“We need to find the deep and abiding joy
which comes with doing what love requires of us.”
I’m repeating myself – from a recent blogpost entitled “Love”. It isn’t possible to write about joy without writing about love, because love is the source of joy.
There’s God’s love for each and every one of us. And there’s our love for each other.
Most of us are blessed with loving personal relationships. We find joy in each other’s company. But this is rarely, if ever, pure joy. There are inevitably times of separation which can be painful. And we hurt each other, when we fail to do what love requires of us, and when we respond to being hurt with a cry of anguish which in its turn can be hurtful. We are all human! Then, given time, we are hopefully able to forgive each other, thanks to the love which we have for each other. With this love and this forgiveness comes joy.
We discover that “our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand…” (You can go to the footnote below for the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham.)
Ever since I was a teenager in a Quaker boarding school I have wanted to work for justice, peace and environmental sustainability. I joined the Conservation Society when I was still at school. And, when I left school, I was given a travel bursary to attend a conference in Stockholm on “Environment, Development, Peace”. I naturally became an enthusiast for the World Council of Churches’ “conciliar process” for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
I still seek to do what I can to further justice, peace and the integrity of creation. And yet I remember more and more often what Thomas Merton wrote in his “Letter to a young activist”:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
It is in personal relationships that love manifests itself. And this love brings us joy.
Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”, if you haven’t already done so. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and separated from his young fiancée. And yet joy shines through his poem, written towards the end of 1944, which eventually became a well-known hymn with one verse sung as a chorus:
Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.
(By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day. Translation: F. Pratt Green)
There is a story about Francis of Assisi, in which he explains to Brother Leo what perfect joy is. Francis tells Brother Leo that if the Brothers were to perform all sorts of miracles of healing or turn many people to Christ, this would not be perfect joy. After a while Brother Leo gets fed up with being told numerous examples of what is not perfect joy and asks Francis, “Tell me: What is perfect joy?” Francis explains that, if they were to arrive tired and exhausted at their destination and knock at the door, but be abused as imposters and chased away by a Brother who failed to recognise them, and endure this with patience and love for the Brother in their hearts, this would be perfect joy.
Joy is not dependent on our current circumstances, but rather on our sense of God’s love for us in every present moment. So we find joy not only in a colourful butterfly settling near at hand, or a dragonfly darting around us as we cycle alongside a stream, or in embracing a friend or a lover, but also in times of suffering when we can sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us the patience and faith to endure.
Here’s a verse from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem:
Und reichst du uns den schweren Kelch, den bitter’n
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
von deiner guten und geliebten Hand.
(And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good and so beloved a hand. Translation: F. Pratt Green)
If this is what perfect joy is about, I don’t think I’m quite ready for it just yet. But I hope that I may find joy in being able to endure whatever trials and tribulations come my way with patience and love in my heart.
For “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” (Columba Marmion)
Footnote: I discovered the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham on the website of Quaker Heritage Press at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/letter20.html
TO FRIENDS IN AMERSHAM
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and any thing that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.
Your Friend in the Truth, and a desirer of your welfare and prosperity therein.
Aylesbury, 4th of Third Month, 1667