I’m a little fascinated around this time of year with the fact that we seem to be drowning in joy. You can buy knick-knacks adorned with the word, and it’s written on coffee cups and doughnut boxes. We sing of tidings of comfort and joy. And if you’re a Christian actually celebrating the Incarnation of God — there’s some real overwhelming joy for you.
But what is joy at a time when people seem to opt more for anger and despair? When joy seems illusory or impossible to others? And how does joy work when you get grim news?
Sister Wendy Beckett, the recently deceased nun and art historian known best for her BBC documentaries, wrote this in her book “In the Midst of Chaos, Peace”: “Joy is a liberating power, an absolute gift. And though it is not won or deserved, it is often the resource which transforms our times of despair and horror. Joy is the victory over our struggles.”
“Our neighbors are now experiencing the singular joy of foster parenting,” Mike Aquilina, the author of many books on church history, including the new “Villains of the Early Church,” tells me. “It’s demanding. They look exhausted a lot of the time. But they radiate joy.”
“Where do I find it?” Aquilina goes on. “Like my father before me, I find it in babies and toddlers — my kids, back in the day, but my nieces and nephews before that, and now my grandkids. ... This, I think, is why we associate joy with Christmas. ... A baby calls us out of ourselves, makes us forget ourselves. We lose ourselves in service of the divine baby.”
Father Chad Gion, the pastor of Indian mission churches in North Dakota, is quick to point out that “Joy is in no way a disassociation from the pain of life, but a profound faith in and appreciation for the fundamental goodness of life even as all hell is breaking loose.”
He adds: “Those who live in joy are incredibly powerful in their ability to win the hearts of others. We all know deep down we are made for joy. We ache for joy like the empty stomach aches for food. In its absence, we don’t simply stop hungering for joy, we slip into a broken-hearted cynicism. Some part of us dies when our belief in the possibility of joy dies. So, when someone manifests this otherworldly joy in a weary, jaded world, they are an object of fascination, if not hope, to others.”
Sohrab Ahmari, author of the upcoming spiritual memoir “From Fire, By Water,” observes: “I still couldn’t define joy if I tried, but I can tell you that I find it in doing my work well, in orderly fashion and offered up to God; in my little boy, his laughter, how he exclaims ‘Baba!’ when I get home after a long day; and in the liturgy of the Church, that foretaste of heaven. And yes, I do experience these joys every day or nearly every day.”
When people stop believing in God in a real way, you find some of what is so prevalent right now: a crisis of identity. Loneliness. These things always exist, but they become cultural crises when we have a spiritual one.
Kelly Rosati, the mother of teens whom she and her husband adopted out of foster care, says that “after 10 straight years of life full of circumstances that are most parents’ worst nightmare ... I decided I wasn’t going to make it in this life if my joy was held captive to life’s circumstances.” She knew that meant she needed an interior strength that only God could provide.
Rosati, who is also an author and adoption advocate and consultant, shares her “joy stealers”: “too much social media, going for the quick ‘pick up my spirits’ hit of something I know is unhealthy for me and too much noise and making my joy contingent on others’ actions, feeling and thoughts.”
“I think the best way to spread joy is to be filled to the brim with God’s love so that I can simply be present and available for the people God puts in our paths,” she tells me.
Another friend of mine who has known more than her fair share of suffering and challenge notes: “We must strive to overcome our selfishness, mend our ways, reconcile with those we have hurt and rediscover the authentic path to joy.”
The good news is “joy” doesn’t disappear with the holiday decorations. But it is a challenge to rise to. And an urgent one.