Years ago, I gave a talk to some college students about the Catholic Worker House and was describing the Breakfast Brigade, a project we were running at the time where folks would arrive at 4am to bake bread, boil eggs and prepare fruit, and then bring it all out to the labor pools where day laborers were arriving at 6am in hopes of work. I was trying to describe the atmosphere during the wee hours of the morning, and I used the word “fun.” I was corrected by a frequent participant, who was from Mexico and had a precision about language that speakers of English as a second language tend to have. It was “joy,” he said, not fun, that we experienced.
This immediately rang true to me, and I have wondered about the nature of “joy” since. Recently I read an essay by Zadie Smith, a British writer who has wondered the same thing:
It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.
Part of the problem with making that accommodation is that, as Smith says, “great struggle . . . tends to precede joy.” I have found this to be mostly true. During a terrible time in my family’s life, shortly after we had been informed that one of our sons, a teenager at the time, had cancer and might not survive, I ran into a friend of mine. His warm hug and kind eyes were a comfort, but then he said something incomprehensible to me at the time – that he could see already how many lives Ben’s suffering had touched and all the kindness and generosity his illness was motivating. Suddenly I wanted to punch him. Let someone else’s son‘s suffering produce all this goodness. He should know better how to comfort the afflicted, I thought; he was a Catholic priest. It would be many months before I could make the connection between the sorrow we were experiencing and the strange eruption of joy amidst it. My friend had been in the US because he had been run out of Mexico for caring for the poorest of the poor and thereby threatening some of the most powerful of the rich. He knew deep grief and suffering – and joy. Clearly, joy is not fun at all, and can be totally disconnected from pleasure of any kind. It is standing stock still in the kitchen with a phone in your hand, as if before a firing squad, waiting for the test results, and the bullet misses. The test result is negative, and joy suddenly descends upon the house of grief.
But it is not the grief, or the fear, or even the relief. Joy requires something more. It is not the alarm clock ringing at 3:00 am or the warm loaves rising, and it is not the sudden absence of rogue blasts in the blood. Joy requires more than simple hardship followed by success. It is the sleepy crowd of bakers stumbling into the kitchen on Friday morning at the same time the worker is emerging from his sleeping bag; it is the person on the other end of the line, and the one in the hospital bed. It’s all the others in hospital beds, in hospitals everywhere, all the mothers worrying about their children, all the children. I am saying it now, like the priest did to me. Joy is connected to suffering, but it erupts in the recognition of community.
Lent tries to give some of this to us, or to remind us of it. We start our Lenten practices together. If we are in a state of relative peace and abundance, we create deprivation for ourselves – no meat, or no TV, no snacks or electronics – something we will miss. And, if we are normal, we will feel a twinge of suffering at the loss. “First-world problems,” as they say, but it is true that in times of abundance we tend to need the ascetic practices, tried and true. We do it within a community of people similarly deprived and somewhat ridiculously aggrieved. We support each other, we tell stories, we kindle empathy and solidarity. And slowly, over the six weeks of Lent, we begin to experience the glimmer of the deep connection to one another that lies under the surface of all sorrow. We try to remember what we have learned and steel ourselves for the deep reality of who we are when it comes. Because it will, and we will meet it together. This, I believe, is joy.