So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once. He brought them up into his house and provided a meal and with his household rejoiced at having come to faith in God.
Acts 16: 32-4
Today we read of the conversion and baptism of the jailor of Paul and Silas. Reading the account of how Paul and Silas were welcomed into the jailor’s household, how he bathed their wounds and then then provided them a meal, we then hear that the jailor and his whole household “rejoiced at having come to faith in God.”
One of the famous poems of St. Teresa of Avila begins: “Her heart is full of joy with love/For in the Lord her mind is stilled.” Perhaps one of the least considered spiritual dispositions is joy. Writing to consecrated women and men during the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis pointed out how their lives should be characterized by joy. In the spiritual traditions, the deepest source of joy is seen to be the stilling of our mind in God. At the age of nineteen, Theodore James Ryken has such an experience, which he says is the result of “a deep humiliation” or “of being brought low.” In this experience he comes to know his true place; he is “put in his place” as we would colloquially express it. Yet where, for us, the phrase connotes shame in being “put down,” in the spiritual sense to be in our true place is an experience of unalloyed joy.
The great English poet and Jesuit priest of the 19th century, Gerard Manley Hopkins, is said to have uttered to himself on the last morning of his life: “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Unfortunately he was not strong enough to leave to us a poetic expression of what he was experiencing. So, we are left to surmise this for ourselves, as I very often do. Because we have in his works something of a poetic autobiography of Hopkins’ life, we are privileged to enter into the depth of his interiority. In doing so, we recognize in him all of our own life struggles as self-conscious “modern” humans. We hear of moments of happiness in the midst of nature or relationships. We also, however, hear the torments of anxiety and fear, of depression and hopelessness, of guilt and even shame. We hear described our own incomprehension of the ways of life and of God. Finally we hear of moments of intense loneliness, a description of the experience we all know of at times feeling as if we have been “thrown” out into a hostile and inhospitable world. And yet, the final word for Hopkins, as his life is falling away from him and he is approaching dissolution into the Mystery, is “I am so happy.”
In today’s story from Acts we are told that the jailor and his whole household “rejoiced at having come to faith in God.” What precisely was the source of their joy? Perhaps it was akin to that of the dying Hopkins: a sense of the completeness and rightness of things as they are. Adrian van Kaam says that the attitude that marks what we call “faith” is one of “appreciative abandonment to the Mystery.” At the moment when Ryken is somehow moved from the prideful illusions that govern his life to the experience of being brought low and put in his place, he says that he “falls in love with God and puts himself at God’s service.” When we psychologically and spiritually are occupying our true place, our own solid ground, we experience the joy of appreciation of the work of the Mystery of God in our very own lives. This, I believe, is what Ryken terms “falling in love and placing himself in God’s service.”
Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of how God gives us “short flashes of spiritual insight, just like flashes of lightning in the sky.” These come, he says, “out of a simple bareness.” That is, they come of out the simple truth of “things as they are.” The pride or false form in us is always seeking to make things other than they are. Most of us can remember that quite early in life we discovered ways about ourselves that were different from those of others and from the way we thought we should be. And so we began quite early to leave ourselves and our true place and to attempt to occupy with our lives a place that was not ours. In short, we distanced from ourselves because we lacked the faith to trust that, as St. Paul learned later in life, God’s grace was sufficient for us. The false identity we created became for us our very sense of ourselves. Yet, God, through the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” never ceases to call us back to that place, the only place, where we can know God’s life for us. When we touch, even for a moment, that place, we experience the “blic,” “the short flash of spiritual insight” that Ruusbroec describes. This was the moment of conversion for Ryken, and it is the moment of true realization for us.
