On Friday morning a small, quiet town met evil and the hearts of all in the United States were pierced to their depths with the pain of another horrendous tragedy. We all respond differently to such pieces of news: my first reaction was to be very angry. Slowly that turned to pain, and to tears. Yet in the midst of this suffering, God has once again in His Providence ordered things to bring good out of evil. Let us hope this will draw the hearts of all toward a greater vigilance against the evil in their own hearts, no matter how small it may seem. Let us hope it will strengthen us all to continue with greater perseverance the healing and unity of all peoples, especially those who are seemingly suffering in silence, estranged from others.
Today we celebrate particularly the virtue of hope. Paul is commanding the Philippians to rejoice. This is not a suggestion, but rather a demand, just as he would demand they be holy, just, and compassionate to the needy. They must rejoice, regardless of the circumstances. Paul's emphasis is certainly connected to the prophet Nehemiah's urging that “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength” (Neh. 8:10), as well as Zephaniah's words of encouragement.
What is joy? Is joy an emotional high or some other nice feeling? Is joy a lack of pain? Is joy what we have when everything in life goes as we would want, or as we feel it should? No, joy must be something bigger than this, since Paul himself is writing to the Philippians from prison. And from that shameful and paralyzing experience he sees ever more clearly that Christians can bear joy quietly, at a deeper level of their soul, even when their feelings are contrary, even in the midst of deep pain, even when there is in this life is a tragedy or a disaster.
Joy, essentially, is delight in the goodness of God's providence that has conquered evil and given eternal meaning to human suffering, given glory to humanity. Joy is linked to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Joy is remembering the whole story: that God redeems us, that God is with us. Joy is the knowledge that the all-powerful God loves us. “The Lord is near!” is the source of Christian joy. This is why it is possible for us even now to have joy.
John Paul II says that “In a Christian's heart, peace is inseparable from joy....When the joy that is in a Christian heart is poured out on others, it gives them hope and optimism; it spurns them to be generous in their daily toil and infects the entire society. My children, only if you have in you this divine grace which is joy and peace, will you be able to do anything useful for others.”
Thus Paul encourages us also to prayer, for prayer is critical for maintaining this peace that bears joy. St. Bernard of Clairvoux reminds us that prayer prevents things from robbing us of peace, since prayer “regulates our affections, directs our actions, corrects our faults, guides our conduct, gives beauty and order to our life. Prayer brings with it the knowledge of things divine and also things human. It determines what we ought to do and reflects on what we have done, in such a way that prayerful hearts never become restless or in need of discipline.” Without prayer, we expose ourselves to worry and anxiety, which can eat up our joy like a cancer. And the more we live in joy instead of in worry, the more we will realize that worry in fact always makes everything we do worse, because it sucks up our strength. Anxiety makes us to focus on our self-preservation rather than on the good of others, turning inward rather than outward, thus closing off the demands of love.