In everything David did, he gave thanks and praise to the Holy Lord, the Most High. He loved his Creator and sang praises to him with all his heart. He put singers at the altar to provide beautiful music. He set the times of the festivals throughout the year and made them splendid occasions; the Temple rang with the Lord’s praises all day long.Sirach 47:8-10
The Church concludes its reading of the story of David with today’s passage from Sirach. It captures magnificently the core and heart of David’s being. In all he did, he incarnated eros, the life force, that in us which manifests in joy, praise, and gratitude. As Pope Francis writes: “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God.” David’s love of God was irrepressible. The author of Sirach describes what Israel, what God’s people and God’s ecclesia looks like when it is faithful to the call to living in union with God: it is a gathering that in every act and every aspect of its relational life is singing “praises to God with all [its] heart.”
Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium says “If we want to advance in the spiritual life, then, we must constantly be missionaries.” For him, however, to be a missionary is to draw near to others and to seek their welfare. When we are moved by love, we are always seeking greater nearness to others, we are engaged in a process of true encounter. This is not a paternalistic or patronizing taking care of. Rather, it is a generous openness to receive form from and give form to the other. Pope Francis, I suspect, began his pontificate with an emphasis on joy because he recognized its lack in the official corridors of the church and, perhaps, in the “religious’ population in general. He wrote,
Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of the heart is a source of joy, since “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.
Often in my own life I have had stretches of time when I was doing my duty without joy. This is far more Saul than David. Of course sometimes we must do the right thing despite feelings that would pull us away from our call. But the joy of David, and of which Pope Francis speaks, is not a superficial feeling of satisfaction. It is rather a deep and abiding spiritual disposition that both leads to and is enhanced by our “going out” in love to others. It is the experience of living out our vocation, doing the work that God has given us to do.
In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that if they keep his commandments they will remain in his love just as he has kept his Father’s commandments and remains in his Father’s love. He then says to them, “I have told you these things so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) Jesus’ joy is complete in the telling, in the sharing of the love he knows with his disciples. It is the “drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare” that evokes the deepest joy in us, that completes our joy.
Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of the realizing of the love of God for us as the recognition of “a love common to all.” The great joy is that not only I but we all are loved. This was the mystical experience of Thomas Merton on the street corner of Louisville, Kentucky. To paraphrase 2 Corinthians 3:18, in true encounter the veils fall from our faces and we know and live in the radiance of each other.
Perhaps David is a beacon for us in the present age. At the moment in the United States we are bombarded from the first conscious moment of our day to the last with vitriol, anger, depreciation, and resentment. So many of us speak of our rage and anxiety, stoked relentlessly by our public figures. Two days ago, I quoted Father Adrian van Kaam imploring us to become aware of the project of the other. What is the project of the person who seeks only to inflame our rage and hatred? What is the agenda of the person who would seek to increase enmity among us?
At risk of being simplistic, I would suggest it is important to note humorlessness in people. Sirach tells us that in everything David did he gave “thanks and praise to the Holy Lord.” In our time, so many of us are feeling dragged down with those who seemingly have no praise for anyone but themselves, who lack the gratitude born of the realization that everything is a gift, a grace, to us. Repeatedly we ask each other what can we do in the face of such overwhelming deformation.
One answer we keep hearing is that we must communicate and reconcile with each other. Yet, our political and moral lives are replete with a false kind of reconciliation and “working together” that is based not in praise, thanks, and joy but in accommodation to thanatos, the death impulse in us. Recently I read a provocative piece in The Atlantic entitled “Against Reconciliation” by Adam Serwer. Serwer points out that our nostalgia for that more genteel time of American politics of decades ago fails to recognize that the “working together” of that time was based on the unspoken assumption of white superiority. Often the cost of “just getting along,” of what some term civility, is accommodation with the downward pulls within each of us and in our society.
This is not to suggest that respect and communication are not important. But they are not yet the encounter which is impelled by love and joy. When a society is losing core human values, it becomes imperative that there be what Adrian van Kaam calls “centers of value radiation” that preserve. them. This is not so easy, as our cultures are perhaps the most powerful formation agents in our lives, especially when we lack deep spiritually-infused form traditions. Tied to our social media and to a 24 hour a day news cycle, there is little time to deeply encounter each other in the joy that is thanks and praise to the Holy Lord. It is living in this way that was the glory of Israel under David. Absent this source, our attempts to forge union among us are doomed.
Much of our religious talk in our culture has become not only fatuous but blasphemous. When a so-called “prayer breakfast” is a setting to belittle and ridicule the faith and prayer of others, the term prayer has become worse than meaningless. Those who would destroy the common-wealth are, in our time, quick to insist that our problem is a lack of faith and morality. I’d suggest, however, with Pope Francis that our problem is a lack of joy. Community and communion, in a true sense, are only possible among those who gather to thank and praise the Holy Lord. Such a community celebrates its festivals with the great joy that comes when we together express in simple and splendid occasions gratitude “for all the good the Lord has done for us.”
In large part we need to re-learn how to live together in such praise and thanks, in sharing the joy in such a way that our joy may be complete. Before we set out to “reconcile” we need to know the depths of the gratitude and joy that constitute true reconciliation and the depth in us and the other from which such joy and gratitude spring. True reconciliation is a gift from the Lord that we can receive and share only in discovering it and realizing it within and among us.
Loving others is a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others “walks in the darkness” (1 Jn 2:11),“remains in death” (1 Jn 3:14) and “does not know God” (1 Jn 4:8). Benedict XVI has said that “closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God”, and that love is, in the end, the only light which “can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working”. When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God. If we want to advance in the spiritual life, then, we must constantly be missionaries. The work of evangelization enriches the mind and the heart; it opens up spiritual horizons; it makes us more and more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and it takes us beyond our limited spiritual constructs. A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of the heart is a source of joy, since “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #272