Our staff lounge table is a veritable buffet of snack foods. There is cake leftover from banquets, coffee cake leftover from meetings and other open bags of pretzels and crackers that no one will admit to having contributed. The buffet ebbs and flows with the seasons. In Advent and Christmas, it is full to the brim of the normal fare, plus sweet gifts from parishioners. In Lent it gets sparser. No matter what is there, though, there is one rule that is normally tried and true: none of it is really worth eating. There have been many days when I got one bite into a delicious-looking brownie only to discover that it had reached its prime a week ago. Yet, like Charlie Brown with Lucy’s foot ball, I always go back.
This weekend at class, we discussed the fact that the Truth is attractive to non-believers, but only when it is lived with joy. Yet, how many times, for those of us who are trying to live out our Catholic faith, do we lack the very joy that attracts the non-believer? Our secular society already believes that the moral life is too hard. When we allow ourselves to be weighed down, obeying God purely out of a weighty duty, we reinforce the idea to the world that being Christian is too hard and should not be attempted.
I think this can take place in two kinds of instances: the first, in a particular issue, and the second in the general manner in which we live. For the first, the answer is simple but hard. If there is one particular issue that we struggle with, we arrive at joy by starting with a posture of humility, studying the issue, going to confession and praying through it. By doing this, we allow God to convince us interiorly of the truth of the teaching. After that change takes place, we can’t help but loving to follow it.
This is what Nehemiah was trying to get across to the people in a recent First Reading. After listening to the Law to the people all day, they wept. Maybe it seemed too hard? Maybe they knew they could not live up, and didn’t want to try? Whatever the reason, you would almost expect Nehemiah and the priest Ezra to answer them, “I’ll give you something to cry about! Follow that Law or go back into Exile!” But his response is much different. He says that they should dry their tears and celebrate. Then he says a line that has been embroidered onto many a quaint wall hanging: “the joy of the Lord will be your strength” (Neh 8:10). If that is true for the Israelites, how much more is it true for us who have received the Holy Spirit? For the Law was never meant to crush God’s people, but to liberate them.
I think the second kind is harder for me. With a full time job, a child and grad school, it is easy for me to become a slave of my to-do list. It is not theological disagreement but the rush to get out the door on time that sometimes steals the joy from our home. Our five-year-old calls it “talking grumpy”, and it can become contagious.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re the only family trying to be joyful while living on a treadmill. Even more unfortunately, I don’t see a simple, easy way off. How can the joy of the Lord be our strength in stressed-out suburbia? I think we need to go back to our staff lounge table. If we take a good, hard look at our lives, there are many stale cookies that are filling up our plates. Often I stop by the table and mindlessly graze on the food simply because I have a message in my head that says, “I like cookies. There are free cookies on that table. Therefore, I must eat a cookie.” Really, though, all I have done is added on some useless calories that have not nourished my body. I would do much better to bring my own healthy snacks from home which may not look as good, but are in every way substantially better.
I often try and take a good hard look at our family life. What do I engage in that takes up precious time and space needed to make my life run more smoothly? We’ve ditched grown-up TV almost completely (including our most favorite real-time suspense show) in favor of family time and homework. I’ve started carrying my calendar and religiously consulting it to avoid conflicts. Every so often we pray and try to discern whether God has made a way for us to drop down to one income.
The last thing that helps me is when I accept that I am trying to accomplish the impossible, and therefore won’t always do it well. There are days when we don’t get to sit down together for dinner, so I instead turn off the car radio and listen to my son. Other times, I need to put off vacuuming still another day so that I can play Transformers or rub my husband’s shoulders. At the very least, I can refrain from taking out my stress on my family by always speaking respectfully. Doing all of this is a messy business, full of tough choices. But if it makes our home a more peaceful, joyful place, isn’t that worth it?
The joy of the Lord is our strength of witness to outsiders. But it is also our daily strength to live that which we profess to live in the first place. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and not by accident! God loves and therefore wants us to live a full and abundant life for our own sake, too.
Copyright 2010 Libby DuPont