The Joy of Saint Thomas

Dr. Peter Chojnowski
February 25, 1996

If there is one thing which seems, in the popular mind at least, to distinguish our own contemporary generation from the generations of the past, it is an ambiance of exuberance and almost childlike "playfulness" which surrounds the image we have of ourselves. This augmented image of our own generation and, perhaps, the generation which preceded us, has not only been presented to us by the mass media, but it has, also, served as a justification for the ecclesiastical and doctrinal revolution which has inundated the Catholic Church since Vatican II. In contrast to past generations, weighted down as they were by onerous social conventions and subtle moral distinctions, our own generation has been "unchained." Now we are finally free to enter the open country of relaxation, self-realization, and religious indifferentism.

This commercially augmented image bears with it one clear message: We of our day know joy as no others have ever know it. Let us rejoice and frolic together! Concerning this, one thing is certain. Such an "atmosphere" surrounding a whole generation could not have been projected save for technology and the image manipulation which that technology makes possible. The success of this media "packaging" of a generation or two can be vividly experienced whenever one has the misfortune of encountering any type of visual advertisement. The "joyful ones" we meet there, bear little or no resemblance to the somewhat staid, harried, and preoccupied people that we encounter in the everyday world. Rather, what we find are "active," "carefree," "excited" youths who pursue that which promises to bring them to a state of exhilaration. In all this, we are implicitly, almost subliminally, assured that we too are but one step from this state of ecstatic fulfillment. All we need do, conveniently enough, is purchase some item or other.

If this image of a "joyful new age" only served to tempt the gullible, and somewhat pathetic, consumer, we need not concern ourselves very much with it. It is, however, an image which has influenced, and even determined, actions within the socio-political and religious domain. In this regard, it is precisely the image of "joyful" liberation from centuries, or even millennia, of various forms of "oppression" which has fed the imaginative dynamism of all the leftist and liberal movements of the past two hundred years. Indeed, the "orthodox" histories which form the average man's understanding of the ultimate purpose of human activity, portray all events as if they were "moments" in a struggle for that single moment of joyful liberation.

Unfortunately, this "struggle for joy" motif has come to dominate, and even determine, the outlook of much, if not most, of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the post-conciliar period. Taking a cue from the dominant socio-political ideologies, these liberal churchmen cultivate a mentality which sees the "somber" past as being slowly overcome by the "joyful" present. Indeed, all the liturgical and, simply, behavioral abominations which take place in diocesan churches throughout this country and Europe, including the scenes of youthful frenzy which we encounter in many a papal liturgical service, are all justified on the basis of this idea that the joy which proceeds from the "religious self-expression" of the people, must not be suppressed. In the past, the thinking goes, this "joyful religious self-expression" was suppressed by formal rites and rubrics. Now true Christian joy breaks forth when artificial barriers to religious self-expression are removed. "Joy," here, is thought to be the product of the fulfillment of the person's "religious dimension." Indeed, the document Gaudium et Spes, which has substantially determined the course of the Church in the post-conciliar period, appears to be a synthesis of the ideological and theological belief that mankind is striving for and, perhaps, has already entered into, a new joyful age of human self-expression and self-fulfillment.

A) Joy as Fruit

In order to discover whether or not the "joy" which seems to characterize our age is genuine or not, we must first ask ourselves one essential question. Is it the case that "joy" can serve as a goal motivating human action? Or, rather, can joy be truly attained when it is intentionally sought after? In this article, I will maintain that this is not the case. Moreover, since it is not the case, the "joy" which our contemporary world has claimed to attain is not genuine joy at all. Rather, it is a substitute meant to compensate modern man for his plunge into the tristitia saeculi or mundane sadness spoken of by Sacred Scripture. How can we know this with certainty? Simply by analyzing the true nature of joy and contrasting this with the artificial, technologically generated, "joy" of our own day.

To discover this, we can both consult our own experience and consider what has been said on the matter by the Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Secunda Secunda of the Summa Theologica.

We need not long search out the matter before discovering that St. Thomas' understanding of "joy" is in stark contrast to our own contemporary view. The main difference is this, according to St. Thomas, "joy" is by no means something which serves as a goal of action, rather, it is described as an "effect" of the primary act of the theological virtue of Charity which is "love" or dilectio. Immediately, we find a difference with modern man's understanding of joy. Rather than being something which serves as a goal of human action, joy or gaudio is immediately placed in the category of a fruit of human action.1 Moreover, this effect of the act of love is, in itself, the fruition of a virtue which is not itself a realization of innate human potential, but rather, an elevation of the human soul to a realm of activity (i.e., the supernatural) which it would not naturally occupy. Therefore, "joy," in the fullest sense of the term, is not an attribute of man bereft of sanctifying grace.

St. Thomas is, of course, an proponent of the Catholic theological teaching that "grace builds upon nature." Therefore, even if it is the case that "joy," properly speaking, is the "fruit" of an act of supernatural charity, there is, also, a natural joy which both complements and serves as a basis for the supernatural effect. It is in considering the essential elements of natural joy, that St. Thomas first intimates the true nature of the joy of the life of grace.

