Perfect Joy and the Suffering of Christ
One day St. Francis was speaking to Brother Leo about perfect joy. A number of candidates were raised as possibilities. First, that the friars would give a great example of virtue to all; but that was not perfect joy. Second, that a friar would make many miracles happen; but that was not perfect joy. Third, knowing all the languages and sciences… but that was not perfect joy. Fourth, knowing the language of the angels; but perfect joy was not in that. Fifth, preaching so well as to convert all infidels to the Faith of Christ; but perfect joy was not in that. Finally, considering if they arrived at St. Mary’s of the Angels, in dire need of entry due to the cold, but the porter thought them to be scoundrels. What if the porter shut them out in the cold all night, and they needed to come in, so they kept knocking? Then St. Francis said:
“If he comes out with a knotted cudgel, grabs us by the cowl, flings us on the ground, rolls us about in the snow, and beats us joint by joint with that cudgel; if we took all this punishment patiently and with good cheer, thinking of it as the sufferings of Christ the blest which we ought to bear for his love: oh, Brother Leo, write down that therein is perfect joy.”
Words of St. Francis no. 18
Perfect joy, then, is “thinking of it [punishment] as the sufferings of Christ… which we ought to bear for his love.” The punishment taken by St. Francis and Brother Leo is said to be the sufferings of Christ, rather than their own. In this way, St. Francis seems to assign the suffering from the punishment not to us, but to Christ Himself. This dissociation of our suffering and reassigning it to Christ can be thought of theologically as grounded in our membership in the mystical body of Christ. So when we suffer, Christ suffers in us.
According to St. Paul, by suffering, “I… fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24). When we regard our suffering as the suffering of Christ in us, we can regard it as Christ’s suffering for us. Next, according to Abbe de Brandt, “the excess of His suffering proves the excess of His charity towards mankind.” We are reminded by our own suffering that Christ has great charity for us.
Thus, joy from our suffering comes from bearing the suffering ourselves, in response to His charity, out of love for Him and with great gratitude.
Entering into the experience of Christ’s suffering as a source of great joy also has echoes in the work of another mendicant, this time in the Dominican order, Bl. Henry Suso, who tells the story of a deeply dispirited monk:
“[T]he bitter affliction of immoderate despondency… sometimes so overwhelmed him that no one could comprehend it who had not experienced it. Once, when he was sitting in his cell after collation, this affliction so overwhelmed him that he could neither study nor pray nor do anything useful, but only sat there sad in his cell with his hands in his lap as though he were keeping to his cell for God’s glory since he was unfit for any other spiritual activities. And as he was sitting there so disconsolate, it seemed that these sensible words were spoken to him: “Why are you sitting here? Get up and become absorbed in my suffering. Then you will overcome your suffering!” He got up quickly because it seemed to him that the words had resounded from heaven, and he focused on the suffering (of Christ); and in this suffering he lost all his suffering and never again in such a manner experienced such despondency.”
Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, Chapter 14
The perfect joy that Henry Suso found in Christ’s suffering was found by perfect detachment and dissociation from his own worries, cares and concerns, and instead immersing himself in the concerns of Christ. By living in Christ, with the help of His grace, we can mortify and detach ourselves perfectly from the cares of the flesh and forget ourselves entirely. By so doing, we can then arise out of our despondency, renewed in the order of grace. Finally, by knowing Christ’s suffering for us from charity, and its intercessory power before God the Father at the judgment, we find the hope and trust in God that our despondency covers over.
For both of these mendicant exemplars, St. Francis and Bl. Henry, entering into the suffering of Christ is a means of self-abnegation, within which they find Christ’s love for them, and from thence perfect joy. Indeed, as Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen says:
“Sacrifice without love is pain. Pain with love is sacrifice. Pain without love is misery.”