Laetare Jerusalem! How You Can Crush the Devil With Holy Joy

“When spiritual joy fills hearts,” said St. Francis of Assisi, “the serpent throws off his deadly poison in vain.”

Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” ca. 1442
Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” ca. 1442 (photo: Public Domain)

For some time, I’ve been wanting to write on joy. This piece has been a long time in preparation, and I’ve even questioned whether in the midst of the difficulties individuals are facing during the pandemic if such a theme might seem too out of touch or dissonant with what individuals are living right now. In reality, joy is not onlyrelevant but a needed companion in the trials and challenges of life, not only in an ordinary year but also in one with unique calls on Christian living. 

The more specific topic I’ve been wanting to write on is not simply about joy in itself, but joy as a weapon against evil. This theme of joy as a weapon against evil may seem a bit odd or even shocking at first glance, and is one that needs to be properly understood, finding roots in the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis on Joy as a Weapon against Evil

Is joy really a weapon against evil? Where might one even get such an idea? To me, this little piece of wisdom came as a surprise as well. I was asking some Franciscans a “Did St. Francis really say this?”-type question, and one of the replies that came back was not merely a yes/no answer but one with its own reason to pause. It was probably one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I came across in 2015 and one that has stayed with me. One excerpt from the email exchange is the following: “In the early biographies [of St. Francis] the note is always put on prayer, fasting and joy to cast aside the influence of the evil one.”

And what did St. Francis teach? My original inquiry was about whether St. Francis would have given a particular teaching in regard to responding to evil, as I had heard related elsewhere; the Friar who responded to the inquiry dug a bit into Franciscan writings and shared how St. Francis would have taught about responding to evil with prayer, fasting and joy. Prayer and fasting are classic biblical responses to evil but joy was a surprising one to me! I suppose it even made me question how it could be true.

When asked for original sources, the before-mentioned friar gave some good references on joy as a remedy for evil in the teachings of St. Francis. One of these is the following from Servant of God Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan friar who wrote early accounts of the life of St. Francis:

“St. Francis maintained that the safest remedy against the thousand snares and wiles of the enemy is spiritual joy. For he would say: “Then the devil rejoices most when he can snatch away spiritual joy from a servant of God. … [W]hen spiritual joy fills hearts,’ he said, ‘the serpent throws off his deadly poison in vain. The devils cannot harm the servant of Christ when they see he is filled with holy joy.” (Celano, Second Life, Chapter LXXXVIII)

Joy here is portrayed as a true asset in the spiritual life. 

 

This spiritual asset was seen by St. Francis of Assisi not just as a remedy against evil but also as a much-desired quality in the spiritual life. The Mirror of Perfection, another Franciscan classic, repeats the above-mentioned theme of joy protecting us from evil and adds how “it was always the supreme and particular desire of blessed Francis to possess an abiding joy of spirit. … This was the virtue that he especially loved to see in his brethren.” The same passage also highlights a path to such spiritual joy sharing how St. Francis spoke of “cleanness of heart and the purity of constant prayer” as sources of “spiritual joy.” (Mirror of Perfection 95)

 

Integrating Joy in Christian Living 

This little teaching of combating evil with joy, as illustrated above in a couple of classic Franciscan writings, has been the source of both personal reflection and a new way of responding to evil, one that I am still learning to incorporate more organically into Christian living. We obviously aren’t called to rejoice in evil; so what then does joy have to do with evil? 

To begin with, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a fruit of the life of grace in us: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). There obviously is a time for sadness in the Christian life, for instance we are called to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), but the fruits of the Spirit, such as peace and joy, are ones to always be cultivated and integrated into the Christian life in a prominent way. 

When one encounters a particular evil, one can still have an abiding joy in realizing the enduring truths of the faith: that God is our loving Father who will provide for us, that love conquers all (cf. 1 Corinthians 13; Virgil: “omnia vincit amor”). One can also be reminded that joy and peace are assets in the spiritual life whereas another St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, in his spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life warns against giving in to anxiety and sadness, providing some recommendations on how to rise out of and be delivered from these (Part Four, Chapters XI and XII). A Christian should live a fully human life, with the realization that peace and joy are always fruits of the Spirit to be sought and cultivated, even when encountering difficult moments in life. 

A few months ago, I read a book by Father Timothy Gallagher entitled Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement. In this book he takes up different quotations from Venerable Bruno Lanteri, the founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, the community to which Father Gallagher belongs, and provides some additional reflections upon them. One of these quotations that Father Gallagher, himself a much-sought after teacher on the spiritual life, has on his office door for spiritual directees to see is the following: “Be of good heart, because the Lord is with you, and he loves you.” No matter what we are going through we need to be reminded of those truths that give us hope and as Father Gallagher notes in his book, he leaves these words on his door both for those seeking direction and also for himself, that he might “see [these words] often.” We all need encouragement and to be reminded of abiding truths that lead us to joy in Christ!

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, joy as a weapon against evil is one of the most important lessons that I learned in 2015. Like many of you, I’m still unpacking 2020, or haven’t even come to fully reflect on it yet. Maybe I won’t even know the greatest lessons of 2020 until a bit more time has passed, but I want to “listen” and see what I am called to take away from such a different year. May Mary, Cause of Our Joy, and St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us as we seek to live “fully alive” (cf. St. Irenaeus) in Christ!

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”