Aquinas, Charity, and the Cause of Our Joy
As Christians we long for joy in a special way. We know that one of the distinguishing features of the saints was their contagious joy, present even amid suffering. Yet, while we are members of the same Church as those joyful saints, joy often escapes us. This may result from a misunderstanding of the nature of joy and how it grows in our lives as Christians. Scripture itself contains a “recipe for joy,” and Mary, central figure of the Rosary’s Joyful Mysteries and long invoked as “Cause of Our Joy,” demonstrates how to fully live out these instructions.
What is Joy and How Do We Get It?
Scripture does not directly define joy, but St. Thomas Aquinas spends several articles on it in the Summa.
Aquinas first differentiates between emotional joy and spiritual joy. Emotional joy is one of the passions and arises in the presence of a “present good.”1 Emotional joy is therefore attainable by anyone, including non-Christians. It is clearly fleeting, as what we desire as our present good cannot always be with us (if we consider the sun as our present good, we are bound to be sad when it is rainy).
Spiritual joy, the joy we undoubtedly desire in our spiritual lives and what sets the saints apart, is “about God.”2 It is not a virtue that can be practiced and strengthened like patience or fortitude. Rather, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:22, RSV), and an “effect of charity.”3 Aquinas says that “joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because of the proper good of the thing loved exists and endures in it.”4
In simple words, spiritual joy results from loving God. When we love God truly, we possess him, and that possession of our highest Good produces joy in our lives. Whereas emotional joy can consider anything our “good,” spiritual joy considers God and the things of God as our “good.”
Aquinas clarifies two points about spiritual joy: first, that “joy is full when there remains nothing to be desired.”5 Only in heaven will we fully possess God with no obstacles, therefore perfect spiritual joy is not attainable in this life. Second, while Aquinas says spiritual joy is incompatible with any sorrow except the sorrow of God’s will being hindered in any way,6 one may infer that until we consider God our highest good in this life, our sins and failings can impede our spiritual joy.
Yet, the “recipe” for joy remains simple, and is stated in the Gospel of John:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (Jn 15:9-11)
Christ tells us that when we receive God’s love, and strive to love God in return through loving our neighbor, then we will remain in God’s love and so be joyful.
Yet, one may object that this recipe is too simple, something we have all tried and not experienced joy as a result of. We can check off the boxes—prayer, Mass, loving our neighbor—and expect to be joyful. However, this method is often unsuccessful. To understand why, we look to Mary.
Mary, the Cause of Our Joy
The Church has long invoked Mary under the title of Cause of Our Joy. Her entire life was based on bringing Christ—our Joy—to others.7 She is also the central figure in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, and it is there that we see how joy is truly cultivated in our lives.
A cursory consideration of the Five Joyful Mysteries reveals they have a fitting title. In the Annunciation, the coming Savior is announced, and in the Visitation, he is further proclaimed. He arrives in the Nativity, is shown to the world in the Presentation, and the wisdom of the Christ Child shines in the Finding in the Temple.
Yet, a deeper look at these Mysteries reveals an undercurrent of sorrow and suffering. At the Annunciation, Mary would have known the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and been aware of what her Son would suffer. The Visitation calls to mind the ultimate fate of John the Baptist, and the Nativity is surrounded by the reality that the world had no room for God. Mary is told a sword will pierce her heart at the Presentation, and three days of distress lead up to the Finding in the Temple. In light of these facts, we must ask ourselves what really makes these Mysteries joyful.
I suggest that Mary shows us the joy in these Mysteries: it is found in her overwhelming desire to do God’s will above all things, no matter the cost, and to trust in his plan and goodness no matter what sorrows the future hinted at.
In other words, Mary’s charity is what makes these Mysteries shot through with joy. To do God’s will was her greatest delight. Mary did not seek joy: she sought God, and joy followed.
However, Mary did not “muscle” her way into that charity. It was a gift of grace resulting from her close relationship with God. As Aquinas clarifies, “Since charity surpasses the proportion of human nature…it depends, not on any natural virtue, but on the sole grace of the Holy Ghost.”
Mary was seeking God with all her heart, allowing herself to become a masterpiece of his grace, and that was the cause of her joy.
Our longing for joy in this life is real, and often feels like a futile struggle. But Mary shows us that our longing for God should be greater; it is his presence that is our joy. Though sorrows and sin may interrupt our taste of joy in this life and our growth in communion with God, Mary’s example leads us onward. It is our repeated fiat to God’s will, our continual acceptance of his grace, and our growing love for him that births the spiritual joy we desire. With the help of Mary, the Cause of Our Joy, we will be led at last to the place where our “joy may be full.” (Jn 15:11).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 25, a. 4.
ST, II-II, q. 28, a. 1.
ST, II-II, q. 28, a. 4.
ST, II-II, q. 28, a. 1.
ST, II-II, q. 28, a. 3.
ST, II-II, q. 28, a. 2.
“Titles of Our Lady from the Litany of Loreto,” at Salve Maria Regina (9 February 2022), at