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Living the Lord's Joy

December 2, 2021 21 min read
By Chris Stefanick Founder, Real Life Catholic
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
A bird flies over the beach

Chris Stefanick, founder and president of Real Life Catholic, spoke with Msgr. James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary, to discuss his most recent book, Living Joy: 9 Rules to Help You Rediscover and Live Joy Every Day.

Monsignor James Shea (MShea): I’ve just finished reading your newest book, Living Joy, and I’m excited to talk to you about it. You’ve traveled the country – even the world – to speak to people about the faith, so you have a good view of the landscape. Why of all the topics you could have chosen did you decide to write about joy?

Chris Stefanick (CS): Joy is what changed my life when I was a kid. Joy is what first drew me to the Gospel. My parents had dragged me off to a retreat, and despite my expectations, I loved everything about it. It was a very different experience from what I expected from “churchy” things. But what really blew my mind and changed my life was the joy of the people there. Before that retreat, I had looked up to all the wrong people. I wanted to be just like my secular rock star heroes. On that retreat, I encountered people who weren’t remotely cool and they were far older than my rock star heroes, but I saw their joy and realized that everything I was living was leading me on a path to spiritual death. The first Christians called themselves “the living ones,” and when I saw the joy of the Christians on that retreat and how alive they were, I realized that I was spiritually dead, just like my rock star heroes. I wanted what those 60-year-olds who were praising God had – and it was joy. Joy is what drew me in.

MShea: That makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, which he entitled Surprised by Joy. Perhaps we could take a step back and try to grasp at a definition of joy, especially as it relates to happiness and flourishing. Is this joy you are referencing an emotion? Is it the fulfillment of a desire? Is it a state of being?

CS: Joy is a spiritual disposition. Sometimes it bubbles forth in emotion, but more fundamentally it’s a spiritual disposition of delight and the possession of some good. This spiritual disposition is not something that gets taken away by the circumstances of your life.

I think we’ve all experienced the interplay of human emotion, the spiritual disposition of joy, and reality as they all come together at funerals. You can be at a funeral for a loved one and be immersed in an experience of grief, but at the same time be full of hope. And there’s joy woven into that hope – there’s joy hiding in somewhere in that hope. So both the experience of grief and the spiritual disposition of joy can be within you concurrently.

I use the image of the ocean. On the very surface, you have the chop: there can be a lot of movement. Those waves are like your emotions, which can be as simple as neurological connections you’re having. Animals can experience emotions, too. But then there is the deeper reality. When there is a hurricane on the surface of the water, you can go 15 feet down and find that at that depth there’s no movement at all. It’s unaffected. That deeper stillness is like the spiritual disposition. And it’s that spiritual disposition of joy that animates a Christian life.

MShea: How much control do we have over a spiritual disposition of joy? Perhaps we can prepare our lives for it, but there needs to be a kind of receptivity involved, right?

CS: In some ways that’s like asking how can you control the experience of grace. You can’t give yourself grace, but you have to do certain things and avoid other things to remain in a state of grace.

In Living Joy, I offer nine rules for joy – and those rules are really about opening yourself up to the source of joy, of existence, and of life itself. Joy is ultimately the result of the presence of God in the soul. We were created for joy, and there are things we can do to open ourselves to share in that aspect of his divine life. But we can’t give it to ourselves, ultimately.

Jesus said, “I told you these things so that my joy may be in you.” That blows my mind, because Jesus is talking about the joy that had the power to make the universe, and his dream is that it would be in us.

MShea: I think many Christians recognize that the faith is serious, especially in an apostolic age like ours. I wonder if some might push back against your emphasis on joy, fearing that such an emphasis could water down the faith and its very real consequences. In an apostolic age, we have to prepare ourselves for suffering and persecution. So how would you respond to the objection that joy could actually serve as a distraction?

