We were made for joy, all of us. St. Paul was so convinced of this that in his short instruction on how to live life well, his letter to the Philippians, he insists no less than fifteen times that joy is at the heart of everything. I’m convinced that this is so. I’ve always been interested in finding joy. My earliest memory is of my mother coming upon me sitting on a step, watching the morning light stream from a stained glass window across the stairs. She sat down beside me and asked, “Edward, would you like to see the fairies dance?” Then she waved her hand through the tiny dust particles illumined by the shaft of light and my three-year-old eyes beheld a multi-colored riot of joy. And all my life I have wanted to see the fairies dance, to live with joy.
But how can we believe in joy when fear and heartache fill our world these days? As heads of state hurl reckless, dangerous taunts at each other, can we even trust our leaders with the world teetering on the brink? We’re more afraid today of a terrorist attack, pollsters say, than we were in the weeks following 9-11. There are more guns than people in our nation — firearms account for 70% of all homicides and more than half of all suicides. My own brother-in-law was one of over 21,000 Americans who took their own lives and devastated their families with a gun in 2013. People are given pain-killing drugs that are so addictive it’s like they’ve been handed a prescription for slow suicide — drug overdosing is the leading cause of death among our young. Heartache comes in quite personal ways when we experience rejection, or loss, illness or depression. Is it possible really to experience joy in this unsafe, broken and hurting world of ours?
Yes it truly is, but to understand how, we have to get something straight, first: we have to stop confusing joy with happiness. The problem with happiness is that we can only really be happy when everything is going well. Happiness, at best, is only a sometime thing, dependent on circumstances. True joy, by contrast, can be ours in good times and bad, no matter what we’re facing in life. St. Paul himself is a good example of this. When he wrote his ‘ode to joy,’ the letter to the Philippians, he’d been languishing in prison for two years, waiting for his case to be heard. (1:17, 13,17). He was suffering physical pain (3:10-11) and writes that he might soon die, (1:19-21, 2:17). But here he was, focussing on joy, when he hardly had any right to be happy! He had found a source of strength, a wellspring of consolation that can be relied on in every season, a joy that transcended and transformed the challenges he faced.
I know that deep joy can come and stay with you, and strengthen you in the darkest of circumstances. I thought a marriage I had for twenty-one years was the key to my own personal happiness. And I worked at it, hard and faithfully, for years. More and more it became something of a grim duty, and when it was finally dissolved, I felt lost; joy seemed impossible. One day, on the way home from telling my dearest ones the devastating news, I found myself at the edge of the seashore, sad and alone, walking the beach. I opened my broken heart to God and I heard within me a voice that was not my own telling me, “You have a right to joy. You were made for joy.” In that moment I experienced a joy that has stayed with me through better and worse, no matter what the circumstances.
Paul describes this deep sense of well-being that cannot be shaken as a peace beyond all understanding. Such joy is a gift that seems to come from outside us; it’s a question, not so much of finding, but of being found by joy. True joy is not something we create on our own; we can’t produce it for ourselves. Archbishop Tutu puts it well: “If you set out and say, I want to be [full of joy], clenching your teeth with determination, this is the quickest way of missing the bus [entirely].“ (The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, p. 193). True joy comes to us as a by-product when we’re pursuing other things. It sneaks up on us while we’re otherwise engaged — engaged, according to St. Paul, in three things: in practicing gratitude, in cultivating compassion, and in being in communion with all that is good and holy.
As for gratitude, Paul urges “thanksgiving in everything.” The gratitude that brings joy is more than simply being thankful for what we have, it’s seeing all that we have, all that we are, as sheer gift. As Br. David Steindl-Rast puts it: “Every moment is a gift. There is no certainty that you will have another moment . . .the gift within every gift is the opportunity it offers us.” (Br. David Steindl-Rast, quoted in The Book of Joy, p. 242). When you begin to identify all that you have to be grateful for and see your life as a uniquely precious gift, joy will be sitting on your shoulder and flooding your heart. It’s as the French novelist Colette once said: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”
And this grateful heart changes you in a powerful way. When you realize how much you’ve been given in life, you can’t help but give back. You discover that joy is not just in the receiving, but in the giving, too. Paul calls this compassionate regard a “gentleness, [a kindness we’re to make known] to everyone.” “You can’t buy this joy with money,” writes the Dalai Lama. “You can be the richest person on earth, but if you care only about yourself, you can bet you will not be joyful.” ( The Book of Joy, p. 293) “In short, bringing joy to others is the fastest way to experience joy oneself.“ (The Book of Joy, p. 261).
This gentle, compassionate path to joy is open to anyone, to everyone. Let me tell you of a day I spent some time ago with the guy who picks up trash in our town, a fellow I’ve called Franklin. As we made our way along the route in a beat-up trash truck, I noticed that people would chat with Franklin and often ended up asking for his advice. One man sought his counsel on removing tree stumps, another fellow carried out a plastic bag containing a deer leg to show him and get his judgment on whether it might still be good to eat. A young farmer complained about having to live with his grandfather. Franklin put his hand on his shoulder and told him: “I’m sure it’s tough, but your grand-dad’s a good man. I know he respects you and wants you to have this place. Try not to cross him, if you can.”
Back in the truck, I pressed Franklin about the value-added counseling service he was providing his trash collection customers: why did he think so many folks wanted to pick his brains? Before he answered my question, he paused, looked at me, and then asked: “You have a Ph.D., don’t you?” I admitted to the charge, and he went on: “Well, who’s gonna talk to you? Lot’s of folks I know wouldn’t be comfortable asking you much of anything. But me? I’m the garbageman. It’s easy for people to feel a little superior when they ask me for some advice. They know they don’t have to do what I might suggest. After all, I’m just the guy who picks up their trash!”
Picking up trash and spreading joy, a joy that carries with it the sense that you’re one with all that’s good and sacred in the world. St. Paul furnishes us a list of opportunities to commune with what gives true joy. When you see someone acting with courage for the sake of the truth, that brings joy. When you find the strength to do the honorable thing, you know a quiet joy. When you stand with others and speak out for justice, joy is there. When you delight in whatever is pure and pleasing, in the innate joy of a child, in the pleasure you share with your beloved, that’s joy for the taking. It’s when I get to the end of Paul’s list where he urges us to consider whatever is commendable, excellent and praiseworthy, that I think of a report card, the best report card that anybody could ever receive, to my mind. It was a report on my daughter whose pre-school teacher had this to say about her: “Whatever she does, she does with joy!”
“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul tells us. Rejoice in the source of all joy, who offers you joy as a gift every day of your life. You were made for this peace-filled, grateful, gentle, communion that is joy no matter what your circumstances.