Joy and Transfiguring Sorrow on this Feast of the Holy Innocents

The poet Christian Wiman notes, in Joy: 100 Poems, that “literature distinguishing between [happiness and joy] is extensive” and that “writers from Aristotle to C. S. Lewis have tended to draw a stark line.” With joy, Wiman says, “there is always an element of having been seized” by an outside force. Putting it into slightly different words, Wiman summarizes:

Happiness involves enlarging or securing the self: you’re happy when you pay off your mortgage or get a raise. Joy, by contrast, always involves some loss of self, from the parent reveling in the autonomous existence of her child to the contemplative lost in religious ecstasy (which some philosophers actually distinguish from joy). (XXVIII)

Despite outlining these differences, Wiman himself is “not sure the distinction is quite so sharp” and suspects that “sometimes joy really can be an intensification of happiness.” The key word here is “intensification.” There are some pleasures or happinesses of flourishing that can call us beyond ourselves and seize us from the outside so that our inner self gives way to what is other and is joined to it. If I’m pointing in the right direction here, Wiman is elevating some forms of happiness rather than diluting the concept of joy.

Of the various distinctive features of joy, there is one that Wiman does not develop until later that I find most central. Joy in its most complete form is inevitably mixed with sorrow. We see this most explicitly when Wiman quotes from The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann (1973-1983):

The knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in this world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow. (22)

Schmemann is referring to a concept that shows up throughout various Christian contemplative traditions, most famously in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. 600) by John Climacus. The Greek term χαρμολύπη is translated in many ways: bright sadness, joy-making mourning, joy-creating sorrow, bittersweetness, bitter joy, joyful mourning, and sweet sorrow. Notice the presence of “making” and “creating” in some of these phrases. Part of the experience is an opening and expanding to new connections. There is something about joy that opens us up to the world and that, by bringing us into communion with the beauty surrounding us, also binds us to the sufferings of others. We could define joy as the experience of opening up to receive creation within ourself. This is a kind of loss of self, but it is also the location where our true personhood is created. We are securely grounded as individuals by recognizing the giftedness of all that we have and by freely giving thanks in return for all that we are given. This kenotic exchange participates in the life of God and forms or creates both ourselves and our world.

Because joy comes from beyond our self, it is, unlike happiness, largely independent of our circumstances. Happiness is tied to our own flourishing within at least some aspect of our lives, but joy can come amidst almost complete devastation because it comes from outside of us and it carries us outside of ourselves. Growing up in a loving Jewish home where reading was enjoyed but where there was no religious practice, the philosopher Zena Hitz describes her conversion to Christianity as a joyful connection with others:

In the pews around me I saw people of all races and backgrounds—some with families, some alone, many on their knees in quiet prayer. It occurred to me that there was simply no reason for such a random collection of people to be in the same room. We were each of us there alone, and yet united in something invisible and beyond my reach. (Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, 14)

Once baptized, Hitz felt this connection continue to intensify into a universal solidarity in suffering:

Under the new aspect of faith, the tensions in me seemed to stretch out to the bounds of the world and to pull at sharp hooks anchored in the depths of my inner life. I began to see that human suffering was not limited to special events and that it could not be ended by reversing particular policies. There was no need to wait for disasters to strike: they were omnipresent, as was responsibility for them. Suffering was a cosmic force, an ever-present reality, Christ crucified at the heart of the world and suffusing it up to the edges. I tried to stop shifting the suffering of others out of view, as had been my constant habit. I began to seek it out, to force myself into regular contact with it. (15)

This may sound rather far afield from joy, but it is close to the “bright sorrow” that Schmemann said “emanates in this world, always, constantly.” Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” And this despite the fact that: “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” When we encounter what is real around us and are overcome by its separate life, we find ourselves both undone and reformed. Wiman notes that: “For most of the poets in this book, a moment of joy is, or at least leads to, a moment of comprehension. We ‘see into the life of things.’” (XXXII) A few pages later, Wiman points out that this joyous comprehension both destroys and recreates us: “in C. S. Lewis’s famous memoir Surprised by Joy,” it is “three experiences of disabling/enabling joy to which he attributes his eventual conversion” (XXXIV).

Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass puts all of this together:

Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.

In an unfallen world (something that we cannot fully imagine), our joy would still involve a kind of disorienting (and continually expanding) realization of kenosis as the basis of life in God. However, our joyful mutual recognition would not involve the heart-rending sorrow at the world’s seemingly endless suffering. The most astonishing passage that I have found describing the joy of mutual recognition in an state of innocence comes from George MacDonald’s Lilith:

Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. …I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home. …When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel.

…Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. …Two joy-fires were Lona and I [a new Adam and Eve]. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

Even in this unfallen state, this passage describes the fire of kenotic sacrifice where “two joy-fires were Lona and I” and “earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke” as each creature was continually reconstituted by a self-emptying delight in all others.

However, within a fallen world, this recognition of our communion with everything surrounding us—our dependence upon it and its giftedness to us—this union comes with terrible sorrow over the suffering of others. As Paul puts it: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” (Romans 8:22-23, ESV) This “adoption as sons” is not a self-referential end but a reference back to all of creation as we read a few verses earlier: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19, ESV).

Joy’s way of connecting us to the sufferings of others is a part of its transfiguring power in this fallen world. It presents us with a double summons. We are called by both delight in the beauty and goodness of everything in which we participate as well as sorrow over the injustice and misery endured by all creation. This stirs up our longings by giving us a real foretaste of everything flawlessly in harmony as well as a desire to help in offering completion and relief amid the fragmentary and misdirected powers of this world.

Such “experiences of disabling/enabling joy” as Wiman summarizes Lewis, come from three primary sources: 1) dwelling close to our places in the natural world, 2) participatory enjoyment of poetry, music, and storytelling, 3) worship and contemplative prayer. All of these and more are covered in Wiman’s Joy: 100 Poems which I commend as one of many possible starting places.

Today in Orthodox churches (and yesterday for most other Christian traditions) is the Feast of the Holy Innocents slain by Herod in Bethlehem. This festival on the fourth or fifth day of Christmastide exemplifies the bright sorrow of every Eucharist where Christ’s sacrifice feeds and sustains his creation. The troparion hymn for today remembers these children as participants in this constant gift of life within a world dominated by death:

As acceptable victims and freshly plucked flowers,

as divine first-fruits and newborn lambs,

you were offered to Christ who was born as a child, holy innocents.

You mocked Herod’s wickedness;

now we beseech you:

“Unceasingly pray for our souls.”

The point of fresh flowers and newborn lambs is life, but all of us in this broken and incomplete world come to life through death. By asking to be united in prayer with these infants and their anguished mothers, we ask for help to live lives where joy is united to sorrow and thereby participates in the transfiguration of our world. This bright sorrow binds the contemplative life to the active life as we are given the strength to die daily to ourselves, to find our own life in the generosity of others, to give thanks for all that we receive, and even to bless others by giving thanks in tangible and creative acts of love and generosity that have become, simply, what we long to do.

“The Massacre of the Innocents” Léon Cogniet (1794-1880)

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