Rorate Caeli

Don Pietro Leone: Cheerfulness

By Don Pietro Leone

St. Philip Neri

“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God, ought always to be in good spirits"

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, cheerfulness is a particular virtue which is a part of justice. The virtue of justice is defined as the virtue of giving the other his due, whether that other is God or man. An example of justice in the strict sense is paying back a debt. Now cheerfulness involves giving another something which is not due to him strictly, but in equity, in fairness:  namely by behaving pleasantly to those around one. Cheerfulness, like truthfulness, is completely natural, because man naturally lives in society, and without cheerfulness and truthfulness society would not last. St. Thomas quotes Aristotle in this regard: ‘No-one could abide a single day with the sad or with the joyless’.

Why cheerfulness is necessary to society is because it maintains harmony between the different members of society, both in actions and in words. Cheerfulness, apart from being a part of justice, is a form of friendliness. We can distinguish between two forms of friendliness: a particular form which springs from a particular affection for a friend; and a general form which springs from a general affection for all people. Cheerfulness is this latter form of friendliness: it is directed towards every-one. It is directed towards every-one, though not always in the same way: not with the same intimacy with a stranger as with a friend, for example, but in an appropriate way: in a way that suits the circumstances. Interestingly the book of Ecclesiasticus (4.7) particularly mentions the poor as the object of our cheerfulness or friendliness, perhaps because it can be more difficult to be friendly to the poor: ‘Make thyself affable to the congregation of the poor’. 

St. Thomas describes two ways of being cheerful: one way is by sharing our pleasures with others in general (Psalm 132): ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’; another way is by consoling others (Ecclesiastes 7.5): ’The heart of the wise is where there is no mourning’; (Romans 14.15): ’If because of thy meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest not now according to charity’; (Ecclesiasticus 7.38): ’be not wanting in comforting them that weep, and walk with them that mourn’. The only exception he gives to cheerfulness is when we would by our cheerfulness encourage the other person to sin. In this regard he quotes St. Paul (2 Corinthians 7.8): ‘Although I made you sorrowful by my epistle, I do not repent... I am glad, not because you were made sorrowful, but because you were made sorrowful unto penance’. St. Thomas comments: ‘For this reason we should not show a cheerful face to those who are given to sin, in order that we may please them, lest we seem to consent to their sin, and in a way encourage them to sin further’.

We might say that cheerfulness has two essential qualities: it is affectionate and joyful. Its affectionate quality resides in its friendliness; its joyfulness derives from the joy which the cheerful person possesses. St. Thomas in fact calls cheerfulness the sign and effect of gladness.

In what does joyfulness or gladness consist? Joy proceeds from the possession of a good, of something which I perceive or experience as a good. It proceeds from the possession of a good suitable to my nature, from the possession of something which enables me to attain a natural perfection. If I am thirsty, I drink a glass of water and it gives me pleasure. The pleasure arises because my body experiences the water as good, as a good suitable to its nature.

There are different forms of good: the good that is the object of the senses like the glass of water when I am thirsty; the good that is the object of the emotions like a child loved by his mother; and the good that is the object of the will like God Himself. The joy, or pleasure, in each case consists in a movement of the body (in the case of the senses or the emotions) or in a movement of the will: the consent or acquiescence of the will in the good, the resting of the will in the good. Eternal Beatitude consists in the stable and eternal resting of the will in the Perfect and Infinite Good, or in other words it consists in our love of the Infinite Good Who is God.

The joy or pleasure that proceeds from the possession of each good is proportionate to the greatness of such a good. The delight in a sense object is small, the delight of a mother in her child is greater, the delight which proceeds from the possession of God, for example by the saints in Heaven, is the greatest of all. Practicing, and especially consecrated, Catholics should be joyful, because they possess God to the greatest extent to which it is possible in this world.

Assiduity in regard to the sacraments, faithful observance of the commandments and of a Rule (in the case of religious) are guarantees of this spiritual joyfulness. It is increased by ascetic discipline and meditation on the Passion of Our Blessed Lord. Consecrated men and women who have left everything in order entirely to possess and to be possessed by God, free themselves from the World for the enjoyment of not only the greatest good but also of the greatest delight, or joy. One sees the presence of spiritual joy in those who have devoted themselves entirely to God. By contrast one  sadly notices the absence of such a joy in the worldly; and the more worldly they are, the more one notices its absence.

If a practicing, and, particularly, a consecrated Catholic is not joyful, this is a sign that there is some psychological or moral problem. In a certain sense there are no sad saints. Spiritual joy combined with Charity makes for cheerfulness in the highest degree. Think of the Sisters of Charity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta for instance(to a community of whom a version of this talk was given some years ago).

There are three conditions, or vices, opposed to cheerfulness.

Sadness is opposed to that delight or joy from which cheerfulness derives. Sadness is the emotion that arises from the presence of something perceived or experienced as bad or evil. If we are prone to sadness, we must take steps to overcome it. The regulation of the passions belongs to the life of virtue. We should feel sadness towards Our Suffering and Crucified Lord; our own internal sadness we should regulate with the virtue of temperance, or moderation, offering it up to God when it comes, not letting it get the better of us, never making important decisions while in its grip. If we are unable to overcome it, we must try to accept it, and not let it show. This will be part of the cross which we must bear. St. Jeanne Francoise de Chantal was considered by St. Francois de Sales as a particularly great saint, because, despite her profound internal sadness and sufferings, she was always cheerful. A sad saint is an unfortunate saint. We should try to be the sort of saints that people will want to imitate, namely cheerful saints: for cheerfulness is a mark of the possession of a profound and genuine good: it is a way that we can attract people by our example to lead a life of devotion to God.

Let us briefly glance at the two other conditions opposed to cheerfulness. The first is flattery. Flattery is the vice of being agreeable to another in order to gain something from him – whereas cheerfulness is the virtue of being agreeable to some-one without hope of gain. Quarrelsomeness, by contrast, is the vice of contradicting another with the object of being disagreeable, or without the fear of being disagreeable. St. Thomas quotes St. Paul (2 Tim2): ‘The servant of the Lord must not wrangle’.

And so, dear Readers, let us not be upset by the evils in the Church and the World, and particularly not by the folly of our Churchmen. God permits this and He is drawing a higher good from it which we do not know. It is for us to think of our own salvation: to lead a good life and unite ourselves ever more intimately to the One and Perfect Good, so that we may have joy, and communicate joy to others; so that we may live in harmony and friendliness with all in this world, until with all the choirs of the angels and faithful we may enjoy together that perfect joy in Heaven, in the eternal possession of the One and Triune Godhead. Amen.

Immaculate Conception, Mother of Our Saviour, pray for us!

Contribution: Contributor Francesca Romana