What is true and perfect joy?
St. Francis of Assisi answered this question one day while he was walking with Brother Leo, one of the original members of the Order of Lesser Brothers:
Imagine, Brother Leo, that all of the scholars and theologians left their universities to live our way of simplicity and humility. That is not true joy! Imagine in all the bishops and archbishops left all they had, took up our habit, and lived our life of humility and Gospel poverty. This is not true joy! Imagine that all the brothers converted all non-believers to understanding the faith or that I could heal anyone who was sick and perform many miracles. True joy consists in none of these things!
Now, imagine that I have been walking all day. It is winter. I am cold hungry and covered in mud and ice. I approach a convent, and the brother asks "Who is it?" and I say, "It is I, Brother Francis."
"Not another one of you poor beggars. Go away. You are simple and stupid. It is dangerous to be out so late in this weather."
"For the love of God," I reply, "please let me in, for I am cold and hungry!"
"Away with you. There is an inn five miles down the road. Go there. Let them deal with you."
I tell you, Brother Leo, that if I can make that journey without losing my patience or getting upset, then I have found true and perfect joy.
Great. All I have to do is not lose patience and not get upset.
The problem I struggle with is that I often feel like I have a right to get upset when reality does not meet my expectations. Simply telling myself not to get upset and be patient is not much of a solution. Here are three steps I take to practice patience and find true and perfect joy:
- Don't take myself seriously. I often think that I am so important that the world owes me something, that it has a responsibility to meet my expectations. Learning to laugh at myself helps me exercise humility and realize that the world owes me nothing.
- Start with why. When I ask myself why I'm upset, realize that it's not because of someone or something else; rather, I discover assumptions, attitudes, and prejudices that prevent me from loving God and others. By recognizing these shadows, I have a better understanding of who I am and that God loves my whole self, shadows included.
- Avoid complication. I often confuse my expectations with my desires. I can find joy by simplifying my desires. I examine what it is that I really want. What is my true desire? What would truly make me happy? I can then review my day and ask the Holy Spirit to show me where and when I have encountered that happiness.
True and perfect joy is a practice that requires discipline. It is an exercise in humility, understanding, and simplicity. We are created for joy--joy is who and what we are. When we are people of joy--that is, when we can find joy in all things--we will realize our true vocation, which is to be people of love and compassion.