Claiming Joy: An Invitation

I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart,
down in my heart,
down in my heart.
I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart,
down in my heart to stay.

Recently I found this old Vacation Bible School song from my childhood flowing tunefully through my head, and as I hummed along I began to wonder about that joy I used to sing about. Somewhat to my surprise, I realized I wasn’t at all sure what it is. What makes joy unique, different than happiness or delight, and do I know the first thing about its importance in my life?

In spite of the lovely words of the song, we don’t often use the word joy or joyful to describe a positive state of being in our own lives. Try saying to yourself, "I was joyful." We might possibly say, "It was a joyful occasion"; or, of someone else, "She’s a real joy to have around." But we usually don’t name and claim a true, full-of-joy state for ourselves. We’re more likely to say we were happy or glad or delighted.

What are we reserving joyfulness for? Is it in our lives at all—what does it look like, feel like; what’s its taste? What’s keeping us from naming the name, from saying, "I am joyful"?

Perhaps we’ve put joy in a drawer labeled Religious Happiness. We pull the word out for religious use: for special worship experiences, or to sing about at Christmas time. Joy does have spiritual connotations, and I think that is its unique gift: joy-filled experience rises from deep within us, from the very center of our being, from the place where the Spirit makes its home. It is a gift from God.

Of course there are many times in our lives, long periods of time when it seems impossible to experience joy. Being alive includes grief and hardship and long, dragging days and months. Spiritual growth comes through those times, through the dark winters of our lives. We need to live these times, but we also need to acknowledge and name our times of joy. Perhaps we have overlooked the spiritual growth that comes through experiences of joy.

So what do I know about joy?

Matthew Fox has written a beautiful children’s book titled In the Beginning There Was Joy. I love the wisdom of that title. When we rejoice we are reclaiming something that was in the beginning; we are finding something we have mislaid or forgotten. We re-joice—we "joy" once again. It’s one way that we return to the state of wholeness in which God created us. In the same way that re-membering is putting our parts or members back together into wholeness, re-joicing is bringing alive within us the joy that was in the beginning. We are claiming something that truly belongs "deep in our hearts to stay."

Thus the first thing I know about joy is that it was from the beginning, and is for us to reclaim today.

I also know that joy is a genuinely physical state, that our bodies participate in our joy. Can you imagine feeling really joyful without having it touch your face? We laugh with joy and our faces light up. We are likely to throw our arms wide, give voice to our feelings; we’re inclined to start dancing or singing. Joy is physical, and some of our most joy-filled moments rise from our experience of the physical world. From Judaism comes the tradition that, on the day of Judgment, God will only ask one question: Did you enjoy my world? How would we answer God’s question? Did we enjoy God’s world?

In the book Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver writes in the voice of her protagonist Codi, "It seemed extraordinary and accidental that I was alive. I felt crowded with all the sensory messages that make up life, as opposed to survival, and I recognized this as something close to joy." This opening to life, enjoying God’s world for the first time, becomes the turning point of Codi’s life.

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has a painting by Henri Matisse called Joy of Life. It’s a full, lush, sensual painting with figures dancing joyfully in a circle, playing musical instruments, gathering flowers. The tones are rich with vibrantly colored trees seeming to sway fluidly, joyfully with the music. This is true joy, truly being alive in the world.

Claiming our joy is claiming our embodied, sensory selves, and the sensory world we are in. It invites us to a kind of playfulness that we often don’t allow ourselves. Joy takes us off the leash of our seriousness and says, "Come laugh, come play, come rejoice!" "Can we?" we respond; "Dare we?"

A year ago I received a kite as a gift—not a kite on a string, but one on a 20-foot-long telescoping pole, complete with beautiful dove and a long ribbon tail. In order to use my gift I had to wave my arms around, swooping the kite over my head, or run across the lawn so it would fly high after me. Although I started out quite seriously intent on learning how to master this unusual gift, I ended up laughing with the pleasure of playfulness as the dove dipped and soared at the tip of its pole with its ribbon trailing and dancing around it. Joy rose within me and took me by surprise.

Joyful experiences sneak up on us unexpectedly, ambush us like an unexpected wave from the ocean, and we stagger a bit for balance while we laugh. Joy varies in intensity. At other times we may sway lightly with quieter ripples of joy. However, it is never anything we can plan on experiencing. In truth, we are claimed by joy; we don’t do the claiming.

Years ago, I was at Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Pocono Mountains when a winter snowstorm descended. By evening the sky had cleared, and three of us decided to venture out into the knee-deep snow. The powdery surface sparkled and glittered like diamonds in the moonlight. Unexpected joy flooded us. Without speaking, we began to dance around a stone pillar. Laden by heavy coats and high boots, we eventually fell backwards into the drifts and stretched snow angels out into the snow. Still without a word being spoken, we rose and returned to our dry warm beds. We never did speak of the experience. There had been a spiritual depth to the joy that claimed us that night that took us far beyond the place of words.

Anne Lamott’s book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith recounts an experience of being surprised by joy. She and a friend were in San Quentin prison for the first time, doing a presentation for some prisoners on how to write. Anne’s talk gave advice but her friend simply enthralled them by starting to tell stories. They begged to know how to tell their stories. As Anne tells it, "We had evoked the listening child in these men with the only real story anyone has ever told, that the teller has been alive for a certain number of years, and has learned a little." And Anne’s tentativeness and fear were swept away by a wave of joy as she saw these men with new eyes.