CS: I recall reading that St. Ignatius’s first followers were known to joke around with each other – they were happy, and laughter was part of their interactions. I think we often imagine the saints as being so dang serious. There’s a tradition in Russian Orthodoxy of monks serving as the Holy Fool, which means doing silly things as a way of rejecting the world’s power over them. I think also of how G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” and elsewhere, “Satan fell by the force of gravity.” This is all to say that there is supposed to be a levity to Christian life – a levity that proclaims victory over the world and death itself. Because it’s rooted in such incredible substance, it’s not a flippant lightheartedness. We’re talking about a powerful joy.

That powerful joy and levity is what so many of us are missing, and that’s why I was so excited to write Living Joy. In a lot of Christian circles, Catholic apostolates, and even academia, there is a tendency to take ourselves very seriously. We don’t have to give up joy in order to say, “We’re really excited about this stuff. We’re really excited with our mission.” But in practice, that’s often what happens. It doesn’t have to be that way. And that failure of joy and tendency to take ourselves too seriously is one of the reasons we’re not winning over more souls.

MShea: I think another great example of the point you’re making about the levity of the Christian life is St. Lawrence, who, while he was being roasted alive, said to his Roman persecutors, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” The early Christians held themselves lightly in that way. They were already convinced of the triumph of Jesus over all suffering and death. So they just went for it. It’s really inspiring.

You mentioned the seriousness with which we take ourselves in academia, and I think that’s real. It’s rooted in pride – which is connected with anger in many ways – and it causes a kind of heaviness. That heaviness hits the academic setting and makes people forget that they were created by a good God who has filled the world with goodness and with his own truth, and the key to it all is a romantic adventure!

CS: We have to ask ourselves whether we really come off as people who are in love. Heaven is described as a wedding banquet – what could be happier than the thought of a wedding banquet? If we view academia in the light of divine love, it becomes something more like a feast where we’re stuffing our faces with the truths of the faith than something heavy. That should put a smile on our faces!

MShea: That’s right! In Living Joy, you characterize joy not as much as a feeling of accomplishment as the gas that gets the car moving. But if that’s the case, how can someone who finds themselves in a state of anxiety, or despair, or apathy start on the path to joy? In higher education, we’re seeing something of an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and self-harm. It’s been a difficult last couple years, and many people are feeling like they’re not safe in their lives. On top of that, there’s a lot of rancor in politics, and even in the Church to a certain extent. So how can someone find that fuel while in the midst of that anxiety, despair, or apathy?

CS: There’s been a growing anxiety among Generation Z for years, and that’s not just because of Covid. A large part of it is social media addiction. 2016 was the first year that members of Generation Z went to college, and it was also the first time in history that over half of incoming freshmen in college self-reported that they felt below-average in mental health.

MShea: I saw it happen like a seismic shift in front of my eyes.

CS: I was speaking to a counselor recently who was a full-time school counselor in Littleton, Colorado, when the Columbine High School shootings occurred in 1999. Littleton is right next to Columbine. She counseled students who were impacted by the shootings for a couple of years after that, including survivors who were in the school at the time. She said that in her experience, the anxiety among students today is astronomically higher than it was among the students in and around Columbine at the time of the shootings.

Some people have genetic predispositions to anxiety, but it’s not like over half of incoming college freshmen in 2016 were just born with clinical anxiety and no cultural phenomenon was forming. For a lot of people, those dispositions would lie relatively dormant if we weren’t living in a certain way. Again, I think a lot of it has to do with social media, but also just constantly scrolling in general. They’ve done studies on college students and found they switch screens on average every 19 seconds, even when they’re studying. Your brain is tweaking out when you’re scrolling like that. Your brain wasn’t made for that – it was made to contemplate higher truths.

Now, add the current state of the world into the mix. In many ways, this is not a fun time to live in. We’ve never seen Americans hate each other or be guided by fear and mistrust of each other like we see now. A lot of what is going on in the world today is driving us to be further guided by anxiety, depression, and unhealthy isolation.