When first speaking of the joy which is an effect of the natural "passion" of love, St. Thomas makes an extraordinarily interesting observation. Love, according to St. Thomas, is elicited by the presence of the beloved. We can love a person who is not present to us, by willing him good things. This type of love, however, is more fittingly referred to as benevolence. We can will the good even of those whom we do not know on an intimate basis. Love in the fullest and proper sense, however, is provoked within the lover by the beloved.2 The natural joy which is, then, a product or fruit of this love, only springs forth when the soul has present to it the one who is loved. Joy, even on the level of nature, requires the presence of another person. According to St. Thomas, this portrayal of joy as the fruit of the relationship of persons united in love, can be equally applied to the supernatural life where the "love" spoken of is the love of Charity. The joy which will emerge from the love of supernatural Charity will, also, be consequent upon an intimate relationship between persons; in this case, between a human person and the three Divine Persons.

Another aspect of natural joy which is an intimation of the nature of supernatural joy is its inherently rational or intellectual nature. According to St. Thomas, whereas both brute animals and man can experience "delight" or delectatio since it is a passion closely tied to sensation, "joy" is only an effect produced in an intellectual soul. Joy is a conscious effect. It is by its very nature intellectual and spiritual.3

Since, according to St. Thomas, the mind, by its very nature, reaches outside itself in order to get hold of a reality which is other than itself, the "intellectual" nature of joy merely confirms its status as an effect produced by a relationship between persons. In the teachings of St. Thomas, the most intimate bond which can be established between two things is the bond of knowledge. In the act of knowledge, the mind literally "takes on" the form of the thing known. St. Thomas will even speak of the mind "becoming" the thing known. This intimate cognitive and personal union which produces the fruit of joy is referred to by St. Thomas as "friendship love." In "friendship love," I love the friend not for the pleasure or utility which I garner from the relationship (unlike concupiscible love), rather, I love the friend himself. It is not the "goods" which I receive from the friendship which I love, but the goodness which I find in the friend. To have a true friendship, then, is to love the other for his own sake.

According to St. Thomas, it is only this type of "selfless" love which can yield the fruit of joy. What is certainly clear from St. Thomas' analysis is that true joy can in no way be a consequence of any type of egocentric preoccupation with self-realization.

Even though St. Thomas describes the kind of love which produces true joy as a type of selfless love, the self is still very much involved in the relationship. Indeed, the "friend," and of course "friend" is meant in the widest sense here, is loved on account of there existing a certain likeness between the lover and the beloved. St. Thomas cites Pseudo-Dionysius, a Syrian theologian of the fifth century, to the effect that love is a "unitive force" or virtus unitiva which draws together those who are alike in goodness.4 St. Thomas' understanding of the intimacy and excellence of this relationship can be seen in his quoting of St. Augustine's Confessions (IV, 6), to the effect that "Well did one say to his friend: Thou half of my soul."5

Along with joy being a type of rational delight in the presence of the beloved, it must, also, be understood as a form of ecstasy. According to St. Thomas, all acts of love have as their effect a type of ecstasy. To suffer ecstasy means to be "placed outside oneself" (cum extra se ponitur).6 The joy which is a component of this ecstatic state is most characteristically possessed by the great mystics. The mystics are "placed outside themselves" by being raised to a higher and more perfect knowledge of the Divine Being. When the mystic is given this insight he is "placed outside" the connatural apprehension of his sense and reason.7 To be possessed by the "ecstasy" of joy, however, is not only to be drawn out of oneself and one's own mundane circumstances. Rather, just as in the case of the mystics, the joy which is the consequence of love causes the lover to dwell intently on one thing and, consequently, to draw his attention away from all other things. Again, and St. Thomas is clear on this point, that which provokes this intent ecstatic love is the beloved. No where does St. Thomas even imply that we can be carried into a state of ecstatic joy outside the presence of one whom we love for their own sake.

Along with there being this aspect of "losing oneself" in joy, joy is, also, a consequence of a fulfillment of desire. To desire is to lack. To desire is to have hope in the future. Indeed, it is a foundational principle in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas that God does nothing in vain. If in nature we find desire or need, we will also find that there is the possibility of fulfilling that need. When applied to man, this means that man is a creature who is directed towards fulfillment. The joy which a man may experience in this life is, by its very nature, partial and short lived. This undeniable experiential fact gives us insight into the true nature of human existence. Man is meant for a possession which he can taste of, but cannot yet attain. Joy is both gift and promise.

Along with being an experience which points beyond itself to some future fulfillment, joy can also be described as a type of restful affirmation. The phrase St. Thomas uses to describe this aspect of joy is "quam voluntas in eorum consecutione, quae volumus"8 or, philosophically translated, an affirmation of the goodness which is to come. With this said, we must refer to the statement of St. Thomas which says "Now joy is compared to desire, as rest to movement" (quies ad motum).9 It is part of the paradoxical nature of natural human joy that it involves both rest and movement, achievement and desire. Joy is rest insofar as desire ceases its yearning before the threshold of the future and turns to the past in order to glimpse the panorama of goodness known and possessed. Joy is movement because all which it sees it knows to be that which cannot remain. In the moment of joy, the soul of man makes a double affirmation. Both are affirmations which, at least implicitly, acknowledge the benevolence and wisdom of Divine Providence. The gifts given have not been deserved yet given, the bliss hoped for is there to be given.

