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The 'Heart Of Spiritual Life': Joy, Not Happiness


Tomorrow, Christians all over the world will observe Easter Sunday with joy. But what is joy? Not just happiness, laughs, or satisfaction, but joy? We turn to Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest, a contributing editor to America Magazine, and the author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of Spiritual Life." He joins us from our studios in New York.

Jim, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: You say that joy isn't to be confused with happiness. So, if I may, what's the diff?

MARTIN: It's a little different. In the popular imagination, joy is a kind of intensified happiness, a state of bliss. But in the religious imagination, joy is about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God. And so joy is really a little deeper than happiness. And that's why, you know, in difficult times people who are religious and who are believers can still be joyful, as odd as that may seem.

SIMON: Well, why is that? Help us understand.

MARTIN: Well, because you're focused on the relationship. You have a confidence and a faith in God. You know that suffering is not the last word if you're a Christian. We celebrate Easter tomorrow. We know about the resurrection. We know that, you know, there's always more with God.

So, for example, when my father died, during the funeral I was naturally very sad. But there was this sense of joy, of knowing that he was with God and that there's more to life than just the suffering. So you can be joyful even if you're not happy every single day.

SIMON: And is this the message of the season?

MARTIN: It is. Christ is risen, I think, is an essentially joyful message. You know, if you imagine the disciples on Easter Sunday morning, they were certainly joyful. There's the story of them running to the tomb. So that Christ had triumphed over death is certainly, I think, the most joyful part of the Gospels without a doubt.

SIMON: Is the idea of Lent somehow associated with this?

MARTIN: Well, Lent is really preparing ourselves for Easter, for joy. And, you know, in one of the translations of the Mass they talk about this joyful season of Lent. And it is a kind of preparation for the joy that comes with Easter through a sense of denial and letting go of things that might keep you from God and keep you from being freer.

SIMON: Do you - forgive me - do people get a little cagy and calculating about Lent? You know, say something like I'm going to give up Hazelnut low fat sweetener in my coffee, as opposed to giving up coffee?

MARTIN: They do. I think they get a little scrupulous also. Someone asked me recently, you know, do Sundays count during Lent? What about St. Patrick's Day? Those kinds of things.


MARTIN: Yeah, and then it becomes like kind of religious accounting. But I think the key is, you know, can you do something that's going to make you a more loving, free person?

SIMON: What do priests give up for Lent? I mean, we have the idea that they've - forgive me, Jim. They've given a lot to begin with. What more is left?

MARTIN: Well, we're still human. I gave up gossiping for Lent and, you know, saying anything negative about people, which is, you know, very difficult, believe it or not.


SIMON: I didn't know you did that anyway. All right.

MARTIN: I am not perfect. We're all sinners, you know. It's a church full of sinners. And priests I think too need to prepare themselves from the pope on down.

SIMON: Father Jim, Happy Easter.

MARTIN: Happy Easter to you, too.

SIMON: Father James Martin, contributing editor to America Magazine, author of a number of books, including, "Between Heaven and Mirth."


SIMON: Hope you're joyfully listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.