Van Kaam says that this is a moment of appreciation for life, for reality, for God’s creation of the world and ourselves as a part of it. It is an appreciation that abandons ourselves to the “work of God,” and evokes our desire to be at its service. And with this abandonment comes a deep and apparently infinite joy. Ryken himself expresses this when he says, “Lord, I cannot understand your ways, but I must adore them.” Again according to van Kaam, the primordial human disposition of heart is awe. It is in awe properly directed that we feel joy. As we abandon and forget ourselves in favor of God and God’s will, the joy of the moment of spiritual insight can begin to permeate our experience of our entire lives.
Near the end of his life the great scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, published his last book entitled To Live Rejoicing, which is actually an interview.. At the conclusion of the interview, he is asked what he would like his last words to be, were he able to choose them. He quotes a story about John Chrysostom as he is being tortured and dying. According to the story, people around him could hear him saying: “Thanks, thanks for everything. Praise, praise for it all.” This is a description of appreciative abandonment, from the very small but significant place of our life we live out an expression of thanks and praise for everything.
Often our greatest psychological suffering comes from our inability to let go of a painful experience in life and the hurt and resentment it evokes in us. What finally can break through such an experience is the most simple of realizations. I can recall recounting in therapy experiences which seemed to be as real and hurtful in the present as they had been decades ago. These painful and deformative moments exercised even in the present a tremendous influence, bordering on control, on the limits of my availability and responsiveness to the appeals of others for relationship and to the appeal of the world for my presence and service. In at least some cases, this changed as a result of the therapist pointing out the simple truth that “For all of that, you are still here.” “You are here at this moment.” This is the truth. Yes, those things happened and yet, here we are at this moment.
Because of the effect of the past on us, we are often not here. At moments of reflection, I am astounded at how seldom each day I am “all here.” Yet, to be here and now is to know the truth of the life I am being given and the love I am experiencing at this very moment. To be “all there,” or better “all here” is to be in the truth of who we are, and the result is appreciation, awe, and joy. Many years ago it was impossible for me to really recognize and understand what the awe of God or of creation meant. I could cognitively grasp the meaning, but I could not experience what such awe felt like. The reason for this, I came to see in time, was that I did not know the experience of awe for my own life and being. We access the world through our own body and person. If we are not in our true place, living our own life, then awe of the giver of that life is impossible. When we become aware of what we are going through, we cannot help but hold the giver of that life in awe. As we hear in Psalm 139: “I praise you, Lord, that I am fearfully wonderfully made. How wonderful are your works.”
What comes to us from such a place of awe-filled recognition and appreciation is a profound and pervasive joy. It is not a whimsical refusal of the complexity of life and reality, rather it is a deep mode of faith that endures through all the vicissitudes of our life experience. It is a joy that gives thanks and praise “for it all.” My own imagining of the experience of Gerard Manley Hopkins on his deathbed is that his eyes are open and he sees the wonder of it all, of the happiness in his moments of prayer, friendship and creativity, but also in the sorrow and struggle of his times of isolation, loneliness, illness, and even depression. In his final hours, the very busy and tumultuous mind of Hopkins was, as St. Teresa says, stilled in the Lord. At any moment when we are in ourselves and so forget ourselves so that our mind can be stilled in the Lord, we spontaneously give thanks and praise “for it all.”
Sometimes God gives such persons short flashes of spiritual insight, just like flashes of lightning in the sky. These are short flashes of singular resplendence which shine forth from out of a simple bareness. In an instant the spirit is raised above itself, but at once the light is past and the person comes to himself again. God causes this himself and it is something very exalted, for those who experience it often become enlightened persons.
These persons who live in the transport of love sometimes have still another kind of experience, for a certain light may shine upon them, one which God causes through an intermediary. In this light, the heart and the concupiscible power are raised toward the light. In meeting the light, the heart experiences so much delight and pleasure that it cannot contain itself but bursts out in a cry of joy. This is called jubilee or jubilation, that is, a joy which cannot be expressed in words. This cry cannot be contained: If a person wishes to meet the light with an open and uplifted heart, then this cry of jubilation must follow as long as this particular exercise lasts.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II,ii,A