Dear Peregrinus (A Monday in June):
Hello, dear old friend. It is nearly a year since I have written to you last, and my, what profound wonders and sorrows have come to be in that short amount of time. The extraordinary and hard-won recovery of our mutual friend, Rick Ganz; the birth of my precious Gesumina, delivered to us strong and healthy and fresh from God; and alas, the arrival of a global pandemic that has stolen hundreds of thousands of lives and hemorrhaged into political and social unrest, the likes of which I have never before encountered. It is a difficult time to be a human being, Peregrinus, and I know of no one who is not feeling the weight of it. I think often of this conversation between a brave hobbit and a kindly old wizard-
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring– “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[ii]
This global tragedy is not what I would have chosen for my children, Peregrinus, or what any one of us would have chosen for ourselves. And yet, here it is. And since I do not have it within my power to wish it away (imagine that!), I, like everyone else, have to just buck up and muddle through and hopefully make it out the other side.
At least, this was my best thinking on the matter for the first two months or so after the virus emerged. I was struggling through quarantine alone with my three young children (no small feat, I tell you) and constantly fretting about the safety of my husband, Matt, who is a nurse at Providence hospital. My utilitarian survival strategy was to just get each day over and done with; I lumbered around in a daze; a sort of comatose hibernation, a period of spiritual stasis while I wistfully waited for “normal” life to begin again.
Then one day at home, after many weeks in isolation, I sat in my living room while the kids played contentedly around me and my husband puttered in the kitchen. I was miserable- I felt stuck, frantic, utterly depressed and hopeless. All I could think was,
“I hate this. I’m trapped here and I can’t take it anymore, not one more day. This is hell.”
And then as I stewed a distinctly different voice entered the conversation, and like a flash I realized-
“…and yet, if someone told me I had only one hour left to live, this is exactly where I would want to be and exactly what I’d want to be doing.”
This is a God thing, Peregrinus; a loving arm that reaches out and yanks us back from the brink of oblivion. And it struck me how odd it was that I could be home, in the place I love best, with my family, the people most precious to me, and not recognize them. Do you remember that wonderful line from Milton-
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”[iii]
How was it possible that my mind had distorted my blessed home life into something that felt like hell? This pointed to something disordered in my soul; and rather than give attention to what the evil spirit was doing (attention being what It loves best), I have turned my attention instead to what God is doing, and I have begun to wonder about what He is up to. And I am turning to you Peregrinus, one who is wise in the ways of God, to help me explore it.
Considering the gloom and misery of our world stage, I wonder if it seems odd to you that I would title my letter, “On Joy”. Did you notice that? I chose this title deliberately Peregrinus, because the experience I just shared with you struck me as being a critical example of what happens inside a person when they yield to living without joy; how we languish when we cease to understand what joy means, or forget from Whom it comes.
My letter is not an attempt to lift your spirits with false jollity- plenty has already been written about how to keep one’s chin up during the pandemic, and I leave it to you to decide which of those resources are worthy or not. Nor will I encourage you to remain hopeful because “God is good” and “everything happens for a reason”. I think you know me well enough Peregrinus to know that I find such clichéd and overly simplistic platitudes abhorrent. The suffering of humanity right now is not to be minimized; fear, anger, loss, despair, and loneliness are real and alive in so many of us, and not without reason.
No, my intention in talking about joy is not to divert or distract you from what is real. But rather, to invite you to look with me more deeply into what is most real, such that we stop and notice what it is that God has been up to, even as the walls crumbling around us clamor for our attention. Because I am wondering Peregrinus—and I ask for your wisdom and insight as I continue to discern this—if it is possible that joy can bloom abundantly in us even as we acknowledge and grieve the wounds of our world?
Perhaps it would be useful to first explain what I mean by “joy”, and how it is distinct from “happiness”. Though we often use the two interchangeably in colloquial English they carry significantly different weight in the context of the spiritual life. To my understanding, happiness is something that occurs in the mind and the affect; it is a feeling, usually in response to some pleasant external stimulus. When we eat ice cream, we feel happy. When we buy a spiffy new gadget, we feel happy.
The trouble with feelings, though, is that they are so very fickle and fleeting; if we gain 5 pounds after eating that ice cream, our happiness will turn to remorse, and eventually, we will get bored of our fancy gadget and want a newer, fancier one. But the emotional buzz we get from something new and exciting does not provide us with happiness in any sort of lasting way. We risk settling for a happiness that is too thin and flimsy if we do not know how recognize what it is that we’re really seeking.
But lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify- in this letter I am not advocating for asceticism or railing against “the pleasures of the flesh” in some sort of fiery sermon. To suggest that we shouldn’t enjoy pleasures in life is not what I mean to say at all. God created little comforts and delights for us, and we are meant to notice and enjoy them:
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation: ”It is not true that the saints and the great contemplatives never loved created things, and had no understanding or appreciation of the world, with its sights and sounds and the people living in it. They loved everything and everyone. Do you think that their love of God was compatible with a hatred for things that reflected Him and spoke of Him on every side?”[iv]
Saints are highly skilled at loving created things in an ordered way. Their happiness in enjoying them gives greater glory to God and the wonder of His creation. The risk is in becoming so overly fixated on our own happiness that we create a disordered attachment to worldly pleasures.
No, happiness is not bad; it is just an inadequate substitute for joy.
Joy is thicker, grittier than happiness, and is accessible to us regardless of our circumstances because it is a gift of closeness born of an abiding friendship with Christ. Unlike happiness, joy is not merely an emotion, but a way of being in relationship with Him who is Good, the source of all love and all joy. Life might be messy and capricious, but joy is rooted in the assurance of a friendship which is unfailing and true:
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium– “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”[v]
So if joy is not just a pleasurable feeling, what does it feel like, and how do we recognize it?
