Joy in God alone – Wisdom from St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross

It seems that we, the people of the Twenty-First Century, are incredibly preoccupied.  We relentlessly think of ourselves.  We live in little “ego bubbles,” only concerned about me, my life, my family, and my problems.  In these bubbles, we are rarely happy and free.  Our anxieties can so disturb us that we get locked into a miserable attitude.  We can be so distracted about money matters, for instance, that we miss out on the joy going on right in front of us, like when our children or grandchildren frolic in the grass or when someone smiles at us.  If we observe people’s faces in supermarkets, coffee shops, in their cars, and even at church, they seem weighed down by life’s burdens.  How can we live the Gospel in this situation?

Joy is the answer.  The Psalmist says God alone is our happiness.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that no one will take away their joy in him.  St. Paul tells his fellow Christians to rejoice in God and Jesus, always.  In his first homily, Pope Francis preached, “Here is the first word I wish to say to you: Joy!”  So, joy is essential to the life of a follower of Jesus.  It is not an option.

In this regard, two of our best teachers are
St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross.  They simplify the Gospel.  God’s delightful love for us calls forth our Joy in God.  The good news is God rejoices in us and invites each one of us to rejoice in the divine life, too.  Though Francis was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy, and John in 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain, they have a common message for us today: Joy in God alone.  Francis says, “Let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior, the only true God.”  John says of God outright, “He alone is my joy.”

Both men were wholly centered on and fully joyful in God.  Both were intensely dedicated to prayer.  They were free.  They surrendered physical, psychological, and spiritual possessions.  They weren’t self-preoccupied, but God-occupied because each one followed Jesus’ command to deny self.  Francis called it poverty.  John called it the path of nothingness.  Either way it is a simple path.  They make living the Gospel simple and real, because all one needs to do is to rejoice in God and forget self.  Both saints focus us on the Greatest Commandment, which is to love God and neighbor.  We love neighbor by first loving God, which necessitates a surrendering of every addictive love.

What does joy in God alone mean?  It means to desire and delight in God alone, that is, above and beyond all things.  It means to let God be God, not letting any of our concerns, projects for happiness, or addictions take the place of God.  So, in effect, joy in God alone centers our hearts on God and not on what we think will give us happiness.  John of the Cross says the spiritual journey, “Is a venture in which God alone is sought and gained; thus only God ought to be sought and gained.”  Francis exhorts, “Let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else” except God.

As a kind of synonym, John calls joy in God alone, “happy nothingness.  This nothingness is happy because one finds all fulfillment and bliss in God.  Therefore, one does not need anything to be happy.  Francis and John learned this joy in nothingness through prayer.  Then, they could live with less.  Neither one needed possessions to make them joyful.  The happy nothingness implies “joy in God alone” is unconditional because God is unconditional; such is happiness for no reason at all.  John tells us to rejoice in God, our salvation.  When God is our joy, God is our all.  Francis prayed, “My God and my all.”  This isn’t something forced on us, but an active choice we make and to which we remain faithful.  John says, “The poor in spirit are happier and more constant in the midst of want because they have placed their all in nothingness.”

A look at the lives of Francis and John can help give flesh to their teaching on joy in God alone.  The lives of Francis and John are principally lives of joy.  One time early in his conversion, Francis was merrily singing as he walked through a forest.  Then, Francis ran into a company of thieves.  They beat him and threw him into the snow.  However, that did not dampen Francis’ spirits.  He was so ecstatic that he rolled around in the snow and sprang up to praise God in a loud voice.

John lived the Discalced Carmelite life for the first time in a ramshackle monastery located in the hamlet of Duruelo.  His time there was filled with peace and joy.  John felt he was truly happy with the Discalced Carmelite life because it afforded him the silence and solitude needed to center on God alone.  He often looked back on his days in Duruelo as among the happiest in his life.  During Christmas one year, John spied a statue of the Infant Jesus, picked it up and danced around mesmerized by divine bliss.

One can practice Francis and John’s way of joy in God alone simply. All one has to do is pray.  Francis often visited caves above the city of Assisi.  There he spent extended periods of time in prayerful silence and solitude.  His earliest biographer, Thomas Celano, says Francis “frequently chose solitary places so that he could direct his mind completely to God.”  He was so dedicated to prayer, according to Celano, that he prayed as he sat, walked, ate, and drank.  It was his custom to seek out solitary places like abandoned churches so he could pray through the night.  Celano says through his constant prayer Francis “overcame many fears and disturbances of mind.”  That sounds like a relief and a joy!

At Duruelo, John had a tremendously prayerful schedule, which included Mass, singing Psalms, and two hours of silent prayer in community.  Additionally, the whole night was kept as a sacred silence so each friar could contemplate God.  The silence and solitude of Duruelo allowed John to find all his enjoyment in God.  On top of these basics, John prayed constantly.  While living in El Calvario, John prayed the Psalms with the other friars then retired to his room to devote his day to meditation.  In Baeza, it was his custom to sleep only three hours and use the rest of the night to pray in the chapel.

Now, Francis says to never take one’s mind off God, but always to love God with a pure heart and a pure mind.  He says that “after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety,” we should “adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind.”  I believe his shorthand word for this is adoration.  In his sixteenth admonition, Francis says the pure of heart never stop adoring God.  Being so captivated by God’s goodness that one doesn’t want to turn away is what adoration means.  Francis would have us always be wholly occupied with and fascinatingly attentive to the Mystery of God.

John has a lot to say about prayer.  John speaks of preserving a continual silent communion with God within.  He says that we should never flee prayer and that our souls ought to feed on God constantly.  He teaches us to pray in silence, solitude, and with a pure desire for God.  He writes, “Be joyful and gladdened in your interior recollection with him, for you have him so close to you.”  We might sum it up, though, with one of his Sayings of Light and Love: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning him.”  For John, to pray is to let go of self and sink into God.  Prayer enjoys God for God’s sake.