Surprised by Joy
December 18, 2012
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob
- Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1
Christians throughout the world are now celebrating the third week of Advent. Two days ago we celebrated “Gaudete Sunday” – the day of rejoicing. I’ll admit that, as I dragged my feet to Mass and skulked into the church halfway through the psalm, I didn’t feel in anything like a joyous mood.
I’ve spent the past several weeks (or perhaps months) in a slight malaise. Lately I feel I’ve been going through the motions of my own life – dragging myself to class or choir rehearsal, but letting my mind wander during every meeting ; gripping the handrail in the subway, my face buried in a book I’m only half-reading, and refusing to notice the people around me.
Meanwhile, the current and projected future state of our world does not provide much cause for rejoicing. I’ll admit that the horrific reality of the Newtown, CT shooting has not quite set in with me. Somehow, any news transmitted by mass media lately has a way of feeling less than real. But unfortunately, rape, murder, torture, cruelty in every form is all too real. I firmly believe that we are all capable of committing these horrific acts, and they are taking place everyday, all around the world.
Where are we to find light amid all this darkness? How can we rejoice even when the reality around us looks so bleak? A partial answer in this past Sunday’s liturgical readings and also from the priest’s homily. Gaudete Sunday – the day of rejoicing. But what does it mean to rejoice? Does it mean the same thing as to be happy?
According to the priest celebrating last Sunday’s Mass, happiness and joy are two very different things. The former has to do with our circumstances. As he explained it, happiness is something often very fleeting that comes to us from outside – often from having our needs and desires met. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It lies deep within us, perhaps buried at times, perhaps intangible when we find ourselves face to face with adversity. And yet, for Christians, this joy is nothing passive. It is a light that shines through every darkness, giving us the courage to keep walking in the night.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very happy person, and my current profession (if I dare call it that) as a graduate student in the humanities is not the most conducive to happiness (parasitical and privileged as we lovers of learning may be, we inhabit a social space that tends to cultivate and validate the “Woe is me” attitude). But even before I became a PhD student, my moods tended toward the lugubrious, and I’ve often envied my more ebullient friends and acquaintances who, no matter what injustices or difficulties they encounter, never stop smiling.
And yet…I can also say that while I’ve never been particularly happy, I am very familiar with the kind of joy that is celebrated on Gaudete Sunday. It’s not the magical, radiant, festive joy of Christmas. It is much more subdued, a moment of rose amid a season of penitential purple. It’s not the joy of fulfilled desire, but that of eager, patient waiting for a fulfillment that we hope will come.
Just as I’m not a particularly happy person, I’m also not a patient person – especially in this age of instant communication and instant gratification. And yet, the joy we celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is very familiar to me. It was there when, as a teenager, I struggled at finding myself in the middle of my parents’ marital conflicts, and it helped me to give my mother the support she needed during what was a very difficult time. It was there in my last year of college, as I panicked at the prospect of having truly to take charge of my own life and decisions for the first time. It was there during my first job as a high school teacher, in which I found myself unable to overcome my inexperience and anxiety while dealing with some very unruly kids.
“Sometimes you’re happy,” a deeply spiritual Evangelical Christian friend said to me during that time. “Sometimes you’re unhappy. But God is always present.” I initially balked at what seemed like his trivialization of my misery, but as time went by I started to understand. Even when I most dreaded the morning commute to my job, even when I came home in the evening only to collapse on my bed in exhaustion, there were still moments in the day when something – an encouraging word from a colleague or an engaged class discussion – would fill me with the joy that comes in the midst of struggle.
As of this writing, I have not yet read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And yet, I find the title intriguing. Joy is indeed something that tends to take me by surprise. I was shocked when last night, while reading about a small nonprofit organization’s efforts to save endangered languages in New York City, I experienced a feeling I hadn’t known in quite a long time: excitement. It was a sudden stirring, a sudden bubbling up of a feeling that, though not always felt, is nonetheless present, an underground river rushing below the surface of everyday life.
We are not living in happy times. Violence continues to plague the world; many people are suffering due to the global economic crisis; inequality is increasing; environmental and technological upheavals loom ahead. As for the personal level…I have no doubt that the kinds of personal problems I’ve described in this post are trivial when compared with the ones that you have experienced. However, I am convinced that the joy that Catholic Christians celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is not specific to Christians or indeed to any religious people alone. Surely you can to relate to a moment when, in a time of great personal struggle, you also found yourself surprised by joy.
We are not the first humans to live in uncertain times. To rejoice – to follow that light still flickering within us, no matter how dark the road – has rarely been easy, at least not for the vast majority of human beings. And yet, we are still called to remember this river that sustains us, this nourishment from within that no one can take from us.