There is something else important about joy waves: they don’t last; we can’t cling to them. What we can do is feel the rippling out of the wave and sway with it. William Blake said it best in these famous lines:

The one who binds to himself a joy
doth the winged life destroy;
but the one who kisses the joy as it flies,
lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Eternity’s sunrise! We live in joy by letting go of the experience and savoring the ripples that flow through our days.

I acknowledged earlier that our lives intertwine hardship and blessing. Sorrow and joy are both inherent in being fully human. Perhaps our joy would not be such a gift without our sorrow. Perhaps our sorrow and pain would lose their power for transformation without experiences of joy. As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet:

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are
sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you
are weeping for that which has been delight.

William Taber, a wise Quaker elder, talked about something that he called the cross of joy. Though I heard him speak, and read what he wrote about this paradox, I didn’t get it. He was acknowledging how, by accepting and living the painfulness, the cross of our lives, it may take on joy—while still being intensely painful. I think I get it now. My mother is 89 and, due to a stroke, she’s in a wheelchair with one functioning arm and leg. She has mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease. For the last four years I have spent part of each day with her. It has been incredibly painful to accompany her in her diminishment, but I know that many have taken such journeys of companionship and have known that pain. The joy of the cross began to rise for me when I realized that my time with her centered my day spiritually, that she was drawing me into the Divine Now—because now is the only place she lives. I know the joy within the cross when she joins me in singing old hymns that she knows by heart even though I need the book. I knew the joy within the cross on the recent day when she lay in bed with her eyes closed and didn’t sing, but I sang. And every time I asked her if she wanted another hymn, she gave an almost imperceptible nod. Joy and pain weave together in our lives, and God is in the weaving.

Although I said we are actually claimed by joy rather than doing the claiming ourselves, it’s not as simple as that. We can be open to the possibilities for joyfulness. There are ways we can put ourselves in joy’s path so that we are ready "to kiss the joy as it flies." Joy is gift, just as any experience of the Spirit is gift, but sometimes we are more receptive to the gift than other times.

My three-year-old granddaughter Tessa wakes up every morning by hopping out of bed, going to her still sleeping mother and exclaiming with delight, "I’m awake, Mamma! I’m awake! Are you awake, Mamma? I’m awake!" At that moment she is joyfully alive, living in the Eternal Now. Do we savor the present moment? Can we say "I’m awake, God! I’m really awake! Right this moment I’m awake, God!" What does it mean to be "really awake, God!"?

In January last year, the Washington Post asked the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to sit in a subway station one afternoon and play his best, most beautiful pieces. He dressed appropriately for the job: jeans, jacket, baseball cap. During the hour and a half he played, over 1,000 people passed and $32 in coins were tossed into his open violin case; but, the paper reported, he was "all but ignored." Well, you might say, that was a busy commuter crowd, but only seven people stopped to listen and the longest anyone listened was three minutes. Sometimes it isn’t the joy that is flying but we who are flying too quickly to notice it.

This practice of being awake to the present moment leads us often into gratitude, which I think of as Joy’s first cousin. How often do you take time for a gratitude break? It’s like a coffee break, only more nutritious—and you can’t drink too much of it! What if we had a couple of brief stops in the day to notice, to name, and to experience the blessedness of God’s gifts?

Or, perhaps, we could adopt the practice of 18th-century Russian Saint Seraphim, of whom it is said that he greeted all whom he met as "My Joy." What would it be like for us inwardly, or even outwardly, to greet those whom we meet as "my joy"? Surely not everyone he met was immediately and obviously someone whom I’d recognize as a joy. But I wonder what shift would happen within us if we acted as if everyone we met had the potential for giving our day joy—even a spark of joy. I know I’d approach the checkout line in the grocery store differently. I’d be wondering where the potential is in each encounter.

I have one more observation about inviting joy into our lives. Writer Frederick Buechner is famously quoted as saying, "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet." Underlying that wisdom is the simple acknowledgment that we experience joy when we use our gifts. When my artist friend sculpts a shapely pot, when a cook creates a tasty dinner, when a writer finds the right words, when a caregiver gives tender care, when a teacher sees a student’s face light up, there is joy. Matthew Fox’s book In the Beginning There Was Joy beautifully recounts the Creation story as joy overflowing into creativity. Using our gifts is a creative experience. We are participating with God in the ongoing miracle of creativity in the world. My father was a gifted repairer; he could fix anything. I remember his pleased chuckle as he fastened the axe handle to the axe head, set the door to swinging smoothly again, gave our old toaster a new lease on life. In his chuckle I heard a quiet ripple of joy in even a humble use of his gift.

There’s a poem prayer by Werner Janney that contains the wonderful lines, "Blow bubbles through my mortared walls. Yeast my bread." This, finally, is what joy is about. It blows bubbles through the mortared, sealed places of our lives. The surprising, physically alive yeast of joy enlarges our lives into what they are meant to become. Without seasons of joy in our lives we are flat, solid, walled; we are not fully awake; we are not fully alive. May we join in the poet’s prayer: "O God, blow bubbles through our mortared walls. Yeast our bread. Pat us, God, we’ll try to bounce."

Nancy L. Bieber

Nancy Bieber, a member of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting, is on the teaching staff of Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development and is a spiritual director and retreat leader. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at an Oasis Ministries celebration dinner.