One of the Scripture texts we find in the liturgy of Don Bosco’s feast is Philippians 4: 4-9. Here, Paul tells us: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat what I want is your happiness. Let your tolerance be evident to everyone, the Lord is very near. There is no need to worry…”.
This text was chosen, as it brings into focus one of the essential expressions of Salesian spirituality—a serene joyfulness which flows from the confident assurance of the Lord’s nearness, of the Lord’s abiding presence with us.
We know that when the young Dominic Savio first went to Don Bosco’s Oratory in Turin, he already had a great desire to be close to Jesus. His understanding however, was influenced by the dominant teachings of his time. Holiness was the fruit of mortification, fasting, hard work, discipline. Don Bosco however, pointed the teenage Dominic in a different way. “Here”, Don Bosco said, “holiness consists in being always joyful”.
Whereas on the one hand, this may seem quite an attractive path, there is also a sense in which it may seem an impossible one. We might think that there is something phoney in the person who is always joyful. How can I be full of joy, if my life is a mess, if my circumstances are oppressive and hurting, if I am still grieving the loss of someone I loved? How can I remain joyful if I am to take seriously the words of Jesus, that to be a disciple, I must renounce myself and take up my cross, each day?
Perhaps the key to understanding what St Paul and Don Bosco meant lies in the focus of my attention. Again we might ask ourselves, where does my awareness lie? Am I predominantly conscious of the burden of my sufferings, or am I mindful that Jesus is with me, that he is near to me, the one I claim as “my rock, my love, my stronghold, my saviour” (Psalm 144). Joy is filled with peace, with a confidence that my ground is secure, it will not shake, it will uphold me.
In the ancient language of Sanskrit, the word for joyfulness is upeksha. This word is often translated as “sympathetic joy”, because in Eastern psychology, there is a close link between joyfulness and jealousy. In a sense, upeksha, or sympathetic joy is the opposite of jealousy. To cultivate joyfulness then involves attending also to the spaces of jealousy and envy in my life.
Jealousy comes from an insecurity in relation to my ground. I am unsure of my base, unsure of where I stand. Instead of standing with confidence before the world, on the rock on which I am safe, I am constantly looking towards others to give me my sense of security and value. I am constantly comparing myself to others. And often, in order to feel okay about myself, I need to be better than others. This need to feed my ego at the expense of others, resides in the heart of jealousy. I desire self-exaltation, and if I fail to be exalted over others, I can even grow to despise them, constantly criticising them, constantly trying to knock them down.
The person who is joyful however, is not in competition with the other and does not look to the other for personal meaning or value. Because I am secure on my ground, the ground that I am loved completely by my God, that I am held each moment in God’s arms, there is no room in my heart for jealousy. Instead I can rejoice that my neighbour has done well. In fact in my heart I pray earnestly that my neighbour will do well. I have the strength to pray even for my enemies, wishing them well-being, wishing them healing, wishing them peace.
Within this selflessness lies the blossom of freedom, the freedom of a child surrendered totally to God. Within this freedom lies the blossom of deep serenity and peace. Within this peace the flower of Joyfulness blooms.