Sense and Nonsense: The Need for Words of Joy

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J. R. R. Tolkien Advised his son, Christopher, to memorize the Mass in Latin. The reason for this good advice was that “if you have these [words of the Mass] by heart, you never need for words of joy.” Tolkien spoke of the Tridentine Latin Mass, though most of the joy words, mercifully, survive in the Novus Ordo Latin Mass. He was also speaking not only of the Canon but of the various collects, antiphons, readings, and preparatory prayers.

This passage of Tolkien was cited in Bradley Birzer’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth, itself a fine book. The notion that we might actually have a “need” to find proper “words of joy” never struck me before. Yet, it is obvious that we do have such a need, but only if there are things that cause us joy. For Christians, the words of joy are most needed, and most found, in our astonishment at the Resurrection, though we recall that in the Nativity scenes, we are brought “tidings of great joy?’ a most elevated expression in its own right.

What are the Latin words for joy that we find in the Mass? We find gaudium, laetitia, and jucunditas. Such words have different connotations. Gaudium means our interior state of mind, whereas laetitia includes that state with some sign of external expression. Jucunditas often can, like voluptas, mean pleasure, though not necessarily in any pejorative sense. But it can also mean delight. What is peculiarly clear in the Latin Mass is that there is indeed something worthy of causing joy in us. We do not make the causa nostrae laetitiae, as the litany says of Our Lady’s relation to the Incarnation. Joy, properly, relates to us. That is, there could be a “cause” of joy, a joyful reality, and in principle, we might have nothing to do with it. We might not even exist, and joy’s cause would still be. Moreover, as Josef Pieper reminds us, we do not really set out to seek joy. It is something secondary. It results from the possession of what is in fact good or worthy or noble in itself, which is what we seek.

My colleague, Joshua Mitchell, wrote the following remarkable sentence: “Life is short, especially for the unbeliever.” I like to juxtapose this insightful sentence with C. S. Lewis’s: “I have never met a mere mortal.” In this sense, even the “unbeliever” is immortal. And I would suggest, in this context, that, subjectively, an unbeliever cannot have gaudium or laetitia, though he may have, fleetingly, jucunditas or voluptas. The unbeliever would, in this sense, have no need for “words of joy,” and generally speaking, in Lucretius, Epicurus, or their modern followers, usually scientists, we find words that indicate resignation, that emphasize the small pleasures.


We Catholics most often encounter “words of joy” in our Mass, when the Latin words have not been, in English translations, downplayed or omitted. If we are deprived of our rightful speech, we are not called to attend to that to which the words point. What is at stake is not language or grammar but realities.

At first sight, it might seem strange that the Mass, which includes “the night before He suffered” and the Sacrifice on the following day that we “commemorate,” should be a sign and constitute the reality of joy. Catholic symbolism, true to its origins, retains both the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension to the Father. Our prayers are Trinitarian, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Our God contains otherness in unity.

In the Mass, we do not speak of joy or delight or exaltation as if it were something that we constructed for ourselves. What might cause our joy is not some human concoction. We do not cause ourselves. And if we “evolved” from nothing, which is unthinkable, we remain nothing. The unbeliever’s life is indeed very short in such a scheme of things.

The Mass, particularly the Easter Mass, is full of joy and its consequence in praise and outpourings of wonder because there is indeed something to be joyful about. The idea that human beings, from their own resources, could ever give us something that we really want, our very bodily resurrection, is more than ludicrous.

We “need” words of joy when we discover, finally, what is worthy of “having” in some transcendent sense. All other alternatives stand under the judgment of the “short life,” especially for unbelievers. Joy is ultimately more mysterious than sorrow, particularly when we believe, as we do, that our real claim to joy comes from the Man of Sorrows, His birth, life, death, and resurrection. We can only be joyful if there is ultimately something to be joyful about.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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