For Easter, I received the long-awaited biography, Chiara Corbella Petrillo: Witness to Joy. I say long-awaited, and yet Chiara died just less than four years ago. But her story has spread like wildfire. In fact, I first heard about her two years ago at a retreat with the Apostles of the Interior Life in Kansas City. The talk was an unbelievably inspirational meditation on Joy.
Only two years after her death, her story had traveled over 5,000 miles. Amazing. Since then it has no doubt traveled the world.
At first glance, Chiara’s story is quite tragic. By the young age of 28, she had given birth twice to two beautiful children, only to lose each of them within 24 hours. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband were blessed with another baby, only to learn early in her pregnancy that she had cancer. Immediately after they gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Chiara had to undergo major surgery to remove the tumor. But their story didn’t stop there. Shortly after her surgery, Chiara and her husband, Enrico learned that her condition was terminal, and at the time of this photograph, her body was completely ravaged with cancer, even taking the sight from her right eye. She passed from this world shortly thereafter.
Now do you see what’s so compelling about this woman? With all that she had lost, and with all that she stood to lose, her joy was – is – captivating.
Chiara was a living image of the Word of God:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy (1 Peter 1:6-8).
This is the kind of joy we are called to live as Christians!
So if we are supposed to have this kind of joy, why is Chiara so inspirational?
Could it be because many of us can’t seem to bring ourselves to be joyful in the face of the menial inconveniences of daily life – late alarm, cold coffee, cold weather, hot weather, busy children, too little sleep – let alone summon a smile when tragedy strikes?
What is it about those for whom it seems second nature to look at the glass half full? How do they do it? How do they live out their Faith with such grace?! Do they just FEEL so full of joy that they can’t seem to contain the smiles, the laughter, the overall good nature?
For some of us, this is hard to imagine.
Were they born that way?!
Most of us think there may be a bit of truth to that one. Case in point – My 15-year-old son. Rarely is he seen without a smile on his face (He’s also rarely seen sitting still, but that’s another subject altogether.). There is nothing he enjoys more than making someone smile – he actually told me once that it makes his day. Last Saturday, he laughed when he shared that another employee where he works walked over to where he was busy running the cash register and told him, “I’m just going to stand here and see if some of your positivity will rub off on me.”
I have to admit, I’m a little jealous. I spend a decent amount of time examining traits I admire in others, and thinking, “It is not fair that ‘So and So’ is naturally ________, while I have to work so hard at it!” Forget about the unfair distribution of wealth – what about the unfair distribution of virtue?!
While such natural traits seem ridiculously unfair, don’t think the rest of us are off the hook. It may be a common excuse on earth, but I don’t think “I was born that way” is going to play well when we stand before Justice Himself, trying to explain our brooding natures.
So what about us? What about the great majority of people who were not born with joy shooting through our veins? Maybe we tend to be caught up in our problems and can’t seem to get out of ourselves long enough to make any real attempts at sustained joy. Is there no hope for us?
Well, I’m sure those of us who have to work a little harder can learn from those who seem to have an easy time of things.
My son, for example, has been blessed with a few characteristics that I am willing to bet are common to all joyful people. First, he is grateful. He doesn’t seem to take things for granted, but rather makes a point to enjoy every conversation, every song, every joke, every job – every moment. Second, he tends to let things run off his back and is quick to forgive. Third, he cares about others. Fourth, he gives his all. He spends very little if any time wondering whether he “fits in.” Rather, he dives in head first and goes for broke. He’s not about getting noticed – whether in school, sports, church, or anything else. Sure – he appreciates accolades. But really, he’s about living. And when he is busy living, he gets noticed because people are naturally drawn to his personality.
These are things we can all work on – gratitude, forgiveness, caring, perseverance. By growing in these areas, perhaps we will find some of that joy that seems so elusive to many of us.
And that’s something else to think about. When we notice those people who are brimming with joy, how do we know that they were born with it? It’s easy for me to think they were – makes for a good excuse on my part. But could it be that they wake up every day with a desire and determination to exhibit the virtue of joy, whether they feel it or not?
Maybe joy is like love – not so much an emotion that we exhibit only when we feel like it, but a verb – something we do because we will it, even when we don’t feel it on the inside.
Take the example given by Servant of God, Elisabeth Leseur in her Secret Diary. In memoriam, her husband says of her,
She was thoroughly gay and took care to be so always; she even considered gaiety a virtue. In her final years, she remembered gladly that St. Teresa of Avila…recommended her sisters to be always gay. Her lovely laughter rang out at every opportunity, with its fresh, frank sound.
More than anything, we must remember that God is the source of all virtue, joy included, whether it is imbued upon birth, or developed over time. For Elisabeth, joy was clearly a discipline that she sought to develop through God’s grace in her daily life. Perhaps we should borrow both her resolution and prayer to emulate in our own lives:
One resolution that I have taken and begun to put into practice, notwithstanding physical and moral weakness, is to be “joyful” in the Christian sense of the word, as joyful as I can be toward life, toward others, and even toward myself. My God, help me, and “Thy Kingdom Come!”
But why all this talk about joy? Is it really necessary that we are a joy-filled people? Well, just look again at Chiara. Isn’t it our goal as Christians to spread the light of Christ? Through Chiara’s life and beautiful death have come such amazing grace. In her biography, the priest who spoke at her funeral writes,
The desire to know Chiara was immediately very strong, and at her funeral, when I said at the end of my homily, “If you wish to know more about Chiara, come ask us,” people responded by the thousands.
Clearly those who knew Chiara witnessed something very special. People are starving to experience the joy of Christ. Imagine what the world would be like if all Christians were brimming with it. If only we could harness that elusive virtue, we could truly serve as His witnesses, for we would
…show triumphantly that all the human lights collectively cannot obscure the pure light of God, but gain, on the contrary, additional radiance from it. – Elisabeth Leseur, “Work to Bring Christ to Others”