How virtuous living brings us deep, abiding spiritual joy

How can we experience more joy at Christmas and year-round?

Our Sunday Visitor recently put that question to Edward Sri, professor at The Augustine Institute and author of “Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross” (Image, $21). His answer?

Grow in virtue.

Our Sunday Visitor: How would you define joy?

Edward Sri: According to St. Thomas Aquinas, natural joy is a fruit of love. It’s the emotion experienced either in the presence of one we love or simply in the knowledge that the person is doing well. But spiritual joy is the fruit of the theological virtue of charity, love of God. It’s experienced through our sharing in God’s goodness. Hence, to the extent that we live our lives participating in God’s goodness — in virtue, in imitation of Christ — we experience deep, abiding spiritual joy. No matter what may be happening in our lives, we can still experience spiritual joy through the love of God and living the way God made us to live.

OSV: How is joy related to virtue?

Sri
Sri

Sri: Virtue is a habitual disposition to do the good. The virtues help me to live my relationships well, including my relationship with God. And that’s when we experience joy, when we love God and live according to his plan.

OSV: Are there any particular virtues that are especially essential if we want to lead joyful lives?

Sri: Well, all the cardinal virtues — prudence, temperance, courage and justice — are important. If I don’t have prudence, I might take on too many projects and jeopardize relationships. If I don’t have temperance, or self-control, I might indulge in lower pleasures at the cost of higher pleasures. I need courage to help me through difficulties. And I need justice to fulfill my responsibilities to God, my family, my community and my Church. But if I had to single out two that are of particular importance in our culture, I would emphasize temperance and courage.

OSV: How does temperance lead to joy?

Walking with Mary

Sri: When we allow ourselves to be controlled by the lower pleasures of this life — sex, alcohol, spending too much time on the Internet, constantly checking our smartphone for Facebook messages — we’re not living a fully human life. God made us for the good, the true and the beautiful. He made us to live in relationship with him and with others. But in this culture, it’s easy to get distracted from what’s most important because we’re flooded with incessant entertainment and temptations to fleeting pleasure. We go from one amusement to the next, and it leaves us empty.

Even seemingly innocent things, like sports or the news, can become distractions if we’re not careful. If we don’t exercise self-control, they can keep us from the true joy that comes from giving the best of ourselves to our spouse, our children, our friends and God.

OSV: What about courage? How does that help us?

Sri: No matter how virtuous we are, we’re all going to experience crosses. It’s the nature of living on this side of the Garden of Eden. Courage is what helps us through the challenges we face in life, helping us remain peaceful and cheerful, even in the midst of adversity and enabling us to not get discouraged when we face some obstacle. With courage, we can experience joy even in the midst of great difficulties.

OSV: How can we grow in these virtues?

Sri: First, learn about the virtues and vices. If you don’t know what the good life is, then you can never aim for it. At the same time, take stock of your life. Examine what things are distracting you from living your relationships well, or ask yourself what fears are holding you back from the good life. Second, practice. But practicing doesn’t just mean avoiding a vice; it means striving for a virtue. So, if your problem is spending too much time online, don’t just decide to spend less time online. Fill up your time with something else — a friend or a book or prayer. Finally, pray for grace. Frequent the sacraments. Ask God to show you how you can live the virtues better. He wants a virtuous life for you even more than you do, so trust him to show you the way.

OSV: So, practice makes perfect?

Sri: It certainly helps. Virtue, in many ways, is a skill. Any kind of skill requires a lot of practice and effort to do the thing habitually — which is to say, consistently, quickly, easily and joyfully. We can no more say, “I want to be patient,” and expect to be patient right away, than we can say, “I want to play the piano,” and expect to be a great pianist after only one lesson. We have to work to acquire these virtues.

OSV: Where can we find a model for how joyful a life lived according to those virtues can be?

Sri: Just look to the Virgin Mary. She’s a young Jewish woman living in a time of great oppression for her people. She herself goes through great difficulties, including giving birth to Jesus in poverty and humility. At the Nativity, she couldn’t give her son the basics of what any mother would want to give her child. And yet, we never see her lose her joy. She remains patient. She doesn’t get discouraged. She never complains about not being treated better. Instead, as Luke 2:19 tells us, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Biblically, that phrase occurs when someone experiences a mysterious revelation and wants to understand its meaning. It’s as if Mary were asking God, “What are you trying to teach me through this difficulty?”

Each of us is called to remember that. No matter what may be happening, God is always trying to teach us something through it, and there’s some good he can bring about through it. Our job is to grow in patience, compassion, humility and trust. We’re to have the attitude of Mary. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.