Joy is not a feeling (2)It was a simple (though difficult) enough challenge: write for 31 days about a single topic. The concept both intrigued and terrified me. So, like any normal crazy person, I signed up.

I chose to write about joy, because I reasoned it couldn't be too difficult to find something about which to be joyful for 31 days. I believed the exercise would encourage me to become a more disciplined, focused, and consistent writer while helping me to orient my life more toward optimism and gratitude.

What I couldn't have imagined as I set out on the journey, however, was that I was unwittingly enrolling in the School of Joy, an experience whose significance transcended merely finding words to commit to the page each day.

My very first day was one of the most difficult I'd faced in months, and that was before I typed a single word. As I struggled, St. Teresa of Avila's oft-attributed words reverberated in my heart: "Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!"

I was supposed to be writing about joy, and yet I felt a sense of isolation, frustration, and darkness. It didn't compute. Where was the light? I lamented. How could I write about something I wasn't feeling?

And then it hit me. Despite intellectually knowing that joy was a gift of the Holy Spirit and not the same as happiness, I'd been living, in effect, as though joy's existence depended on my circumstances and feelings. Were my children well-behaved? Joy. Did my husband make dinner? Joy. Did someone compliment my latest achievement? Joy. When frustration, disappointment, and sadness set in, I sincerely wondered: Where did joy go?

Rookie mistake.

Thankfully, it seemed as though God had plans to remedy my misconceptions about joy, but first I had to agree to the healing ointment, even as it stung my wounds.

As I prayerfully wrote my first entry, something extraordinary happened. Even as I was recounting the difficult and terrible things that happened that day, I made a conscientious decision: I decided to trust in God's goodness, regardless my circumstances. I decided to not allow my feelings to rule my choices. I even decided to praise God. I chose joy. The words I wrote toward the end of my first entry acknowledge this choice, and still make me cry when I read them. A cloud had been lifted as I re-learned what I had learned and forgotten so many times in the past: God is always with me if I but trust in Him.

It became crystal clear that while joy is not a feeling, it is not even necessarily a way of life. Joy is a reality - a reality of God's love that is evidenced in a particular way by the Blood of the Lamb that was shed for us. Whether I choose to live in that reality - to live in God's joy - is completely and totally up to me.

Joy does not cease to exist when I feel sad, or damaged, or wronged, or desperate. It also doesn't begin its existence when I feel elation, contentment, exhilaration, or peace. Joy just is. And I have to choose it.

I believe that the reason some people know joy is because they have known and embraced pain and suffering. The hopeful news is that we Christians do not believe that Good Friday is the end of the story. We rush to Jesus on the Cross at Calvary because we know that Easter Sunday is on the other side.

This Catholic faith of ours, my friends, is highly paradoxical. To live, we must die. To inherit, we must be meek. When we are weak, He is strong. It doesn't make any earthly sense. And yet, neither does the Crucifix, if you think about it. That bloody death does not look like a victory, and it certainly does not look like joy. And yet, it is the ultimate victory, and in His death and resurrection, we have access to eternal joy with Him.

As I wrap up my 31 days in the School of Joy, I realize that, as difficult as it was, I have only completed the "101" course. I have quite far to go; I'll probably be perpetually enrolled. I may never actually graduate this side of Eternity, but I think I'm okay with that. I'm gonna choose to praise.

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. -Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)

Copyright 2015 Heather Renshaw.
Image copyright 2015 Heather Renshaw. All rights reserved.