Between Amens – Does this spark joy?

Dr. Karen Shadle

While waiting for this fashionably late fall weather, I decided to KonMari my closet. For the unaware, KonMari is the trendy organizational method conceived by self-help expert Marie Kondo. When deciding whether to keep or eliminate an item, she prescribes one fundamental question: “Does this spark joy?”

I set out in earnest, ready for extreme decluttering. But I found it difficult to follow Marie’s method. Is clothing supposed to spark joy? What kind of emotion should a cardigan evoke? It did not take me long to realize that I had a fundamental misunderstanding of joy.

Thankfully, Pope Francis has some insights.

“Joy adapts and changes,” he explains in the encyclical The Joy of the Gospel, “but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

Joy is not synonymous with the exuberant happiness that you might associate with singing “Joy to the World!” Nor does it exclude suffering. Joy, actually, is fairly unnoticeable and unremarkable. It is the steady, sure underpinning of a life of faith.

“The most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.”

Maybe the pope is into KonMari. Emptying, decluttering, releasing our attachment to material possessions — this is good. But emptiness is not the goal. We seek to be filled with something better.

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”

The truth is that if we expect anything in our life to “spark joy,” we must first make sure the pilot light is on. This is where the church comes in. The Gospel illustrates the goodness of God again and again. The Eucharist exists so that our joy may be full. The grace of the sacraments fills us, even if we feel empty or sad.

The liturgy brims with joy. Even in the muted seasons of Advent and Lent, it peeks through. Gaudete. Laudate. Catholics are perhaps famous for their fasting, but we really should be known for our feasting. There are dozens of major feast days in the Roman calendar — Sundays, solemnities, significant feasts of Jesus, Mary or the saints. Joy abundant.

Prayer — especially the Mass celebrated together—keeps us sharp for joy. It keeps our pilot light on so that sparks can indeed fly.

My closet project is only modestly successful. I discarded or donated a fair amount. But I still have too many outdated pieces, fancy outfits for the kind of going out I no longer do and clothes I will fit into “someday.” I know this is silly, but

I am okay with it. I failed KonMari because I refuse to look for joy in a closet.

My favorite of Pope Francis’s reflections on joy is this: “Joy cannot be held at heel: it must be let go. Joy is a pilgrim virtue. It is a gift that walks, walks on the path of life, that walks with Jesus: preaching, proclaiming Jesus, proclaiming joy, lengthens and widens that path.”

God wants me to have a bigger closet — one without square footage or shelves. A storehouse of joy that adapts, moves, and travels. Joy is a pilgrim virtue.

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