Joy floats

Fr Andrew Hamilton 21 November 2018

A priest friend once said that Gaudete Sunday, the third week of Advent, offers the hardest Scriptural text of all to preach on. The introductory verse reads: ‘Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice’. 

My friend made his point by miming a grumpy old priest glaring at his people and barking at them, ‘Today’s reading says you’ve got to rejoice. So get on with it, rejoice!’ The point of the joke, of course, is that we all know you can’t just rejoice when you want, and also that it absurd to order other people glumly to rejoice or even glumly speak about joy. You must be joyful yourself. The joke also suggests that age and joy don’t go together.

Joy is supposed to belong to young people who are deeply in love, who live passionately as if there were no tomorrow, are constantly making new and delightful discoveries about the world, and who walk out each morning into a world full of possibilities, a world in which the sun always shines and it is forever spring.

The old priest may be grumpy because he has refused to settle for the lesser blessing open to him: acceptance of a world he knows too well. Joy, I am tempted to think, is one of the blessings of inexperience. When the sap no longer rises and you have met betrayal, the frustration of hopes, and the recognition of your limitations that come with age, intimations of joy can appear to be angels dropping in at the wrong address.

JOY DOESN'T QUITE TOUCH THE GROUND

Certainly, unless we are like the very experienced Pope Francis who is always speaking about joy, cajoling sourpusses and embracing people with the most evident happiness, it is hard to speak about joy. As with similar words, joy is big and fluffy. Joy, delight, happiness, beatitude and hilarity are helpful words when we want to make an impression, but we don’t drop them into ordinary conversation. They don’t quite touch the ground.

The opposites of joy, however, are sharper and have more grip. Think of glum, gloomy, sad, dismal, distressed, despondent, laser lipped, mournful, moping, weary in spirit, and so on. These words evoke images of daily life we instinctively relate to. We have no difficulty telling stories and putting faces to them, often our own.

In novels and films, too, happiness usually makes a cameo appearance as the credits start rolling and the ever after begins. During the movie all the best scenes are about fear, loss and self-delusion. As Tolstoy said in his wonderful novel Anna Karenina about a life declining into misery, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

CHALLENGE OF JOY

When we are asked if we are happy or joyful we may find it challenging to answer. Our first instinct is to evade the question and to be suspicious of anyone who answers it too enthusiastically. That may be because we are not sure just how happy we have to be in order to count as joyful. It may also reflect our sense of how precarious joy is. We know that our sources of happiness can in a moment be destroyed forever by a car driven inattentively or by a fire. In the face of such dangers, we may think, it is better to fly under the radar. If God notices our happiness, we fear, we may be tested just as Job was tested. At all events, we realise that joy is not an entitlement or a claim that we can peg and mine at will. Joy depends on circumstances and on relationships, and we all know how circumstances can suddenly change relationships.

Still, we do recognise joy when it comes to us as a gift. To be joyful is usually a sign that we feel connected in our lives. We associate it with discovering that we are deeply loved by someone whom we love in return. Or we realise that we have been led out of an isolated life without much meaning into a larger world of which we are a valued part and into the company of friends. We wake up in the morning excited by the day that is to come and confident of our place in it. Of course, joy of this kind can come and go. A deep relationship can go from ecstatic to static, when the hard work of faithfulness begins. Self-doubt can follow confidence, and cloud lock in the frost of a clear night.

JOY IN OUR CALLING

In these alternating times we may be given a joy that lies deeper than our immediate feelings. We can find ourselves returning to the beautiful and varied world to which God has invited us, and finding joy in our calling, in the beauty that surrounds us and in the people who love us. The habit of gratitude nurtures joy even in thankless times and tasks.

Joy is indeed hard to preach on, particularly if we think of it as a duty. But joy and the gratitude that gives birth to joy offer us all a place from which we can speak persuasively of our relationship to God. Frowning and barking rarely generates anything good. Gratitude, on the other hand, generates humour, and humour unlocks joy.