By Mary Grace Mangano
Everyday Ignatian is a series written by guest contributors, chronicling their daily lives and experiences through the lens of Ignatian spirituality
Before she ever wrote a novel or letters to her friends while sick, Flannery O’Connor wrote a prayer journal as a 20-something graduate student. In an early entry, she admitted, “I am afraid of pain and suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.”
Somewhat prophetically, she was right. Her life — and writing — would be marked by suffering.
Joy, for a Christian, does not exclude suffering. In fact, the joy we seek, and which comes through God’s grace, often arrives by way of suffering. This past year, joy was my “word of the year,” something others have written about as a lens with which to see or a way of praying.
I was obviously excited about joy when the Holy Spirit nudged me toward this word. I tried to temper my expectations, as I had already learned that joy is different from happiness, that momentary delight is not the same as deep-down joy. To my own surprise, I found myself learning the most about joy from those who had suffered deeply, like Walter Ciszek, SJ, Caryll Houselander, Viktor Frankl, and one of my favorite fiction writers — Flannery O’Connor.
What really started this reflection for me last year was a verse from Scripture. James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Over the year, I came to understand that to be perfect and complete and lacking in nothing means being full because we are empty enough to be filled with God’s presence. When we truly are completely filled with nothing other than God, then we actually will be perfect and united fully with him. That is the true cause of joy and reason for rejoicing. The sadness is only when I am filled with other things and there is no room for God to move in and direct me to be who I am created to be.
After the publication of her first novel, O’Connor discovered that she suffered from lupus, a disease that had killed her father when she was a little girl. Upon learning this, she lived the remainder of her life on her mother’s dairy farm in Georgia. In a letter to Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, she wrote, “I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. When you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.”
Interestingly, it would seem that O’Connor’s illness caused her to look more closely at her life, which led her to see the goodness in it, even the part that included leaving her literary life in New York. Yet, how can we possibly “take it all as a blessing” or “count it all joy” when there is such suffering in the world, in our own confusing lives? O’Connor has another answer for this.
Writing to her friend “A” three years after the letter to the Lowells, O’Connor said, “My struggle to submit … is not struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy — fully armed too as it’s a dangerous quest.”
In what seems like convoluted logic, O’Connor shows us that the path to joy is the one carved out for us, which we learn to accept with passion. The posture of joy is emptiness. Openness. Joy is being open to all things, little and small and unchosen — even those things that at first appear as though they couldn’t possibly be cause for joy.
We learn to accept everything with humility, even if we grind our teeth or must be “fully armed,” as O’Connor quips. This is how we learn to “take it all as a blessing.”
Last year, in the midst of making some changes involving a move and a career shift, I had the opportunity to complete a shortened version of the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius’ teaching on indifference helped me let go of my own desires and instead open up to what God wanted for me. I discovered joy in this kind of openness and availability, a joy that is quiet and humble.
Joy means being open and able to receive, and then giving from what has been given. This is the kind of joy that lets Jesus say that his yoke is easy and his burden is light; with joy, he freely gives himself and bears our burdens for us because he has emptied himself out and surrendered to the will of the Father, out of love for us.
Mary, too, shows us what it means to be truly open to receive what God has prepared for her. This opens her up to deep sorrow, as it means she will see her son die, but it also opens her up to the greatest joy.
I was not prepared for this kind of joy and so I missed it in the first few months of the year. As I was packing up boxes for my move in sweltering July heat, I was looking for joy amid my scattered kitchen dishes and behind the couch. Joy seemed like something I’d misplaced, or forgotten to pack, or something left on my to-do list.
Like O’Connor, I was struggling to submit to the changes and uncertainty of my circumstances because I was struggling to accept them with love. Once I stopped resisting my new situation or trying to make it the way I envisioned it, I opened myself to the unexpected joy present in it.
Perhaps the start of this new year feels like the old one and it’s not shiny. Maybe it’s even disappointing. How do we deal with this, and not just deal with it, but actually find joy in it? Later in her prayer journal, O’Connor begs God, “give me some place, no matter how small, but let me know it and keep it. If I am the one to wash the second step everyday, let me know it and let me wash it and let my heart overflow with love washing it.”
Finding joy is like this. We learn to accept our “small place” even if it involves pain or unexpected paths. As Ignatius teaches in the First Principle and Foundation, ultimately, what brings us joy is to discover what God desires for our lives, to do that which is “most conducive to the end for which we are created.” When we discover this and give ourselves to this “place,” then we, in turn, are filled with the joy that truly lasts.
Mary Grace Mangano is a writer currently living in Philadelphia. She received her MFA in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston as an inaugural Gioia Family Fellowship recipient. Her writing has been published in America magazine, Dappled Things, Fare Forward, and others. You can find more of her work at marygracemangano.wordpress.com.