St. Paul wrote:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Jesus said to his disciples:
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)
Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
A cloud of witnesses
I’m reading a book entitled “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.” In it, the author David Sheff tells the story of Jarvis Jay Masters, prisoner in San Quentin, death sentence looming. In confinement, Masters discovered the power of meditation, becoming a Buddhist. He said: “The death penalty saved my life. And gave me life…I never would have meditated. Never would have learned about Buddhism. Never. Never would have been interested.” He described his ceremony of initiation as a Buddhist: “My old self died. The person who was desensitized, numb, dead. And from that death, it’s like I became someone new. I’m becoming someone new.” He went on to be of service to other inmates, finding ways to share what he had learned and somehow in that place, finding joy. The book causes me to consider, wonder, marvel at the witness of folks who discover joy in the darkest places.
It’s the witness of Paul and Silas as described in Acts 16. Tossed into a first century prison (Let your imagination run wild on what that was like!), they spent the night singing hymns and praising God. It’s the witness of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, which we’ve been reading on Sundays. In that letter, written from prison, every other word is joy or rejoice. What gives?
It’s the witness of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we observed yesterday. Maybe you’ve participated in a blessing of the animals (Once I blessed a 5 foot iguana, which arrived in a snuggly on the chest of its owner who had come to church on the subway.) or quoted Francis’ beautiful prayer about being an instrument of God’s peace. But what was it about him that one of the memories persisting over the centuries has to do with his sense of joy, while taking on a life of poverty and enduring opposition from many sides? We’re told he censured friars who went about with gloomy faces, exhorting them to cheerful demeanor. When thieves beat him up and threw him in a snowy ditch, he jumped out and joyfully sang praises to God. In a famous exchange with Brother Leo, he describes perfect joy: If we bear injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
It’s the witness of Nelson Mandela, 27 years in prison, who said: You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings. That kind of reflection allowed Mandela to combat forces of institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality.
It’s the witness of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, good friends who laughed a lot, as recorded in “The Book of Joy,” an account of conversations they had in a week together. Each of these men knew the worst that 20th century politics could inflict. Though reflecting different religious traditions, they each exhibit joy. Part of that joy, that equanimity, that peace resulted from the fact that they each spent hours daily in prayer.
It’s the witness of Pope Francis whose first apostolic exhortation was entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.” His first papal homily, on Palm Sunday 2013, began: “Here is the first word I wish to say to you: joy!”
It’s the witness of Jesus who told his disciples that he came to give them abundant life. On the night before he was arrested, tortured and executed, knowing full well what was coming, Jesus told his disciples that he came to give them joy that was complete.
We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. They tell us, remind us, show us that joy can come in the darkest places. It comes with expressions of gratitude, quiet time, service, listening. We all know dark places, some more devastating or inexplicable than others. Maybe you’re in one of those places this Monday. Maybe every Monday feels a bit like that. These witnesses remind us that we are not alone in facing darkness. They also let us know that valleys can be places where we glimpse a long, beautiful view that includes a path forward.