I have told you before, Peregrinus, of my six-year-old son Cirocco, whose spiritual powers are so profound and inexplicable that I am at a loss to account for their presence in one so young. Recently we took Cirocco and his sisters Sabina and Gesumina on a nature walk (one of our most sacred and grounding habits as a family) through a beloved greenway close to our home. As we turned a corner there, on a low branch, sat a magnificent, regal Barred Owl:
I do not know, Peregrinus, if you have ever had the privilege of seeing an owl free and proud out in the wild before; I had not, and I tell you it was an astounding, powerful, and intensely spiritual experience. We stayed with the owl (whom the children named “Hootie”) for about twenty minutes before bidding it farewell. As we hiked back to the car Cirocco, who had been quiet, said, “Mom? You know what? When we saw that owl, I felt that God was alive.”
Is this not a beautiful way to describe joy?
Joy is the feeling we get when we experience that God is alive. This is why so many of our most profoundly joyful experiences, the birth of a child or a wedding for instance, are often tinged with a special kind of sadness; true joy is a brief encounter with the Living God and therefore intensifies the pain of our separation from Him. The joy we experience here on Earth points us straight towards Heaven and pierces our hearts with love for the One we miss and long to be with forever. C.S. Lewis says “[joy] must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing”[vi]. True joy fills us with happiness while also leaving us heavy with the desire for “we know not what”.
I think this really confuses people, Peregrinus. We do not know what to make of it when we find ourselves feeling sad when we think we “should” be feeling joyful. But we can learn to distinguish this particular kind of sadness from other kinds, as we develop our ability to recognize it as a deep and intense yearning for God. This is what joy is: the trinity of longing, sadness, and happiness.
If you remember, Peregrinus, I began this letter with a story about feeling miserable after weeks in quarantine. I was mourning the loss of many things that make me happy- seeing friends, going to yoga, trips to the library and the gorge[vii]. And my frustration at losing all these things caused me to get so lost in myself that I forgot how to notice and recognize joy. God was still showing up in my day; opportunities for joy were there but I kept missing them.
I think joy can be easy to miss because it doesn’t always call a lot of attention to itself.
Let me explain what I mean. I think we are in the habit of associating joy with spectacular, extraordinary events: an amazing vacation, a Christmas party, a wedding. And certainly joy is to be found in all those special things. But most of our time, probably a good 90% of our lives, is not particularly dazzling, but just filled with mundane, everyday stuff- going to work, folding laundry, putting the kids to bed, cleaning the gunk out of the toothbrush holder. This is life. We must know how to look for, and recognize, how God reveals Himself in the unglamorous, ordinary circumstances of our everyday life. Otherwise we will have lost 90% of our lifetime waiting around for the joy to begin. Life is just too precious to waste that kind of time half asleep; we are meant to live life fully alive and awake to joy:
John 10:10: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.[viii].
We know that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, makes it possible for us to live joyful lives, so my sense is that much of the joy that is to be found in life must be hidden in plain view. I wonder, Peregrinus, what you thought of the painting I placed at the head of this letter. It depicts Mary hanging up the swaddling clothes to dry while a naked baby Jesus plays on the ground nearby. There is nothing remarkable or extraordinary about the picture. The familiar scene it portrays is one that has played out countless times in history, all over the world, as mothers tend to their homes and children. And yet it strikes me that this is a painting of profound joy. Mary hangs the clothes, contented and happy to be with her sweet baby, but there is heaviness in her eyes too, as she wonders at the mystery of His life and the particular sadness it creates inside her. Here we see a perfectly ordinary day which suddenly becomes the occasion for God to reveal Himself, and perhaps because it is such an ordinary moment, Mary is able to see with great clarity the truth of her son, of the Son. This is joy.
I considered choosing a painting with more demonstrative emotional imagery, but I thought it was important that we become skilled in recognizing joy when it looks like this; when it looks like dinner with our family, like kids running through a sprinkler, like reading a book on the porch, like home. Because it is in the people and places we know and love best that God most often comes to us.
And I wonder, Peregrinus, if this is one of the ways that God is at work in humanity as we weather the crisis of COVID-19. During this time when we are so cut off from many of the outward things that make us happy, we are pressed deeper into the “ordinariness” of our everyday life. We must remain awake so that we will notice when Joy comes to find us there. Because if we spend time enjoying, and really seeing our beautiful, ordinary life, we will understand why Jesus was willing to die for it.
May God bless and keep you, my fellow pilgrim, as we walk this hard road. Let us be radicals, as Jesus was, who dare to live joyfully in dark times, and proclaim by our joy that God is alive.
And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.[ix]
With love in Christ,
[i] This painting, often called the “Polish Madonna”, was inspired by a Polish legend: “[Legend] has it that the bright warmth of the sun must shine upon the earth on Saturday, if only for a brief moment, in remembrance of Christ’s infancy when on that day Mary would wash immaculately clean his swaddling clothes so that Sunday might find delight in witnessing the baby God in pure and fresh-scented dress.”
[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.
[iii] Milton, John, 1608-1674. Paradise Lost (1:233-234). London ; New York :Penguin Books, 2000.
[iv] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, NY: New Directions, 1972. Print
[v] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, (2013, Index Section I). See: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html
[vi] Lewis, C S, and Owen Barfield. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. , 1955. Print
[vii] I don’t mean to minimize the import of this- losing touch with our community and our routine because of the virus has been devastating for many of us; it is not just the loss of luxuries but the loss of key touchpoints that we rely on for our wellbeing and sense of normalcy.
[viii] The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998. John 10:10.
[ix] The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998. John 1:5.