Embracing Joy

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

John 15:11

Saturday morning, brilliant sunshine, 75 degrees F. Our son Erik and I begin our walk around the Big Block. I hold on to his upper arm as we begin the climb up the street that will encircle our neighborhood. Erik is alert with his supersonic hearing, responding to every distant sound: dog barking, leaf blower, car door closing, baby crying. He laughs or repeats nonsense phrases. He kicks at a wall, stomps on a dried sycamore leaf, thrusts his leg out toward a bush, laughing. Erik is alive with joy, living only in this present moment.

Erik especially enjoys stepping into the recess in a lawn where the concrete top of the water meter is placed. I tell Erik, “Now don’t step into that hole.” He heads right for it, steps into the hole and laughs. We repeat this at least a dozen times as we walk the one-mile parameter of the Big Walk, up hills, and down hills.

Erik is 37 years old, but mentally 4 years old. That is the age when encephalitis ravaged his brain. I remember when I was 37 years old, pastor of a busy urban parish, propelled by caffeine and the prioritized daily task list in the Franklin Planner. My mind frantically moved in all directions, lamenting an overdue project from yesterday, anxious about a critical board meeting tomorrow. There was no Now, especially a joyful Now. As I experience walking beside our son Erik, in these retirement years, I can give myself fully to being present with Erik, relishing his robust joy at being right here now with me.

I shared with my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon Moreland SJ, last month a nagging issue for me. “I am looking back on my life with deep regrets about my behavior toward people I have wounded. A dark, judgmental energy has been haunting me, causing me to blurt out, ‘I am sorry! I was so stupid!’”

Fr. Gordon responded, “Whoever comes to mind, pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord.”

He expanded that counsel with a more radical spirit:

“The people in your life who have died: let them know you are praying for them to have a surge of joy.

For the Unfaithful Departed, help them let go of their Capital sins (Greed, Lust, Envy, etc.) and embrace the joy of the Lord.”

I remember that Fr. Gordon expanded this counsel in his Christmas Letter:

“The Divine Trinity is the very personification of love. This is the love of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity is also an extravaganza of joy. And that joy diffuses itself by being poured forth into creation. Most especially the Trinity create other persons to share that joy. And we as human beings are the recipients of that joy. Jesus made two things pretty clear; He wanted us to share His joy and he wants our joy to be complete. This is what God wants of us, as Saint Paul proclaims in Philippians, ‘Rejoice always. Again, I say rejoice.’ (Ph. 4:4ff)

“Praying for the eternal happiness of all people means I no longer have enemies, because I no longer carry the heavy burden of resentment toward anyone. At the least, I unburden myself and I am liberated to make room to welcome joy.”[1]

Joy is central to our life with each other and with God.

On the one-year anniversary of the breakout of COVID-19 virus, I am waiting in line at Albertson’s Supermarket (six feet behind the person in front of me). They are out of Lysol wipes, paper towels and TP again. Everyone is wearing masks. I look at the people around me, faces mostly covered, pushing shopping carts, heads down, a mother trying to herd a brood of school-age children who cannot attend school. There is no joy here, only the daily grind, trying not to get sick, trying to pay bills, trying to help children keep up with schoolwork.

St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of weeks away. In past years, celebrants would pack Patty’s Pub, Irish jigs playing as gallons of Guinness pour from wooden kegs. Perhaps the virus census will improve so that bars and restaurants can open again. Festive celebrations, vacations, reunion with family and friends can foster joy once again. But a day or so after the event, we return to routine, ordinary time.

I remember this: a mid-morning hike on a cow trail along Olancha Creek, climbing westward toward the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. In the early days of spring, an icy wind blows down from the mountains. Olancha Creek is dry as a bone, easy to cross to the other side. Enormous granite boulders and coarse gravel litter the landscape. This cow trail makes it easier to walk through dense, scratchy great basin sage and spindly creosote.

Sweat trickles into my eyes. Breathing is labored as I climb the trail. One step after another. The mind slows into No Mind. Then the sound. I stop suddenly. Listen! Water flowing over rocks. I continue climbing, move back toward Olancha Creek, which is now gushing with water.

I see a large, flat rock and collapse to rest. On the ground beside my hiking shoes, I see black obsidian chips. A Paiute once sat on this rock, chipping an arrowhead. Where I am hiking had been a substantial settlement of the Paiute people.

Breath and heart rate return to normal. At that moment, I am filled with a surge of well-being. In this desolate desert place, on this rock, gratitude pours out for my family, my friends, the priesthood, the gift of being here. My heart fills with thankfulness to God. This is genuine joy. It is more than a feeling. The sudden awareness becomes an open door to my heart to invite the Lord to be with me.

I cannot make joy happen. Joy visits us as part of the life we have been living.

Spiritual writer and monk Ron Rolheiser shares:

“Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the various versions of The Prayer of St. Francis put it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out. That is the great paradox at the center of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.”[2]

The 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite John of the Cross echoes this counsel in this poem:

To reach satisfaction in all

desire its possession in nothing.

To come to possess all

Desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all

desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all

desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to the pleasure you have not

you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not

you must go by a way in which you know not.

To come to the possession you have not

you must go by a way in which you possess not.

To come to be what you are not

you must go by a way in which you are not. [3]

This is the way to joy.

[1] Gordon Moreland SJ, Christmas Letter 2020.

[2] Rolheiser, A Meditation on Joy, December 15, 2002.

[3] St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 13, Verse 11.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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5 Responses to Embracing Joy

  1. pamsjsd says:

    Thank you, Father Brad. Thank you for being one of my Spiritual teachers You freely offer me  perceptions of Truth which shed Light on my own accumulated perceptions and help me to remain open to Joy wherever I am.  Peace and love to you and Jan, Erik and Katie,Pam and DaveMassachusetts

  2. Sandy Gilman says:

    Thank you for sharing Father Brad.

  3. Katrina S Soto says:

    Thank you for another wise reflection. And, as I think about it, you are absolutely right: we don’t really create our own joy. It’s a bit of a paradox. We can create a “home” for it, though, by being open to it, and by fully engaging in our relationships with God, Nature, and our beloveds.

  4. nericekaufmanattnet says:

    Absolutely wonderful and personally timely. The concept of praying for a surge of joy for others, especially those for whom I hold a resentment or have old unresolved issues is a step up from the already challenging concept of praying for them. There have been moments when my prayers are forced… let alone wishing them joy! How freeing! It’s interesting that this age life review normal… snd shame occasionally intersect. I have found it helpful to compartmentalizations then sometimes to keep from feeling overwhelmed and not in the present. Again… thank you for your writings you express both your joy and your conflict so well. Prayers for you and your family always.

  5. Mark Ross says:

    Thank you Fr. Brad! Excellent wisdom!!

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