Monday, March 3, 2008

On Joy

I'm reading Gerald May's Will & Spirit and I came across a statement that really resonated with me:
Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one's response to finding one's rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness. (p. 16)
This got me to thinking about how little the Church talks about joy. To be honest, I don't think I've ever preached a sermon about joy. Growing up, I was taught that joy was guilty by association with pleasure, and whatever provided pleasure had to be a sin! Holiness was about "bearing up" under the hard realities of life. Suffering was a badge of honor. I lived in a "no whining" zone.

While my experience may have reflected an unsurprising pendulum swing away from an "if it feels good, do it" kind of attitude, both miss the point. Joy transcends the experience of both pain and pleasure, without denying the reality of either. It is a sure sign of spiritual well-being. Jesus came among us that our joy might be complete. Joy, according to St. Paul, is one of the fruits of the Spirit. So, why don't we hear more about it in Church?

The reason, I suspect, is because we don't talk much about contemplative spirituality; for it is the practice of contemplative prayer, the lessons of silence and solitude, that extend our capacity to bring everything into awareness. When the lens of perception is clear, when we can see and embrace reality as it is, then our participation and appreciation of being gives rise to joy.

An example that comes to mind was the joy I experienced attending to my aunt while she was dying some years ago. Only 50 years-old, ravaged by cancer and already unconscious, she lay in a pitiful state for more than a week, not yet ready to die. It was very painful to witness her suffering, and to experience the suffering it caused those of us who loved her. Even so, the love that we shared transfigured our suffering into something both terrible and beautiful. There was joy to be found as we stumbled about on the boundary of mystery, joy in the discovery that the mystery embraced and transcended death.

When I anointed her body with oil, washed it with holy water, and commended her spirit to God, I felt joy. Oh, there was pain too, of course. But the pain paled in comparison to the enormity of the mystery of life and death - and life - that opened before us. The only response possible was, oddly enough, joy.

It seems to me that, if we really want to be a compassionate presence in the world, a prophetic voice for justice and reconciliation, then we must have the courage to see reality on its own terms. And we must embrace it with joy. Joy, real joy, gives us the capacity to take it all in, to offer it all to God, and to play our part in the mending of the world.

Without joy, what would be the point?

No comments: