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Rejoice Always?

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The psalmist promises that “weeping lasts for a night … joy comes in the morning.” But the news these days sure makes for a long night. For most of my life, I’ve thought of joy as a lofty emotion that is usually out of reach. The morning rarely seems to come.  

In fact, whenever I hear St. Paul’s injunction to “Rejoice always,” I furrow my brow. How quaint, I think. When I happened across “‘Rejoice Always’: How Everyday Joy Responds to the Problem of Evil,” an essay by theologian Adrian Walker, I was intrigued.

Walker seemed to have me in his sights from the outset. He described exactly how I have heard Paul — that he is calling for an “unceasing rejoicing,” which requires our “voluntaristic effort” to reach a “state of enforced hilarity” or “fictive serenity,” complete with lots of “artificial sweetening.”   

So too, Walker pinpointed my default responses to evil, namely, to fight it, run from it or just get discouraged — which he described as “heroic posturing” or “cynical Realpolitik.” Ouch.

Wincing, I read on. First, Walker instructs us to take a wrecking ball to the idea of joy as merely an emotion. “Joy,” he writes, “is not a temporary euphoric ‘high,’” but the “unshakeable conviction,” that “life, every life, is both livable and worth living, a conviction demonstrated not in the dizziness of extraordinary exaltation, but in the sober normality of the everyday.”

Joy is “the fundamental trait of the Christian ethos.”

Next, Walker invites us into a theology 101 short-course. Evil, he reminds us from Aquinas, is not created, but rather “privatio boni” or a “privation of a due good.” Aquinas adopted the classical Greek idea that evil exists in the lack of a good that ought to be there, but we tend to get confused with this definition because we also experience evil as active and real: We feel the lack of the good, an absence that Walker describes as a “quasi-active ‘defecting from the good,’ a failure to be.”

The Thomistic privatio bono doctrine is key, Walker argues, to reminding us of the place of the good in the very order of life, of being itself: Good came before evil. “Because the good has an absolute ontological primacy over evil,” he explains, the good has “nothing to prove.” Like the holiest person you can think of, the good has this “kind of quiet, solid reliability” and “serene normality.”

But whenever you or I sin or “defect” from the good, we allow evil a foothold. “Evil, Aquinas is telling us, is not a nothing, but a voracious ontological parasite that feeds off of the real in order to clothe its empty center with a shadowy, counterfeit substance with no originality of its own,” Walker explains.

Though “clamorous,” and “obtrusive,” evil is still, at the end of the day, a parasite. “Stalin could enslave millions through terror,” Walker illustrates this point, “but Stalinism could only destroy life, not transmit it.” Stalinism’s “power to destroy without giving life” reveals the “ultimate feebleness and sterility” of all evil.

Even if we struggle to pass Walker’s 101 course, we can begin to glimpse something stunning — when we “rejoice always” in and through our daily trials and “normality,” we are deploying the ultimate resistance strategy against evil. Why? Because in doing so, we hold true to the primacy of the good over evil. We refuse to adopt the parasitical “logic of evil.” We, like Christ, patiently remain “within the logic of the good in its vulnerability and exposure, even to the point of suffering.” We say “Yes to finitude” and we, like Christ, renounce the perennial temptations to “self-righteousness,” and cynicism.   

All of this is anything but quaint. I’ve been wrong all these years, and yes, the psalmist and Paul were right: Joy is neither “artificial sweetening” nor an elusive emotion. Joy is a rock-solid structure, an entire ethos. Jesus has already “transferred us into a state — the state of Christian existence itself — whose very objective structure is joy, even in the midst of trials,” Walker writes.

Secure in this structure, we must reject Satan and his wearisome daily onslaught of sterile works, empty promises and parasitical displays. Whatever trial may come, we have nothing to prove and everything to gain in the confident joy that is already ours in the victorious Christ. My brothers and sisters, rejoice always.

 Johnson is diocesan director of evangelization.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019