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Easter 6: Joy

21 May 2006
Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, Psalm 98 O Sing unto the Lord
Let there be no sadness, for Joy in the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10

What is joy - and what is the difference between joy and pleasure? In Verdi's La Traviata , Violetta is sure she knows what joy is and, in the lyrically seductive aria Sempre Libera, dedicates her life to it:

Forever free, I must pass madly from joy to joy. My life's course shall be forever in the paths of pleasure. Whether it be dawn or dusk, I must always live, Ah!, merrily in the world's merry places, ever seeking newer joys.

But, as we all know, Violetta came to a sticky end.

Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for Joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy you have not yet begun to live. Thomas Merton

The Bible is not very forthcoming on the definition of joy. We are told about moments of joy, and exhorted to be joyful in our worship, but there is perhaps a clue in Peter's description of Christ: whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable [my emphasis] and full of glory. 1 Peter 1:8

As Wittgenstein said: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Richard Church elaborated in his poem 'Joy':

Grief is articulate, but Joy is a dumbfounded boy.
He stands in the grass, in the wind, aware of the ocean before him,
Aware of the mountains behind, and the way of the sky, the way of the earth,
And the wonders of both, but to speak of these things he is loth.
He is dumb, he has nothing to say.

As so often, I turn to C S Lewis for help. Joy, he says, in 'Letters to Malcolm', is the serious business of Heaven. For now, we are like the dwellers in Plato's cave who can only guess at the ultimate nature of heavenly Joy by the shadows we see on the wall:

There is something self-defeating about human desire: that which is desired, when achieved, seems to leave the desire unsatisfied. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing...For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.'
The Weight of Glory

But poor Violetta was right about one thing:

There is no good in trying to be more spiritual than God…who uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual, but God does not...he likes matter, he invented it.'
'Mere Christianity

The angels...have no senses; their experience is purely intellectual and spiritual. That is why we know something about God which they don't. There are particular aspects of His love and joy which can be communicated to a created being only by sensuous experience. Something of God which the Seraphim can never quite understand flows into us from the blue of the sky, the taste of honey, the delicious embrace of water whether cold or hot, and even from sleep itself.
C. S. Lewis on Joy

Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing. Surprised by Joy

For me, perhaps the best description of this delight mixed with longing is Siegfried Sassoon's 'Everyone Sang':

Everyone suddenly burst out singing; and I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom, winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted; and beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror drifted away ... O, but everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Sassoon says that the singing will never be done, because the memory of that moment will live with him for ever, but joy is essentially ephemeral:

Oh, this is the joy of the rose: That it blows, And goes.
Willa Cather

William Blake makes a virtue of the fleeting quality of joy:

He who bends to himself a joy doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity's sunrise.

Joy and sorrow, although apparently opposites, are actually complementary, like red and green on an emotional colour wheel:

We choose our joys and sorrows
long before we experience them. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?... joy and sorrow are inseparable...together they come and when one sits alone with you...remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Kahlil Gibran

But the psalmist consoles us:
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Psalm 30

Do you remember the story of 'The Blue Bird' by Maeterlinck? Two children set out to look for the blue bird of happiness but, after many adventures, they returned home to find that it had been there waiting for them all the time: they just hadn't recognised it. You will never find joy if you go in search of it; like Wordsworth, you must be surprised by joy.

The American rabbi, Rami Shapiro, writes about the nature of joy in Ecclesiastes, which he summarises:

Thus I understand the simple truth of life: There is nothing better than for you to rejoice in every deed done in harmony with the moment. For doing is your purpose; in doing is your meaning. Leave the result to those who come after you, and attend solely to doing well that which must be done at all. The way joy is welcomed is by thanksgiving. Joy and thanksgiving go together. Joyful people are thankful people, and people who cannot be thankful are miserable. The Book of Psalms is full of thanksgiving. In the pain and hurt and futility of life, the psalm writer finds himself thankful and his thanksgiving is joy. 'There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God' . Psalm 2:24

The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes' 1

Most of us know Schiller only as the author of the 'Ode to Joy', set so sublimely to music by Beethoven in the fourth movement of his ninth symphony: as joy is beyond words, music may be the best means of communicating it.

In Kenneth Clark's 1971 television series Civilisation, he asked:

Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to an opera performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they seldom know the plot? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. 'What is too silly to be said may be sung' well, yes; but also what is too subtle, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious, these things also can be sung and only be sung.

In translation, Schiller's ode sounds embarrassingly over the top, but it's better in German, especially if you don't understand the language, as I don't

Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!...Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt. 2

1 Grateful acknowledgement to Rabbi Rami Shapiro for permission to quote him as here.
2 A translation can be found at this parallel text