A Demanding Joy
by Leaf Seligman
Many years ago, during an emotionally difficult time, a friend asked me, "What would it mean to answer the call to joy?" She didn't say, "What would it mean to be content?" She didn't ask, "What would it mean to go out and have a good time?" She asked me what it would mean to answer the call to joy. That sounded religious, as if the cosmos itself were summoning me to something important. I pondered my friend's question daily. What makes joy a religious experience? What makes it a calling? And how do we recognize joy in the midst of a culture preoccupied with happiness?
Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, writes: "Keep knocking and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look to see who's there." This suggests that joy dwells deep within. It doesn't float on the surface, like oil. It doesn't come free in the cereal box or with a scratch card for the lottery. It takes its own time, and sometimes the path it travels winds through sorrow or regret.
While pleasure may arise from momentary sensation, and happiness may bloom out of satisfaction or mirth, joy burrows through fertile darkness to reach the light. One way to recognize it is by the vibration we feel at the core of our being. To quote Rumi again, "An eye is meant to see things. The soul is here for its own joy."
Perhaps like me you question whether it's right to experience joy in a world so ravaged. When I consider all the travail and heartbreak when I read Bon Appetit in a world where tens of thousands die of hunger each day and a billion people live without clean water to drink I want to give up on joy, the cruel deceiver. When I hear of yet another senseless death, it's easy to cast joy aside. But then I remember that only the living can embrace life.
Inside the fullness of life we find that the comic and tragic, the complex and the breathtakingly simple coexist. Joy is part of the paradox. New lives enter the world as others lay dying. During winter, when trees appear bare, inside they are reinventing spring. The devastation of September 11 challenged many Americans to listen harder for the vibration of joy. People had to decide whether to resume normal activities, to air the Emmys, to cancel sports, to go out for dinner or stay home. On October 7, as the U.S. military began its counterattack, the questions intensified: What to do in the shadow of war? How to follow Rumi's advice and keep knocking, knowing the peril in which so many have been living for so long?
Understanding our privilege and raw good fortune invites us to experience a demanding joy, a joy that comes with the cost of mindfulness: the awareness that all life is interconnected, that all sorrow springs from the same cosmic pool, that hardship and hazard in one location endangers us all. When we settle for instant gratification, confusing joy with a quick fix or Happy Meal, we risk forgetting our interdependent web of existence, that we are indeed "tied in a single garment of destiny."
To answer the call to joy means that, in the midst of grief, despite uncertainty and our reluctance to challenge the status quo, we still choose to respond to our soul's stirring. While hope may call us from the brink of despair by inviting us to imagine a different time, a transformed reality, or a better place, joy summons us to inhabit this moment, already ripe. Joy calls to us in our uncertainty and bears its fruit in the very garden of our limitation. It does not depend on material possessions or success. It emerges when we risk revealing ourselves. It relies on our capacity to connect with what matters, to feel the pulse of life that ties us to all being. This is why joy is a religious experience.
The Rev. Leaf Seligman preached the sermon from which this essay was adapted in February 2002 at the South Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she was ordained in June.