Surprised by joy and rising in humility

  • September 28, 2023

What does it mean to be holy? To grow in holiness is to persevere in the life in Christ, to live out our baptism every day. The end goal of the life in Christ is to become a saint, to be divinized, to become like God. In sum, it is to achieve what we Byzantines call theosis: participation in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. This means that we must die to self each day and join ourselves ever more fully to Christ; we must strive to be Christ-like. St. John the Baptist summed this up when he declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). This process of decreasing requires repeated acts of the will: to pray daily, to confess regularly, to receive Holy Communion at least weekly, to undertake corporate and spiritual works of mercy, to be disciplined in our lives and to earnestly desire these things.

A short while ago I was chatting with a good friend about the qualities or aspects of holiness. Are there particular attributes of holiness that we see in holy people and that we would seek to cultivate in our own lives through the action of the Holy Spirit within us and through the examples of the saints? We both agreed that there are two attributes common to holy people, to the saints: humility and joy.

The great sixth-century spiritual father St. John of Sinai writes in The Ladder of Divine Ascent “humility is the only virtue that no devil can imitate. If pride made demons out of angels, there is no doubt that humility could make angels out of demons.” In another place he writes “humility is constant forgetfulness of one’s achievements.” In other words, humility is a great weapon against our pride and vainglory. To paraphrase St. John again, if pride and its attendant passions knock us down, humility will raise us up. We should strive to acquire true humility by serving God, by serving others and by being grateful for all God gives us.

At the Madonna House apostolate in Combermere, Ont., one regularly encounters throughout the various buildings the declaration “I am third.” In other words, God is first, others are second and I am third. To live this humility out, we must be Christ-like. Just as Christ emptied Himself on the Cross for our salvation, we must empty ourselves in service to others and by placing God over all things in our lives.

We must also guard against false humility. False humility is a manifestation of vainglory. Think about times when someone has complimented us on a particular gift that we have, when we have achieved something or when we have acted virtuously. The response of false humility is when we say, “Oh, no, no, please stop. No, please it was nothing. Please!”, when in our hearts we are saying “Oh yes, please say more. Yes, I am great. Yes, please tell me more. Don’t stop.” The response of the truly humble, of the saint, is one of gratitude: “Thank you. You are most kind to say so.” In their heart the holy man or woman says “Thank you Lord for this gift you have given me and for your great mercy.”

What can we say about the attribute of joy? Joy is a spiritual condition, not an emotion like happiness. While it is good to be happy and God desires our happiness, it can at times give way to sadness or be impeded by passions such as anger or despondency. We are not always happy, but we can always be joyful. Joy is deeper. Joy is paschal; it is of the Resurrection. St. John of Damascus reminds us of this when he writes, “Christ the Lord is risen. Our joy that has no end.” 

Joy, like humility, is something we must seek to cultivate assiduously. A priest friend of mine often refers to the “asceticism of joy.” To cultivate joy is a spiritual discipline. It is a spiritual gift that flows from our baptism when through the washing away of sin we experience new birth in the Resurrection. We cannot ourselves be the source of our own joy, we cannot create it ourselves, but we can ask for it and God will give it to us.

Prayer is a necessary precursor to the cultivation of joy as is wonder. Wonder is something we have neglected and some of us have perhaps almost lost by burying it deep. I will have more to say on wonder in my next column.

(Bennett is a deacon of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada.)

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