How can one experience joy in the midst of great suffering? I mean true and genuine joy, which comes from the heart, not stoically putting on a brave face, hiding one’s inner Golgatha behind a fake smile; or narcissistically gazing at one’s own courage in the face of great adversity while masochistically enjoying one’s suffering. This question came to my mind recently, when writing an article for Crisis-Magazine on Chiara Corbella, a young Italian woman who gave her life for the sake of her child and died in June 2012 at the age of 28 (http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/chiara-corbella-a-witness-to-joy). Like St Gianna Berretta Molla she decided not to undergo any treatment that might harm her child during her pregnancy, thereby risking her own death, which succeeded her son’s birth by 14 months. But Chiara’s story is even more extraordinary. She had already lost two children shortly after birth: little Maria Grazia Letizia, who was anencephalic, and Davide Giovanni, who was lacking his lower organs and legs. She and her husband, Enrico, had decided to go against the advice and pressure of the doctors to abort, allowing their children to live fully the short-life span God had granted them in and ex utero. They showered them with love while in the womb and during the half hour they held them in their arms, had them baptized and accompanied them to the gates of Heaven.
I will not give any further details of her life and journey other than those relevant to the question I want to focus on here, namely how joy can arise out of the ashes of such suffering. Her story which seems an unmitigated tragedy from a purely human perspective would lead most people to rebel, fall into depression, take the easy way out (abort all three children and try to save their own life through early treatment) or, at best, stoically try to bear it somehow. But Chiara and Enrico were able to experience joy in the midst of it. This took them by surprise. They had expected to be felled by the deaths of their two children; yet each time they found themselves not only consoled, but somehow happy despite their mourning. Theirs was the kind of joy, which overflows from the heart and infects others with its depth and warmth.
Don’t get me wrong. Chiara and Enrico suffered much. They would have loved to have a “normal” life, surrounded by their children, living together to an old age. Theirs was a particularly happy marriage, and separations were painful to them: those brought about by hospital-visits and the final one, which was casting its shadow increasingly as Chiara’s cancer progressed. She suffered much and had to let go progressively of the hopes and desires she had for this life. But despite all this, she was radiating a joy palpable to those around them: during the pregnancies, the funerals and her sickness.
How can one explain this? Part of the explanation lies perhaps in their Franciscan calling (they became engaged on a pilgrimage to Assisi, were married there, and had a Franciscan as their spiritual director), for St. Francis famously praised God the most when things were at their worst. This is not masochism – though it might seem so in the eyes of the psychoanalytical beholder – but a joy, which comes from being loved by infinite Love itself, and hence overrides everything else. It overflows and colors everything, even the greatest suffering. We come the closest to this experience when falling in love: it feels like nothing can hurt us (except if our love is not returned); we are living in a bubble, which wards off the first brunt of all negative experiences. God, it seems, granted them this grace to an unusual degree.
What about those saints who experienced little joy, whose life was mainly a dark night of the soul? Mother Teresa underwent this experience for 50 years with just a few moments of respite; St Thérèse de Lisieux experienced it for the last few years of her life, when she was the sickest and most in need of consolation. Why is joy for some the overriding theme, whilst not for others? It seems a question of vocation, of what God gives to some and not to others in order to witness to different facets of His being. Some perceive God mainly as a Deus absconditus, a hidden God, barely seeing Him through a mirror darkly; others experience His love with such intensity that it almost makes their heart burst, like with St. Philip Neri, whose overflowing heart distended his ribs.
But how does this gel with the famous dictum by Bernanos that “un saint triste est un triste saint” (“a sad saint is not much of a saint”)? A saint going through the dark night of the soul may not taste much joy, but God’s presence in him (which he may not be experiencing consciously) still overflows and makes him radiate this joy to the world. The dark night, after all, is not the result of sin, an absence of grace, but rather a presence of God so overwhelming that the soul is blinded. She experiences as darkness what is really an abundance of light and love. God allows this for the good of the soul, even though it is excruciatingly painful. While she may not feel His presence, it can be felt by the persons surrounding her, sensing God’s presence in her. This explains how Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and others were perceived as joyful, though their inner night was intense.
Joy is a gift; we cannot force ourselves to be joyful nor can we force God’s hand. Some have the vocation of going through dark nights, some fight depression throughout their lives, some feel, because of their temperament and history, that they are carrying the weight of the world. They have their particular journey, and Chiara had hers.
Her witness is particularly powerful in a world where success, health and pleasure reign supreme. Chiara’s life was filled with terrible losses, yet it was not tragic. Receiving each moment out of the hand of God as His child and thereby living fully in the present, God’s love could take hold of her heart and fill it to the brim. Joy was the expression of this. St. Francis could be joyful, when he was beaten, maligned, cast out. He only wept, at the thought that infinite Love was not loved. This is the ultimate drama and the one we fail to mourn. If we did, perhaps we’d experience our losses differently.