Spiritual joy: final thoughts

One thing that is notable about the stories of these five people is that, despite the differences in background and circumstances, there is a striking similarity in the quality of their inner experience and even in the way they expressed it. One commonality is the exhilaration and sense of freedom they experienced with the realization that no matter what happened in the outer aspects of their lives, the integrity and vitality of what was deepest and truest in their being was safe from harm. They came to understand that, as Thomas Merton put it, “the real journey in life is interior.”It should be noted, however, that Merton’s brief commentary on spiritual joy speaks only to the issue of one’s own suffering and does not address the suffering of others. Particularly troubling is the suffering of young children and others who are incapable of apprehending the distinction between the inner and outer life, incapable of enfolding their suffering within that understanding. For Etty, witnessing such suffering was an agony, knowing as she did that “one can only accept for oneself and not for others.” Their suffering became part of her own suffering, and that portion of suffering she was able to assimilate within her capacity for spiritual joy. But it seems that Etty’s own experience of spiritual joy coexisted with a poignant undertone of sorrow for the unredeemed suffering that is so much a part of human existence.

Mack Winholtz was a professor of sociology at Park University until his retirement in 2003.

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