What is Joy? by Fr. Thomas Dubay

In his book, Happy Are Your Poor, Fr. Thomas Dubay has an important section where he answers the question: What is joy? This question is meant to prepare us to understand both what Jesus meant by His Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), and why He is right.

To answer this question, Dubay makes a key distinction between sense pleasure and human joy – two ideas many moderns consider to be synonymous. I translated Dubay’s text into a chart (click here for a PDF copy).

pleasure vs. joy.jpg

Dubay says that only the person who has experienced both the sense pleasures of this world and the deep joys of Trinitarian intimacy can provide any valuable testimony the comparison noted above.

Take St. Augustine for example.

He knew both the delights of the mind (music, art, literature, philosophy, nature), the delights of the flesh (living unmarried with a woman), and the delights of advanced prayer.

His Confessions is a classic account of where happiness is to be found and where not. For him God is his entire delight:

“O my Father,” he prays, “supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful … O Truth, Truth, how intimately did even the very marrow of my mind sigh for you … I hungered for you.… You are my God, and I sigh for you day and night.… Sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, I trembled with love and awe.” (Book 3, c. 6; bk. 7, c. 10; trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday Image edition), pp. 83 and 171.)

This man is now taken in a love that renders pale his former love:

“What cries did I send up to you when reading those psalms! How was I set on fire for you by them, and how did I burn to repeat them.… I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.” (Book 9, c. 4; bk. 10, c. 27; pp. 210, 255.)

So superior is Augustine’s new delight that its normal completion could be nothing less than heaven:

“Sometimes you admit me in my innermost being into a most extraordinary affection, mounting within me to an indescribable sweetness. If this is perfected in me, it will be something, I know not what, that will not belong to this life.” (Book 10, c. 40; p. 272.)

No one has a right to contest Augustine’s account of the relative merits of human delights unless he has himself experienced all that the saint experienced. In other words, only the mystic may discuss the matter intelligently. Any other is like the man born blind who denies there is any such thing as prisms and rainbows.

Dubay, T. (2003). Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual 
Freedom (p. 155-159). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.


  1. Great message! I have told my children many times, they are my joy but they don’t always make me happy. Also, pie makes me happy but the love of Christ brings me joy!

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