Joy is the second of the twelve “fruits of the Holy Spirit,” after charity, and yet we have many examples of sad, resolute, and suffering saints. Fortunately, there are also joyful and laughing saints. Philip Neri had a great sense of humor. Teresa of Avila famously said, “God deliver us from sour-faced saints” as she led her Carmelite sisters in dance.
Francis of Assisi was one of those joyful and laughing saints. In fact, he seems to have radiated joy throughout his life; it was perhaps his most alluring quality. It has drawn people to him for centuries.
Of course, Francis matched other saints in determination and suffering, but there is no question that he also experienced and communicated the joy that St. Paul calls “the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). His band of merry minstrels went about singing despite—or perhaps because of—the deprivations they endured. Accounts of early Franciscans tell how the brothers had to struggle not to burst into laughter every time they came upon one another.
When Francis preached repentance, he always began his sermons with the words “May the Lord give you peace.” He never delivered a woe-to-you, fire-and-brimstone message. Rather, he invited people to join in the joy that he was experiencing. He didn’t say, “Change your ways, or go to hell,” but, “You will have no peace or true joy until you repent and change your ways.”
The Paradox of Perfect Joy. During his life, Francis suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally. But he saw a direct connection between his suffering and his joy. He realized that suffering results from selfish craving—that is, of clinging to ego and those attitudes that puff us up. And he knew that only by letting go of egotistical attachments does suffering end. Francis found joy through detachment from—and even abandonment of—self.
One day Francis described “perfect joy” to Brother Leo. He asked him to write down this description, lest anyone miss the point.
Imagine if all the professors in the great universities of Europe joined the friars, Francis said. Would that be cause for perfect joy? No. Well, what if all the bishops and kings of the world became members of the Franciscan brotherhood? That, too, would not be true joy. What if brothers traveled to non-Christian lands and converted all nonbelievers to Christ? That also would not be true joy. Finally, what if Francis himself had the gift of healing and was able to inspire people by performing great miracles? Again, that’s not perfect joy.
So what is true joy? Let’s hear the answer in Francis’ own words, which are so vivid and powerful:
I return from Perugia and arrive here [at the Portiuncula, where it all began for Francis and the brothers] in the dead of night; and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from such wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: “Who are you?” I answer: “Brother Francis.” And he says: “Go away; this is not a proper hour for going about; you may not come in.” And when I insist, he answers: “Go away, you are a simple and a stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!” And I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight.” And he answers: “I will not. Go to the Crosiers’ place and ask there.” I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this and true virtue and the salvation of the soul. (Francis and Clare: The Complete Works)
Is Francis expressing what we today would call “masochism”? Is there anything wrong with rejoicing over miracles and conversions? Or is this just a pious story with no relationship to our lives? No, on all counts! Here are a few reflections that can help us understand his message and apply it to our lives.
In the Footsteps of Jesus. Francis didn’t just talk about “perfect joy”—he lived it. He knew what it was like to be freezing, muddied, without shelter, and even rejected. In a way, many of his brothers rejected him before he died by dismissing his lifestyle as unrealistic. Placed on a pedestal, he was made irrelevant. No doubt Francis felt tossed aside, yet he accepted it with patience.
To use a Hollywood image, Francis was someone who went about “singin’ in the rain.” Sometimes the rain was literal. Other times the rain was in his heart from doubts and depression, but he continued singing. That’s because he didn’t calculate his faith in God based on results, as we can be tempted to do. (“My grandfather was a kind and generous man, but God let him suffer so much near the end of his life that I don’t believe in God anymore.”) For Francis, true faith and true joy require patience. He put himself in God’s hands and did what he could to follow God’s will, but he left the results up to God.
And consider this: Francis’s reflection on true joy was also the experience of Jesus. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of an admiring crowd. But within a week, he was abandoned by his closest friends and suffered physical torture and an excruciating death.
Isn’t it true that the Jesus story would be woefully incomplete if Palm Sunday were the end of it? Many a Hollywood movie would have ended there. But in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dead on the cross is the moment of complete self-emptying that reveals him as “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Earlier miracles and accolades were merely a preview. Getting caught up in those glimpses of divine power can prevent us from accepting the ultimate message of Jesus, which is not manifested until the cross.
Hidden Holiness. The patience and forbearance that Francis spoke of will be asked of us as well. Ultimately, no miracle is going to come along and shield us from all suffering. If we connect those inevitable sufferings to God in Christ Jesus crucified, as Francis did, we too will come to see the cross as the source of profound joy and comfort.
Francis knew joy, and he knew personally and intimately the sorrow of Christ—so much so that he came to bear physical signs of Jesus’ very wounds, the stigmata. With or without the stigmata, though, Francis bore the wounds of Christ through his complete dedication to living as Jesus did.
Although few people bear the stigmata, every disciple of Christ is invited to grow in this experience of joy and suffering. In fact, many people around us are doing this right now. We hear about this sometimes in the eulogies that are delivered before or after funeral services. In such eulogies, people often hear inspiring stories about the recently deceased that they never knew. How a man who died in his eighties put his life on the line in his younger years to form a union in the factory where he worked. How, as a teenager, a woman cleaned houses so that her siblings could attend school. How a wife spent years visiting her husband every day in a nursing home, as he slipped further and further into dementia.
These are examples of what Francis told Brother Leo was true joy. Forget yourself. Keep giving. Set aside the idolatry of self-absorption. Pain and suffering will come, but it is the suffering of taking up your cross as Christ did.
Do It for Love. Francis knew well the type of pain and suffering that comes from entering into life and giving fully of ourselves. With joyful perseverance, he determined to “stay in the game.” He led a spirited life, and he took seriously St. Paul’s mandate not to do anything that would “quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). His passionate life mirrored that of Jesus during his years of public ministry. Like Jesus, being passionate opened up Francis to both suffering and joy.
We open ourselves to both joy and suffering when we give of ourselves out of love to another, just as Francis did. Think of the mother and father who are willing to sacrifice for a child with special needs or the spouse who sacrifices for a husband or wife who is sick or the adult son or daughter sacrificing to care for elderly parents. Many people are giving of themselves selflessly right in our parishes and communities, quite likely right down the street from us. Though there is hardship in these situations, as well as exhaustion, there is also often joy, because it is the Christlike thing to do.
The life of St. Francis invites us to experience the joy of Christ, who has entered into our suffering and has promised us new life. May we, like Francis, determine to “stay in the game” and run along the path of love and perfect joy.
This is adapted from a new book, Looking to St. Francis: The Man from Assisi and His Message of Hope for Today, by Fr. John Bohrer and Joseph Stoutzenberger. It will be available this June from The Word Among Us Press but can be preordered by calling 1-800-775-9673.