Joy, Spiritual Practice

The Practice of Joy

NicholasTangen / January 3, 2017

“One day a hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. What kind of spiritual guide was this?

But the old monk said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So the hunter did. Then the old man said, “Now shoot another.” And the hunter did. Then the elder said, ‘Shoot your bow again. Keep shooting; keep shooting; keep shooting.’ And the hunter finally said, ‘But if I bend my bow so much I will break it.’

Then Abba Anthony said to him, ‘It is just the same with the work of God. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Sometimes it is necessary to meet other needs.’ When the hunter heard these words he was struck with remorse and, greatly edified by Anthony, he went away. As for the monastics there, they went home strengthened.”[1]


We’re a few days into 2017, and already the world feels heavy. The politics, the war and violence, the hatred and the fear of 2016 have followed us into the new year. Any hope that we might wake up from our nightmare is all but gone, and we are left now with the important and difficult work of justice, love, and peace. There is no question that the work ahead for those who would stand against hatred and wayward power will be challenging and often demoralizing. There is no question that there will be failures and setbacks, but there will be victories and celebrations as well. The key will be our ability to withstand the onslaught of hopelessness and apathy. For those of us who seek to follow Christ, and who hope to bring a vision of the Kingdom into the midst of our broken yet beautiful world, we will need to develop resiliency. To accomplish this, I believe, we must engage in the practice of joy.

Joy is an experience that does not come easily to me. My range of emotional experience lies somewhere between everything-is-awful-always and things-are-ok-for-now. The middle ground between those two poles is my sweet spot, which doesn’t make me the most optimistic or the most cheerful. For many who know me this may seem like a misrepresentation, and they may point out that I am often bright, and talkative, and friendly. However, like any good introvert, my foray into positive extroversion requires an immense payment of energy. This means that my experience of joy often requires very focused and dedicated work. It is not something that I casually slip into. I need to limber up and prepare myself for those moments of energizing and exciting joy, and I need to practice gratitude when I encounter joy in those quiet moments. I believe that this is true to some extent for each of us. Joy is foundational to our ability to live in this world fully, and as such it requires our attention and our discipline. This is why we must not simply experience joy, but we must practice it.

This is something that monastic tradition has known forever, and is reflected in the story of Saint Anthony above. The desert fathers and mothers understood that seriousness about the work of God and holy struggle were vitally important, but like the hunter’s bow there is the danger of destruction looming within the person who does not practice joy. Our call as Christians is a serious one, and requires that we continually stay awake to the injustice and oppression faced by our neighbor, but without joy we risk losing the capacity for hope and love. If we fail to practice joy long enough, we often find ourselves simply mirroring the anger and the hatred of the oppressor, and engaging in reactionary action rather than the visionary action of the Kingdom. Without joy, it all falls apart.

On Christmas Day many churches, mine included, sang “Joy to the World” as we celebrated the birth of the Christ child. I stood in the pew, and I mouthed the words, but inside I could feel myself rejecting the very premise of the song. I felt a dark cloud hovering over me, and I thought only of the hatred and violence experienced by so many, for so long. I thought of Syria, Philando Castille, Pulse Nightclub, and the kidnapped Nigerian girls. I thought of Donald Trump rallies, ISIS, David Duke, the ugliness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. The song droned in my ears and I refused to participate. I felt like I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, feel joy until things improved. Maybe next year; maybe the next election, or when there is peace in Syria. Maybe I’ll feel joy when the news cycle doesn’t look so abysmally dark. Maybe…But, as I began to consider the New Year, and how I will live into the next 365 days I began to see the failure of that thinking. I know that as the year unfolds, and I seek to live out the call of Christ in my small corner of the universe I will experience anger, and I will experience despair. I will feel impatience and fear. Those are experiences that don’t seem to need our permission to enter our lives, they show up in reaction to events quite naturally. And, if we stand front and center and allow the torrent of anger and frustration to consume us, then they will do just that. Joy, it seems, needs our permission or our attention, to enter our lives. It often requires more effort on our part, and for it to have any lasting effect on our being it demands discipline.

As Epiphany approaches, we may take some direction from the Magi, and seek joy out. The story of the “Wise Men” and their pilgrimage to the Christ child is one that many of us remember from Sunday School. Many a nativity set comes with three, often gaudily dressed Magi, bearing gifts and riding camels. From Matthew’s Gospel, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (Matt. 2:1-2) These are not passive fellows, waiting at home with their feet up for their joy to simply happen upon them. They have taken it upon themselves to seek their joy out. The Magi follow the star over many, many miles “…until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (v. 9-10). This is a powerful example of the practice of joy.

How might we seek out joy in our own lives? How might we engage in a practice of joy, understanding it as an important element of our call as Christ followers, as those who seek justice and mercy in this world? When the bigness of suffering seems to cloud our vision, I believe it will be in the small things where we will most consistently find our joy. For me, I have committed to spending more time with my wife, and with those people I love. I have limited my time spent rabbit-holing the endless negativity of certain sectors of the internet. I have borrowed a little more fiction from the library, and have set aside time to read just for fun. I have sought out ways to serve those in need in my immediate community, and I have committed to practicing gratitude in the midst of these efforts. These things are not meant to replace or distract from the work of justice, advocacy, and contemplation. They are supplements that I hope will help me to build resiliency in this coming year. This world is hurting, and it needs the work and dedication of those who are devoted to following Christ. But we must not neglect the practice of joy, or we risk turning into that which we fight against, and losing the vision for what it is we are fighting for. No matter how dark the world may seem, we are allowed the experience of joy, if we will only follow the wisdom of the Magi and seek it out. May our practice of joy reignite our desire to do justice, to seek peace, and to love with our whole selves. Amen.


[1] Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

*Photo Credit: Kristin Tangen

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