It’s more important now than ever to be intentional about joy. Joy might have come to you naturally at different points in your life, but as we’re heading off into this battle – this apostolic age – it’s more important than ever that we are intentional about joy. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from Nehemiah. The people of God were in exile in Babylon, and they had grown comfortable. The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins and its walls were destroyed. Then God called the people to go back and rebuild Jerusalem, leaving the comfort of their exile and making themselves vulnerable to real dangers. In the ancient world, your city walls were the only thing stopping your neighbors and enemies from coming and shooting arrows at you. It was terrifying to be told to go back and rebuild Jerusalem: it meant maybe walking into war, and maybe walking to your death. In the midst of that uncertainty and danger, Nehemiah said, “The joy of the Lord must be your strength.”

Joy is a call to enter the spiritual battle, to rebuild yourself, to rebuild the church, to rebuild the world. Rebuild yourself with a spirit of joy and then go get it. That takes a lot of intentionality, and the worse the world is, the more intentionality joy requires.

MShea: I’m so glad you mentioned that verse from Nehemiah. Several years ago I was called down to Mexico City for a big gathering to discuss Ecclesia in America at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was having a hard time following along and I was trying to listen to the interpreter as best as I could, when a bishop quoted that verse. It was one of those moments in life where you’re really struck by something. I was so struck by it that I wrote it down, brought it home, and put it on my computer screen. “The joy of the Lord must be your strength.” That is a clarion battle call. The reason I’m so glad you referenced that verse is because it shifts the question from “What is joy?” to “Whose joy are we talking about?” As Christians, it’s the joy of the Lord we’re interested in. We’re not trying to shimmy ourselves into some kind of emotional experience. Instead, we’re tapping into the source of all joy by an act of intentional communion.

CS: And that’s the substance that sets the kind of joy we’re seeking apart from secular self-help talk. There’s a deep reality backing the Christian call to joy, and that reality is a Person that will help you enter into that joy. The secular worldview doesn’t have that kind of reality backing its vision of joy. We’ve already discussed the proof of that: young people are coming from all sorts of secular schools and they feel like they’re losing their minds by the time they reach adulthood. These schools are telling kids things like “spread positivity!” – whatever that means – and “be grateful!” and “believe in yourself!” and “love yourself!” But what we’ve seen is the opposite: students hate themselves more than they ever have before, and they’ve never been less positive (again, whatever that actually means). And why? Because they’re told all those affirming things in the context of a secular worldview that also tells them that they’re cosmic accidents, lumps of self-aware molecules, prime matter that has happened to achieve self-awareness, and are somehow at liberty to create their own meaning because they have no destiny. So young people are told that in one breath, and then they’re told “Believe in yourself! You can accomplish anything you set your mind to!” Why would we think people would find peace in the midst of that?

A lot of secular self-help gurus have good elements to what they’re saying, so I don’t want to tear it all down. But it’s coming from that worldview, and unless it is supercharged with the Gospel, I think it’s going to be empty in the end. Catholics should be doing 50 times better than those self-help gurus, because we have something so much more impactful – and backed by a deeper reality – to offer the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about diving into the topic of joy.

MShea: The message that our young people are hearing – which is full of the relentless positivity you mentioned – doesn’t account for the question of suffering. And that’s why those mantras haven’t helped our young people. They can sense that those mantras are missing out on so many foundational truths of the human person, and even if they haven’t reasoned through it they see that this vision of life doesn’t play out rightly in the end. Human life is full of suffering – that’s inescapable. So our vision of life has to account for suffering. I think again of St. Lawrence joking while being tortured, and I think of the early Christians joining hands to sing as they were killed in the Colosseum. How can we account for that sort of joy and suffering existing side-by-side?

CS: Again, I think it comes back to the source of Christian joy. In Colossians 3:2, St. Paul writes, “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” He wrote that in prison while waiting to get his head chopped off, and the people “caring” for him were likely the same people who would serve as his executioners. Nero was emperor – which is far worse than Biden, or Trump, or any other president you could possibly imagine! But Paul doesn’t write about Nero. The early Christians were very aware of the political landscape of their age, and they always had an eye on how they were being called to engage and evangelize society. But current political questions and who the emperor was weren’t first and foremost on their minds; in fact, those questions were so secondary that you would be hard-pressed to find any early Christian writing that mentions Nero. Does that mean the early Christians weren’t aware of the realities behind their persecution and suffering? No. It means they were focused on the greater reality that was present.

