A week ago, Harold Knight, who blogs at “Me, Senescent,” wrote a post titled “A Subject I Know Next to Nothing About.”  He was writing about joy, and his title alludes to his history of depression and the consequent paucity of joy through much of his life.  He wasn’t complaining, and he emphatically states that he doesn’t despair, making the insightful observation that to despair is to have more certainty about life’s awfulness than any of us can truly claim to have.

His post got me thinking about the presence or absence of joy in my life.  I wrote a couple years ago about joy, especially about how the Romantics thought of it.  Drawing on their conceptualization, here’s how I differentiated joy from happiness:

“Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.”

I am less happy with my life right now than I have been for years—it’s been hard to adjust to partial retirement, serve as a caregiver for my parents, and travel back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina every month.  Experiences of joy happen about as frequently as ever, though.  Here are some things that have brought joy in the past month or so:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • My dog greeting me when I arrive home.
  • Finding a beautiful woodblock print to buy.
  • Seeing the first tiny tomatoes growing in my garden.
  • Being outdoors on a brisk summer morning after several hot and humid mornings.
  • Driving through mountains in West Virginia.
  • My 21-month-old granddaughter giggling as I imitate her hand movements.
  • Participating in worship.

In each case both the experience and the joy it produced was unexpected.  I don’t mean that in every instance I had no hint that the event itself would occur—after all, tomato plants tend to produce tomatoes, and I’m aware when I enter West Virginia that I’ll be seeing some mountains.  I didn’t expect that I would experience the presence of tomatoes or the massive solemnity of the mountains in the way I did, though.   I had the sense that something unbidden but blessed had happened.  A transcendent element was present, and I felt that in some way God had given me a gift.

Let me expand a little more on the last item, joy from participating in worship.  I can sit through entire worship services without a hint of joy, even if the liturgy is meaningful, the music enjoyable, and the sermon well-crafted.  From time to time, though, something takes place that resonates deep within.  As often as not, it is something that connects with me in a deeply personal way—it reminds me of something about myself or my life.  That personal quality causes me to feel that the event is meant for me, that I in particular am being blessed (though I recognize that others may be blessed by the same event to an equal or greater degree than I am).

This happened most recently when I was in St. Louis from July 11 to 15 to help my son and his family move into the house they bought there.  We worshiped Sunday morning in a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination in which I was raised.  Nothing about the service was remarkable until the song that followed the sermon.  The pastor said most members of the congregation wouldn’t know it “Because it’s from the red 1956 Psalter.”  It’s titled “The Seasons are Fixed by Wisdom Divine,” and it’s a paraphrase of Psalm 104.  Here’s the first verse:

The seasons are fixed by wisdom divine,
The slow-changing moon shows forth God’s design;
The sun in his circuit his Maker obeys,
And running his journey hastes not nor delays.

I hadn’t heard or thought about the song in perhaps 40 years, but I’m sure I sang it multiple times as a child and adolescent.  I love everything about it—the grandeur of the language, the series of descending notes in the first line, the verse describing lions creeping out at night to share God’s bounty—quite a remarkable image, I think.  I sang heartily, and felt I had somehow returned briefly to the rather less complicated and more incredulous faith of my youth.  An inner storehouse of memory had been opened to reveal a treasure.  I felt joy.

Image from Hymnary.org

Image from Hymnary.org

The feeling dissipated fairly soon, as it usually does, but some echo of it is present as I remember the experience.  Thanks be for joy, the unexpected visitor arriving on otherworldly wings.