Sunday, May 13, 2012

Colluding in Joy

This morning I want to offer a word on behalf of a neglected theological virtue: the practice of joy.  Here at St. James we describe ourselves as a joyful community.   In my experience, that is pretty unusual.  Christians have not always and everywhere claimed joy as a defining characteristic of their lives.  In fact, we’ve tended to have a reputation as killjoys. 

In the working class, culturally Southern, Protestant community of my childhood, joy was treated with some suspicion: it smelled too much of pleasure.  Christianity was defined by the practice of abstinence: from drinking, dancing, card playing and movie going.   Sex was something dirty, disgusting and sinful, and therefore should be saved for the one you loved.  Anything that might get our bodies or our imaginations too stirred up was tightly controlled. There would be plenty of time for joy in heaven, presumably untainted by bodily sensations, feelings, and desires. 

Yet, in the Biblical tradition joy is fully embodied and it is to be experienced here and now:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth . . . Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.[1]

The emergence of the universe from the divine abyss of energy and intelligible order is itself a glorious, exuberant, and dynamic florescence that is, finally, a joyful response to God’s ever renewed creative activity.[2]  Joy is the response of the creature to the fulfillment of its nature: the jouissance, the ecstasy, of being itself.  Joy is the experience of being fully alive.

Jesus said to his disciples,
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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.[3]

Jesus’ example and teaching are not the imposition of an external law that is foreign to us.  Rather, he serves as the mirror in which we can discern the fulfillment of human nature.   He is the human being fully alive, and invites us to become as he is so that we may share in his joy.

St. Paul lists love and joy as primary marks of spiritual maturity.[4] For Jesus, too, there is a close relationship between love and joy.  Love is the energy that drives all things to their fulfillment, the unitive ground of being, and joy is the realization of that fulfillment.  When we abide in love, we touch into the source of reality and participate in its creative expression. “Joy is born out of union with reality itself.”[5]

It follows then that joy can never result from indulging in illusions about our selves or others; such illusions may temporarily alleviate pain or even provide pleasure, but not joy.  Joy flows from embracing reality, not fleeing from it.  If I engage with other people or objects for merely selfish ends, without regard for their intrinsic value, then I may derive pleasure from them; but never joy.  On the other hand, the experience of pain, born of the awareness of the suffering, may be quite compatible with joy, because it remains rooted in reality and oriented toward the affirmation of life. 

As Gerald May notes,
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.[6]

Joy is not blind to the reality of suffering, yet it is not limited by it either.  It encompasses suffering within a larger reality.  Only a love stronger than death, stronger than our fear, can nourish joy.  Such love is often quite ordinary, woven into the fabric of our daily lives and the choice we make to practice joy.  It can be as simple as the activity of mothers helping mothers. 

For nearly 20 years, Polly Cooey, an accomplished dancer, travelled up and down rural north Georgia holding classes in the public schools as an itinerant dance teacher.[7]  She charged a dollar per hour per student for classes in ballet, tap dancing, acrobatics, and baton twirling.  Private lessons were two dollars per half hour.  Every spring she held a recital, and all the students performed.

Polly believed that every child who wanted lessons should have them; and that children, no matter how poor, should be encouraged to want them.  She never let lack of talent exclude a potential student.  Some of the kids could leap like gazelles and swirl like dervishes; others flopped about like beached whales, with big toothy grins on their faces.  All of them garnered the confidence that comes with public performance, and the joy that comes from exercising the creative power inherent in being fully alive. 

Most of these children came from working class and poor rural families.  They often came from large families with more than one kid wanting lessons.  Even at a dollar an hour, once a week, most parents could hardly afford to pay for one child, never mind two or more.  So Polly worked with the other mothers to create a barter system, trading homegrown produce, transportation, hair care, and an array of other services in exchange for lessons.

These mothers knew that cultivating self-confidence was more important than talent, and that enjoying one’s physicality and sharing that joy with others through performance was inherently valuable.  Polly, with the help of many other mothers, inspired a generation of gawky children and spread joy like an epidemic across north Georgia. 

The creative power of love transcended the economic exploitation, racism, domestic violence, and alcoholism that provided the tragic backdrop of these struggling rural communities.  These women were not blind to this reality, so they did the only thing they could do:  they made sure their children danced.  They colluded in joy, not only to sustain themselves and their children, but also to quietly subvert the oppressive structures that diminished human flourishing. 

Poor kids could enjoy “high art” and boys could demi-plié.  Girls were taught to inhabit and control their bodies.  Joy, instinctively generous and increasing in scope as it is shared, transcended self-limiting boundaries to create a community of human beings fully alive. 

Polly did not assume that everyone came from the same circumstances, else she would have insisted they all pay cash.  She didn’t assume they all should turn out a particular way, else she might only have taught those with “real” talent.  She did assume that every child has a life-giving capacity for creativity, and that her job was to help students identify and share their gifts.  Polly became a particular manifestation of universal love, and the result was sheer joy.

Joy is the shared experience of helping each other to realize our humanity, to lean back into the abyss of love that embraces us and discover there the creative impulse that brings our lives to their fulfillment.   Such joy is promised us as the end for which we were created, and its fulfillment is meant to be experienced here and now. 

The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  We hear that all the time.  That way passes through suffering, because those who follow that path do so with eyes and hearts wide open.  Yet it is also a path of joy – and we need to remind ourselves of this – because only joy can sustain us in adversity and empower us to creatively subvert the powers that would destroy God’s creatures.  It is by learning to dance together that we truly change the world.

[1] Psalm 98:4a, 7-9b.
[2] Thomas Berry expounds this theme beautifully in his The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
[3] John 15:9-11.
[4] Galatians 5:22.
[5] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), p. 146.
[6] Gerald May, Will and Spirit: Toward a Contemplative Psychology (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982), p. 16.
[7] Polly’s story is told by her daughter, Paula Cooey, “That Every Child Who Wants Might Learn To Dance,” Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 2.