My mother-in-law had a major heart surgery recently, and the doctors told us that they weren’t optimistic about her chances of survival. She was actively dying. Her body was shutting down. But as soon as the doctor got out of surgery, he told us, “Well, that was mind-blowing.” I had some nuns who were praying for her throughout the surgery, and one of them told me, “I felt like the Lord changed his mind during that surgery.” So there was a miraculous intervention, and she pulled through.

Cool story of God’s intervention aside, before my mother-in-law was wheeled off to surgery, we prayed an Our Father together. She’s a woman of incredible faith, and her eyes looked like they were blazing. After we finished the prayer, she said, “I love thinking about Jesus teaching us to pray to his Father.” She was seized with hope and joy. Her face was beaming. Was that all because she was unaware that she might be dead in half an hour? No, she was completely facing that reality. But there was a greater reality in that room for her as a Christian. There was a reality bigger than death.

Do we suffer as Christians? Yes. But do we make peace with that suffering by using the Buddhist route of saying that suffering is an illusion and we just need to let go of our egos? No. That’s not Christian asceticism at all. As Christians, we make peace with suffering because we look it in the eye and say, “Suffering, your days are numbered. Jesus conquered you, and death doesn’t win. In Jesus, I win in the end.” That reality is bigger than any of us. There’s a size difference.

MShea: That entire response highlights what I appreciate so much about your ministry and about the substance of this book, Living Joy, in particular: you’re constantly grounding the experience and the reality of joy in truth. The relationship between joy and truth is so important.

When I was reading Living Joy, I was struck by your claim that we need to reject our own ideals and expectations for our lives when we realize that they’re false. It made me think of young people, who so often experience choosing a profession or discerning a vocation as being surrounded by fear. That fear really serves as a source of paralysis for young people, especially those who are faithful and really want to do what God is asking for them. They get trapped in that fear and God’s invitation is experienced as something of a gauntlet of torture. How can this movement to the spiritual disposition of joy address that fear?

CS: There’s so much fear among young people today. I think of the apostles in the upper room after the crucifixion. We’re told they were hiding there “for fear of the Jews.” Obviously this isn’t some attempt to demonize Jewish people – it meant that the apostles were hiding in fear from the people who had crucified Jesus. And they were right to be afraid of those people! Later, when the Holy Spirit filled them on Pentecost and they all rushed out and spent the rest of their lives evangelizing the world, what happened? The very thing they all feared! They all died!

Jesus never tried to downplay the suffering they would face. He never tried to pretend it wasn’t going to happen. I don’t know if there’s any other religion where the founders were accused of all being drunk. That was the world’s first response to people filled with the Holy Spirit: “Man, those guys must be wasted, but it’s only 9:00am.”

And yet, when they went into the world, the Church came into existence almost immediately. Within days of Pentecost, there were thousands of conversions. In a very short time, there were bishops, deacons, baptisms, conversions – there was a Church that looked very much like it does today minus some beautiful icons and buildings. The apostles just decided that they would cooperate with the grace of God and knew that he was bigger than any fear they were facing.

I’m sure the apostles felt the sort of gut-level fear everyone experiences. That fear is actually a healthy thing – it keeps us alive. It stops us from running across the street with scissors when we’re kids. That fear is a neurological concoction and is a gift from God. So I’m sure the apostles continued to feel that fear, and that’s why I think the courage the Lord gave to the apostles was really from joy. That courage didn’t take the feeling of fear away, but it gave them a reason not to follow that fear. We hear the phrase “Follow your heart” all the time, but that’s dumb. Your heart tells you dumb things all the time: “Get more stuff, get more money, have more sex, go do drugs and drink more.” The Lord says, “No, follow your mind, follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That will lead you to the true desires of your heart that underlies true joy. Follow the Lord.”

MShea: Everybody wants to be happier and more filled with gratitude, but few people seem to do much about it. The University of Mary is going to be giving a copy of Living Joy to every incoming student this year and all of our employees. That’s 650 students and 300 faculty. You discuss how to get started in the direction of living a happier and more gratitude-filled life in the book, but I was wondering if you could offer our readers a sampling of what you propose?

CS: In addition to everything we’ve discussed already, I would say to start by acknowledging that your circumstances aren’t the cause of your joy. Changing the circumstances of your life is not necessarily going to make you happier. Sometimes God is calling you to change certain things in your life, but the thing he is ultimately calling you to change is yourself. You’ll often find at the end of the day that when he’s calling you to change a situation, he’s really calling you to conquer something so that you could change yourself. So reject the lie that happiness is all about externals.

Another lie you’re going to have to reject is one that will pop up when you’re reading Living Joy and you’re plagued with anxiety and you’re just dealing with a lot of stuff. It’s a lie from the evil one that says, “Don’t try. That deep Christian joy you’re hearing about isn’t for you.” We speak so many lies to ourselves. Just recently I was working with a guy who was in the Special Forces, and we were talking about joy and renewing your mind in Christ. He’s been through a lot and suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he finally said, “I feel like the joys of the world aren’t for me.” I said, “Man, if we were just sitting here hanging out and some guy walked up to you and said, ‘The joys of the world aren’t for you,’ I would punch him. Don’t talk to my friend that way.” We need to stop talking to ourselves like that.

Wherever you’re starting from on the road to joy, the lie that joy isn’t for you is going to creep up. “That’s not for me. I can’t get there from here.” But think about it: you can actually get anywhere from where you are. If you ask someone for directions and they say, “You can’t get there from here,” you would know that doesn’t make sense. If you want to go to the island of Yap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you can get there. It won’t be easy and it might take some time, but you can get to Yap: for now, just start walking.

Living Joy is all about offering practical, simple steps on how to get to joy, no matter where you’re starting from. They are the steps you have to take – and you have to keep taking them – to arrive at the joy Christ promises. This is all about having faith that he called you to walk this path and is accompanying you. You have to trust in him that you can get to your destination from wherever you are. Christ is our joy – we have to learn to walk with him.

MShea: I think we’re out of time today, but I hope you can stick around for just another moment to answer a concluding question. Throughout this conversation, as we’ve talked about joy, it’s clear that God has really done this for you, hasn’t he? In other words, do you believe that you’ve been given a life and a charism of joy?

CS: Absolutely. I wrote Living Joy to be a substantive book: there’s a lot of scripture and scientific research in it, and I spent a lot of time looking to the practical wisdom of the Church and the lives of the saints. But Living Joy is also born from my own journey in the past year-and-a-half. As I said at the beginning of this conversation, it was joy that originally brought me to the Lord, and I think joy is what has made the ministry that the Lord has called me to do effective.

But a lot changed during Covid. I’m 98% extravert. I know introverts have enjoyed taking over the world for a time, but the lockdowns and distancing has been really tough on me. I had a speaking ministry – I had spoken to over 200,000 people over the course of five years – and that was put on hold instantly. My ministry is also a business. I’m running a nonprofit ministry, but we have multiple employees and in Covid and everything that followed the income streams got all messed up. The Lord has made my ministry more fruitful digitally, and he has been present throughout. But I can’t tell you how hard it was for me and my ministry.

In the midst of that, the Lord was saying, “Chris, all this stuff that has come naturally to you, like having a cheerful disposition and rejoicing in joy, let’s dig deep and get intentional about it.” I’m a leaky tire like anybody else, and the pressures of the world push on me and can deflate me. So we went deep with the question of joy and got intentional about it, and we wrote it down so that it could help other people, as well.

MShea: I really admire your work, Chris, and I know I’m not the only one. Thank you for all that you do to spread the Gospel, and I can’t wait to have you back on campus.

CS: I can’t wait to get back to your campus! The University of Mary is a blessed place in the Kingdom, and I’m praying for your work – please pray for mine!

MShea: We are praying for you and will continue to do so! God bless you and thank you for your generosity.

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