There is a proverb that “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
There is the saying attributed to Saint Teresa de Avila that “A sad saint is a sorry saint.”
Even the theologian Karl Rahner noted that “A good laugh is a sign of love.”
Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of joy for the follower of Christ. His Apostolic Exhortation is fittingly entitled The Joy of the Gospel.
Today is the feast of Saint Philip Neri, the sixteenth century apostle of Rome. Born in Florence he studied with the Dominicans at the Convent of San Marco – a house noted for the beautiful frescos that Fra Angelico and his followers painted on the walls of the friars’ cell. But it is also noted as the convent where Girolamo Savonarola lived.
Savonarola is noted for his fierce and severe call for reform in Florence, even setting up a sort of holy republic. For his efforts as well as for his biting critique of the papacy, he was burned at the stake in the center of Florence.
According to Paul Burns in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Philip Neri revered the memory of Savonarola. “He [Philip] aimed for a return to the apostolic simplicity of life, as his early hero Savonarola had, but encouraged people to embrace this without using hell-fire sermons and without deliberately upsetting the church establishment.”
Despite this he got into trouble at least twice – at one point Pope Paul IV prohibited him from preaching.
But what is striking is that he kept up a cheerful spirit in all this. As he said:
Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.
He also used humor to undercut the efforts to idolize him as a living saint – going around with half his beard shaved, wearing outrageous disguises, and playing practical jokes.
I was reminded of the place of joy and tenderness in our spiritual lives when I read the reflection this morning in Give Us This Day. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn recalled that
In the novel Adam Bede, George Eliot wrote, “When death, the great reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.”
God wants us to be people of joy. Severity may have its place, but ultimately we are called to nurture tenderness and joy.