Finding Joy in the Presence of God
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God”
(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
In his essay, ‘The Lantern-Bearer,’ Robert Louis Stevenson writes – ‘To miss the joy is to miss all.’ And this is so true. No matter what we possess or have achieved in our lives, without joy, we may find that we too have sometimes missed out on joy along the way!
Sitting with the question ‘What does joy mean to me?’, initially, I found I did not have any one answer come readily to my mind. Yes, I know that, first of all, joy is an emotion and not just a mere feeling, and that feelings are our normal reactions caused by someone or something that has affected us.
And yes, I realize that joy can be a positive response when we experience something good happening to ourselves and to those for whom we care, or, as Thomas Aquinas observed – joy is a response to having been ‘united’ with whom and what we love.
Paradoxically, I believe, joy can also be unpredictable, absurd, fleeting, all-consuming. It can shatter our illusions. It can shatter our most basic beliefs about life. It can come to us in the depths of despair or the height of frustration; when we are lonely or feeling fully loved or just absent-mindedly staring out into space….
Joy is transforming, yet ironically, it does not necessarily take us out of ourselves or where we are in our life situations.
As Christians, hopefully, we will experience God’s presence even when joy seems to be a million miles away. These are the times when we do not feel so joyful. Does this mean then that God is not present? Thankfully no, it just means we are, after all, merely human!
The Gospels speak frequently of joy. Yet true joy is so often misunderstood. Many of us confuse it with every day happiness which means we tend to chase after the wrong things in life to discover it. Both happiness and joy are positive and desirable emotions where we can experience feelings of satisfaction.
However, often our fleeting moments of happiness are triggered by external events – events over which we have no control. We get that job, we find our missing mobile, the rain holds off for the school fete….. Short term happiness can temporarily camouflage many of our fears whilst joy brings a deeper warmth and contentment to our hearts.
Joy doesn’t only appear in the major moments of our lives. It also manifests itself in the little things which happen in our day to day living. As Wilfred Peterson writes: “It is looking for the joys that come in small, precious packages and making the most of them. It is making the most of now, enjoying what is at hand. It is taking time to enjoy life as you go along. It is an awareness of the heaven, that exists all about you.”
Depending on the intensity of the feeling, for example, joy can range from the sheer ecstasy we experience when our team wins the Grand Final to exquisite delight as we gaze upon a sleeping baby. Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply that the awareness of joy in our lives is the essence of the Gospel message.
I believe joy can never be induced or made to happen. It is something that has to find us precisely within our own mundane, duty-bound, worried and pressured lives. As Henri Nouwen so wisely observed: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” We need to meditate on those special moments, in the presence of the Lord, when, for no apparent reason, we suddenly experience that ‘joie de vivre’ feeling.
Writer, Joan Chittester, says much the same thing: “To lust for joy is to lust for the God of life. To make joy where at first it seems there is none is to become co-creator with the God of life.”
Unfortunately, the problem for us is that we far too often expect joy to come to us rather than realizing that we have a spiritual responsibility to make it for ourselves.” I guess, in a nutshell, that’s why we so often wrongly blame God for all those times when joy seems absent in our lives.
As I reflect again on my question ‘What does joy mean to me?’, I find there is an answer to be found in the comforting words of Pope Francis: “No Christian can exist without experiencing joy in their lives…The Christian identity card is joy, the Gospel’s joy, the joy of having been chosen by Jesus, saved by Jesus…even with the crosses and sufferings we bear in this life – is expressed in another way, which is peace in the certainty that Jesus accompanies us, is with us.”
Soon we will be celebrating the true gift of Christmas – joy – as we welcome the birth of the infant child. Christmas means that the infant Jesus must find a home waiting for him in our hearts, in our families and in the society in which we live. It means also the need to look beyond our own joy and reach out to all those who lack not only joy in their lives but also the basic necessities of life.
It is this joy of reaching out to others that enables us to remain in the loving presence of God.