B) Divine Ecstasy

In the first article of the question on "Joy" in the Secunda Secundae, St. Thomas asks the question, "Whether Joy is Effected in Us by Charity?" In the sed contra section, he states: "Charity is a cause of joy. But joy is caused in us by the Holy Ghost according to Romans xiv 17: The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." Just as in the case of "friendship love," the joy effected in the human soul by supernatural Charity rejoices in God "for His own sake." Not only do we find a similarity between natural and supernatural love as regards the selflessness required for both, but also, both forms of love are unitive bonds which require the presence of the beloved to the lover.

Since joy requires the presence of the beloved, St. Thomas makes clear that "so long as we are in the body, we are said to be a 'wanderer from God' (pereginari a Domino), in comparison with that presence whereby He is present to some by the vision of sight. . . . Nevertheless, even in this life, He is present to those who love Him, by the indwelling of His grace."10 The indwelling of supernatural grace, then, is the means by which man can achieve that "presence" to God which he does not naturally possess, but which is necessary in order to achieve true supernatural joy.

The joy which we share in when we possess the theological virtue of Charity is an effect of our knowing and loving the Divine Persons for their infinite and perfect Goodness. While we are still travellers "on the way" in this world, our joy is not complete since we have not yet attained the Good for which man was made and without which he will never attain rest; this Good is God Who is Goodness Itself. The reason even the life of grace has an admixture of sorrow is because sin and the flesh render the unitive bond of supernatural love incomplete and serve as a hindrance to our full participation in the Divine Good.11 This lack of presence to the Beloved, and the delay of glory which it entails, is the ultimate reason for "hujus vitae miseria," the "wretchedness" of this life.12

What exactly is this supernatural love which has joy as its fruit? Here St. Thomas is clear, "the joy of Charity is joy about the Divine Wisdom" (gaudium charitatis est gaudium de divina sapientia).13 We are, also, given an insight into the ultimate source of this supernatural joy in which man can share, when St. Thomas says that "God Himself suffered ecstasy through love" (et quod ipse Deus propter amorem est extasim passus).14 To share in the Divine joy, man must "enter into" the ecstasy of God.15 What exactly is this "ecstasy of God" which we are all called to enter into? To answer this, we must consider what has been said concerning both "friendship love" and the supernatural love which is Charity. What must first be remembered here is that through supernatural grace, we participate in the Divine Life. Therefore, the supernatural joy which man can attain is, in a certain respect, the same type of joy which is possessed by the Triune God. What can bring God to a state of joy and ecstasy?

When attempting to answer this question, it is important that we never let slip from our minds the fact that God is by His very nature three Divine Persons. Since this is the case, we can truly speak of "friendship love" as finding a place in God. In fact, could we not say more and insist that all the love binding together families and communities has as its ultimate source and foundation the love between the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity? Let us recall what St. Thomas has said, "The joy of Charity is joy about the Divine Wisdom." The Divine Wisdom is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Person Who was "begotten not made." The Eternal Father did not beget a Son physically. The Son was the intellectual expression of the Father's own Being. The Son is the perfect image of the Father. It is with the Son that the Father can have a perfect friendship love. The Father, by knowing the Son perfectly, by loving the Son perfectly, is loving a perfect likeness of Himself. For the Father, the Son is truly "another self." It is the perfection of the awareness of the Son by the Father which engenders the perfect and eternal ecstasy and joy which characterize the Divine Being. It is the Father Who is "pulled from himself" in His love of His Son, Whom He loves for His own sake. It is the Father's exuberance in the presence of His Only-Begotten which is the joy we are called to share in through the life of grace. It is this exuberance and ecstasy which lies in the inner recesses of souls dwelling in Charity. The feigned cheerfulness and puerility which characterizes modern man's image of himself, only serves to distract him from his interior awareness that in such an ecstasy he does not share. Let this exuberant joy which fills the Church Triumphant, fill also the Church Militant. Gaudete in Domino semper!


1  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 28, Art. 1. [Back]

2  Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, Art. 1. [Back]

3 Ibid., II-II, Q. 31, Art. 4, ad 3. [Back]

4 Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, sed contra. [Back]

5 Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, Art. 1. [Back]

6 Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, Art. 3. [Back]

7 Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, Art. 3. [Back]

8 Ibid., I-II, Q. 31, Art. 4. [Back]

9 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 3. [Back]

10 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 1, ad 1. [Back]

11 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 2, ad 2 and 3. [Back]

12 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 2, ad 3. [Back]

13 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 2, sed contra. [Back]

14 Ibid., I-II, Q. 28, Art. 3, sed contra. [Back]

15 Ibid., II-II, Q. 28, Art. 3. [Back]