Joy of the Saints & The Sorrow of the Worldly
The worldling will not face his colossal inner blah. He multiplies experiences in an unending and desperate attempt to numb his spirit. It hurts so much not to have attained the very reason for his existence, an immersion in God, that he uses things as a narcotic. The worldling pursues prestige or comfort or wealth or sexual encounters not because they basically satisfy him (if they did, once would be enough) but because they dull his inner aching. Always and eventually he is faced with his personal failure. But the sight of it is so revolting and painful, he dives once again into the aspirin sea of frantic pursuits.
The saints know better. Having tasted the best, they know how to assess the least. Having drunk at the Fountain, they spend little time with the trickles. They know both from the word of the Lord and from their own experiences of it that indeed the poor are happy. Saint Paul can speak of superabounding in joy in all his sacrifices and tribulations. It is this apostle who reports to us the remarkable example of the Macedonian churches, which joined a constant cheerfulness to their intense poverty, and from this extreme neediness they begged for the favor of sharing what little they had with another church (2 Cor 8:2–4). If one looks upon a sparing-sharing way of life as dismal, dull, forbidding, his imagination has conjured up a nongospel picture. Buddhist asceticism may be smileless, but the Christic cross begets delight.
Saint Augustine is a prize example of the point I am making. Only those persons can compare pleasures competently who have had experience of them. This is why the worldling’s testimony is of so little value. He knows nothing of what transcends the senses and the natural intellect. Intellectual genius that he was, Augustine knew the keen delights of the mind: music, literature, art, nature, philosophy. Sinner that he likewise was, he also knew the pleasures of the flesh from his years of living with a woman to whom he was not married. Later as a converted mystic, he knew the delights of advanced prayer. His Confessions is a classic account of where happiness is to be found and where not. For him God is his entire delight:
“O my Father,” he prays, “supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful … O Truth, Truth, how intimately did even the very marrow of my mind sigh for you … I hungered for you.… You are my God, and I sigh for you day and night.… Sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, I trembled with love and awe.”
This man is now taken in a love that renders pale his former love: “What cries did I send up to you when reading those psalms! How was I set on fire for you by them, and how did I burn to repeat them.… I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.” So superior is Augustine’s new delight that its normal completion could be nothing less than heaven: “Sometimes you admit me in my innermost being into a most extraordinary affection, mounting within me to an indescribable sweetness. If this is perfected in me, it will be something, I know not what, that will not belong to this life.”
No one has a right to contest Augustine’s account of the relative merits of human delights unless he has himself experienced all that the saint experienced. In other words, only the mystic may discuss the matter intelligently. Any other is like the man born blind who denies there is any such thing as prisms and rainbows.
One who knows the saints well knows also that their habitual state even in the keenest suffering and deprivation was a state of joy, a deep inner delight in God. Those who have read widely in the lives of these heroes and heroines need no example of this truth, but for those who have no considerable acquaintance with them a few illustrations may be of use. Saint Catherine of Siena is surely one of our race’s most glorious women. I shall not narrate her feats of action and contemplation (she was a marvel in both), but we may not fail to remark that this austere, lovely virgin was the recipient of literally unspeakable experiences of God. She could say of herself that “my mind is so full of joy and happiness that I am amazed my soul stays in my body.… And at the same time so much love of my fellowmen has blazed up in me that I could face death for them cheerfully and with great joy in my heart.”
Dubay, T. (2003). Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom (pp. 157–160). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.