Scenes from the first day in Sydney

Scenes from the first day in Sydney
D, the Opera House, and the Bridge

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Awakening to Joy

The picture is entitled "Joyful Awakening" by Kazuya Akimoto.

I think that after the past several posts, it might be time for a little light. I’d like to speak to you about JOY.

Just yesterday, I got a phone call from someone I’ve been working with over the past year. I asked if I could eventually share with people what he told me, so I have his permission.

This man is pretty young, a little older than me, with two beautiful little girls and a loving wife. He’s been struggling a long time to be at peace inside himself, to relax and simply be happy. His childhood had been tough… his dad had walked out on the family when he was three, and his mom was an alcoholic.

So, you get the idea that maybe simply being happy for this guy isn’t so simple. And he has really tried, maybe too hard.

But yesterday, he called to describe this experience he had Friday morning. His daughter’s school was having a “visiting dad’s day” and he had taken the morning off from work to come to kindergarten with her.

He told me that he spent the morning doing arts and crafts, making messes with paint and glue, and reading to a small group of his daughter’s classmates. It was almost like a confession when he said to me, “I can’t believe it, but I spent the morning playing...” He whispered this last word, as if that was something forbidden for a 41 year old man.

Then after the morning activities, and a trip to a park, he was walking the kids back across the street when something happened.

He watched as these little kids, holding on to a rope as they crossed the street, said and did all their cute little kid things. And he looked across the street to see where a long procession of black limos was just beginning to pull out of a funeral home, following a hearse.

And he looked up to see the blue sky, and heard the birds chirping, and he knew in that moment that everything was right with the world. There was living and dying going on, people at play, and people in mourning. Everything was in motion, and changing. And he was a part of it all.

He had been seized by a moment of joy.

It was one of the first times he could remember feeling like that, and even a day later, the feeling remained.

Now, I hope that we have all had moments like that, no matter how old we are, or what our physical condition is… moments when joy just sneaks up on us, and fills us with a sense of everything being right with the world, no matter what.

I’ve been thinking about what he told me these last few days. There are so many things to be learned from it.

It struck me that that joyful moment was not about achieving some great success at work. It wasn’t about winning the lottery and making it big. It wasn’t a public moment where everyone was telling him how much they loved him and approved of him.

Sure, these are the ways most of us seek for joy, but it wasn’t like that.

Rather than being something planned, it took him completely by surprise. It was more like receiving a gift that he never expected. And the feeling didn’t fade, like the passing excitement of a new purchase.

In fact, the crazy thing was just how simple it was; all he had to do was look, and see, to be awake, and to receive, to peacefully accept the way everything around him is in motion and changing, and himself with it.

How many times have I heard people tell me how unhappy they are, only to understand that they refuse to be happy until certain conditions are met?

We all do this-- we postpone our moment of joy until we’re financially secure, or we have risen to a certain position at work, or we are surrounded by adoring family members who love us without any tension or conflict.

How many times do I hear people tell me how they refuse to be happy until someone apologizes for something they said a month, a year, or ten years ago? Or people who are so wracked with guilt over something they did, that now they cannot find any real peace and contentment.

And then there are all those folks who are anxious about what happens tomorrow.

I think the point about my friend’s story is that those moments of joy that we long for are available to us right now. They’re under our noses, so to speak. They involve being awake, and aware, and open. They can’t really be earned, but we can be ready at a moment’s notice if we’re fully present.

And then I think about how many times Jesus said just that about the Kingdom… that it’s right here amongst us, and that we must stay awake, and be ready.

Happiness, the peaceful joy that we seek…it’s not far off. And while we can’t earn it or make it happen, we can practice for it and be ready, like being ready to catch a ball.

How can we practice?

We need to find time in our lives to play, to be like children again. We may not be able to recover our innocence, but we can set some time aside each day to do something we love, something that makes us feel alive, something that totally engages us in a moment of creativity, or fun. How do you like that, a priest telling you to have fun!

It also demands that we be fully present, and that means not dwelling in the past, or fretting about the future. Joy happens right now, not yesterday, and not tomorrow. An 18th century Jesuit named Jean de Caussade called this experience the sacrament of the present moment.

It is a simple thing. After living in various poor countries, it struck me that the problem with being rich is that it seems to take more and more money to make people happy, if that can ever be the way to true happiness in the first place.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people take ridiculous satisfaction in the simple things, catching a fish, building a wooden box, cooking a meal, or picking ripe vegetables from a garden.

Finally, it seems to me that the secret to joy is a peaceful acceptance of that cosmic motion and change happening all around us.

There are some things we can hold on to, and yet most things are beyond our grasp. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, even Jesus, the Son of God, did not think that equality with God was something to be grasped at. Jesus, more than any of us, knew what to hold on to, and when to let go. It takes wisdom to know what we can hold on to, and when we need to let go.
I humbly submit, herein lies one of the deep secrets to the joy we seek.

I want to close with a quote from St. Theresa of Avila, a woman renowned for her sense of humor and her deep joy.

“From somber, serious, sullen saints, save us, O Lord!”


  1. hi david!
    this is a great post. a priest talking about fun is, i think, reason for joy in itself :)
    if there is any time that joy will sneak up it is when we are surrounded by children, it dont notice it quite so much now but when my kids were smaller i would always be intensely aware of the life force in the school yard. it's not always completely joyous and happy but that is the overall impression and it is something special.
    must go, one of the joyous little lives wants the computer :)

  2. Thank you, Kylie... it is nice to know that these reflections resonate.