeling like I could not muster the energy for even so much as a smile.
Why? I still don’t know.
I’ve pondered this in my heart a lot over the past year. So last spring, I developed the habit of praying the joyful mysteries of the rosary on my way to work every day. As I made the drive from Joliet to Aurora, I’d pray the rosary on my fingers, starting with the Annunciation—the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and finally, the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
So when I was in Rome this past fall, I was sitting in the adoration chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica one morning, praying the joyful mysteries for the umpteenth time, when I realized something—these “joyful” moments we reflect on are actually surrounded by circumstances of suffering.
Consider the story of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that as a virgin, unmarried woman, she’s going to conceive a child who will be the Son of God. As Christians who know the end of the story, we see this moment as an immensely joyful one—how could the divine conception of our Lord in Mary’s womb not be a joyful moment? But for a young and unmarried virgin, this moment was one with remarkably heavy implications. This, for Mary, was likely a time of great suffering.
The circumstances surrounding the Nativity are another excellent example. Christ is born—and we rejoice! Again, as Christians who know the end of this story, we celebrate this moment. But for Mary and Joseph—new, expecting parents traveling for a government-mandated census, forced to stay in a barn—could have only been tempted to fret as our Mother went into labor. Inevitably, there was suffering surrounding this moment.
And yet, we refer to these moments as ‘joyful.’ Why? How could such suffering illicit such joy?
Mother Teresa sheds light on this.
Her approach to suffering, in any shape or form and regardless of circumstances, was the belief that suffering is always a gift. When she encountered people in her work who were deeply suffering—whether because of physical ailments or some other spiritual form of suffering—she’d tell these people, “how much the Lord must love you, to give you the opportunity to suffer.”
The Lord suffered what has been called one of the (if not THE) greatest physical sufferings in the history of the world. The pain of the Crucifixion was immeasurably intensified by His body’s exhaustion after carrying His cross to Golgotha. Add to the equation His head-to-toe wounds from the lashings He received at the scourging, not to mention the crown of thorns that He wore. Also consider the fact that mere hours prior, He was under such physical stress at the knowledge of what was to come that He was literally sweating blood (a real medical condition called Hermatidrosis). All of these very real, tangible physical sufferings He endured make up what was likely the most painful death in the history of the human race.
And He did it all for us.
So when we suffer, in any shape or form, it goes not unnoticed by our Lord, who suffered greatly. Our sufferings become an opportunity, then, to unite our hearts with His. Our sufferings become an offering the way that His were an offering for our souls.
The cross is the epitome of suffering. But when Christians see the cross, we are joyful. We are overwhelmed at the truth of the cross—which is that God loved us THAT much… to endure THAT level of suffering, all for the sake of our good.
Fr. Mike Schmitz, in a recent podcast, said that “joy is the secret of the Christian.”
Joy without suffering, he said, is not really joy. The two are married. You cannot have one without the other.
I believe, to some extent, there’s a level of mystery in the relationship between joy and suffering that as human beings, we’ll never understand. Just the same, I see how we should be joyful at the realization that our sorrows are not without purpose. I see how a life lived in pursuit of faith, and sorrows offered on behalf of souls, could not possibly be lacking in joy. There is SO MUCH hope in suffering. How do we know? Because there is SO MUCH hope in the cross.
So how could we not be hopeful?
How could life be possibly lacking in joy when there is so much reason to be hopeful? When we have such a wonderful God, who took care of Mary in her unplanned pregnancy? Who gave Elizabeth the gift of a child, even in her old age, who became the greatest prophet in the Bible? Who cradled the baby Jesus as He slept in a manger, and protected Him as His family fled genocide? A God who spared Simon’s life long enough for Him to look upon his Savior’s face? Who led the child Jesus to the temple, where His parents observed His teaching and knew He was willed for remarkable things? How could we know these stories and not be hopeful? And when there is so much reason to hope, how could we not have joy?
There is so much sorrow. Truly, deeply—there is so much sorrow. But without sorrow, there would be no joy.
Without sorrow, there would be no need for God.
And how could we not be joyful at that?