Reflections for December – Anatomy of Joy

At this sacred time of year, we repeatedly hear the word JOY. Cards wish you joy and hymns carry joy in their titles. We are supposed to feel merry and bright but often do not. The truth is you can’t manufacture joy. It can’t be created by your mind or will. You can’t say, “It’s the season for joy, so I will feel it.” It doesn’t work that way. Joy is spontaneous, a grace that suddenly comes upon you. It’s so powerful you remember it for the rest of your life.

Joy is different from enjoyment or pleasure. We relish times with friends, feel blissful moments in meditation, marvel at nature’s beauty, and even reminisce about wonderful times from the past. You can create enjoyment and pleasure but not joy.

What exactly is joy? What elements constitute this elusive experience?

Occasions such as weddings or births often—but not always—bring joy. Joy also appears in more ordinary ways. Two such occasions surface in my mind as I contemplate joy.

One Christmas during my teenage years, I was in our living room with invited dinner guests when my mother called me into the kitchen. She knew I loved Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and it was playing on the radio. We stood there together in communion, listening to this glorious and uplifting music. That was it, but that precious moment still vividly remains with me.

What qualities of joy appear in this experience? Love is one. My mother cared enough for me to call me away from our guests to listen to one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music. But my experience contained more than love. It included connection. This moment was especially sweet because I often didn’t feel this bond with her. “Beyond this world” describes another quality of my experience. Basking in this glorious and inspiring music, lifted me into a sublime, other-worldly place, which I call the real or ultimate truth. This moment also contained an everlasting quality because it is as vivid today as it was when I first experienced it.

Joy arose in me when I watched my five or six-year-old son ran up the hill on his way home from school. I marveled at the life force careening through him. He exuded such aliveness and delight that my heart opened wide with deep love for him. This swept me into a heightened awareness, during which everything became crystal clear. I had previously experienced my son’s exuberant running and my love for him, so what was different about this time? It touched a deeper/higher level of reality, the memory of which has remained with me ever since. I call it an eternal moment when time stood still.

Although seeing my spirited son differed from hearing the uplifting music with my mother, its qualities remain the same—spontaneity, love, connection, heightened awareness, and timelessness. Joy arises when all of these qualities appear.

I hope these thoughts will inspire you to reflect on similar moments of joy in your life. May they beautifully prepare you for the upcoming sacred season.

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