e-mail us


Joy abounds and puppies know where


My husband is not prone to joy. He does not leap into the air at good news, gurgle with delight over a sunrise, babble his exuberance over life. Neither, come to think of it, does my mother.

Dented by childhood's slings and arrows until they learned to expect the worst, both are exquisitely sensitive. They nod sagely when the worst does indeed come to bear. And when something good happens instead, their surprise prompts more wariness than gratitude.

I, on the other hand, am a biochemical bundle of joie de vivre. Happiness comes easily to me, as do awe and thanks. Songs like "Shout from the Highest Mountain" and "Praise to the Lord" spring, blithely off-key, from my lips.

In deference to others, I've learned to tone it down. Too often joy comes across as a goading, an expectation that the other arrive quickly at the same state. At times it seems just plain silly or a dangerous delusion that the world is a good place and defenses can be dropped. It can drive someone with less serotonin crazy.

My first hint at what solemn folk must feel when people gurgle with joy came after I copied out a fragment of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali: "Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song -- the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter." That makes even me nervous.

I draw more comfort from William James' solemn attempts to reconcile the psychological experience of joy with the religious one.

The new Catholic catechism is way too confusing: First, we learn that joy comes from "utter dependence with respect to the Creator." Then that joy is one of "the fruits of charity." Then that joy is one of the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit. After that, the references to joy grind to a halt.

Just beyond the catechism on the walnut shelves of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in St. Louis sits Matthew Kelly's new book, A Call to Joy: Making Life a Spiritual Adventure. Eager for insights from somebody who's still alive, I ask to interview him. Granted, Kelly says God spoke to him three years ago through his Walkman, an experience I find somewhat alarming. Still, I find myself engaged by his slow-to-warm-up Australian independence, intense energy and deep convictions.

"We all desire joy," he begins, "but we don't think to ourselves that we desire joy." We'd rather own things. It's easier and they pile up in pleasing proof of our worthiness. "In the spiritual realm, you are a part of something more, and you tap into an enormous energy. When material gain is our focus, our focus becomes lack: all the things we don't have, all the things we can't do and all the things we are not."

Happiness, Kelly tells me, comes from abundance. But we live in the middle of abundance and ignore it, focusing always on what we don't have.

"Now joy, joy is very different," he remarks. "Joy is not a simple emotion. It's a state of becoming, it's about growing, changing, it's the byproduct of that struggle. It requires change."

Uh-oh. Until now, I've defined joy, to myself at least, as timelessness, a state of being rather than becoming, a flash of transcendence in which no clock ticks, no mortal judges, no struggle need be exerted. I am enough at such moments, and it is enough to be.

Psychologists call this sort of euphoria "flow" and emphasize its purity. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman notes that "the spontaneous pleasure, grace and effectiveness that characterize flow are incompatible with emotional hijackings, in which limbic surges capture the rest of the brain. The quality of attention in flow is relaxed yet highly focused. It is a concentration very different from straining."

Even C.S. Lewis, that sober, earnest Brit, wrote confidently, "No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it." But Kelly dangles joy from the highest branches arching over the path of Christian salvation. He keeps using the verb "struggle." The only bright spot I can discern is his assurance that "joy cannot be taken away by someone else."

Even that sours when he explains, "You are still the master of that joy. You decide to have it or lose it."

Master? Decide? The times joy slides over me, I'm master of nothing. Bliss needs no power or title, no decisive instruction.

"I've -- er -- always thought of joy as more of a timeless state," I venture to Kelly. "A euphoria that's -- well, effortless."

"It's timeless in the sense that certain emotions come with it," he replies obscurely, "but it is very much in time, in the sense that you must be ever-aware of that struggle."

I'm starting to feel tired. Also a bit frivolous, a dilettante who's missed the point. Shoulders slumped, I ponder the path to Christian salvation. Suddenly I remember that, in other writings, C.S. Lewis defined joy as sehnsucht, an intense romantic longing that can never be fulfilled. Because "the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given."

Okay, so there is an element of striving. Complete with the paradox that striving does no good. We find joy by relaxing into the present, whether by a hormonal rush of euphoria, a humble acceptance of our complete dependence on God, a sincere and constant struggle to be good or the riotous excess of the grass.

A month later, I watch our new puppy bounce in the clover and roll in that riotous excess, bopping the purple chive flower buttons with her slightly-smaller button nose. Sophie's near-vertical leap of joy at the sight of a stranger willing to pet her -- or a lawn sprinkler, or a big pile of mulch -- are purely pagan. They have not a whit to do with the Christian path of salvation. The only struggle involved is keeping her four oversize paws on the ground when white-trousered friends approach.

Yet in these flurries of paw and tongue, I detect the simplest possible bridge to joy: appreciation. Sophie sniffs and nudges every possible corner of the world around her, and when something meshes with instincts created deep inside her, she seizes hold of it. She enjoys, engages, participates -- whatever anthropomorphic verb you'll let me use. She is aware and receptive. She even seems grateful.

The next crystal sunny day, when she plops down under a tree and refuses to budge, I relax the leash and sit down on the grass next to her.

Matthew Kelly would probably agree with C.S. Lewis: "Joy is the serious business of Heaven."

But the Father's house has many rooms and many paths approach it.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997