Joy is perhaps not quite what we think, and Advent is the perfect season to discover that.
Every year, as the days get progressively darker with the onset of winter, I become anxious. My body doesn’t react well to the short days and I anticipate a bout or two of depression sometime in January. I’ve always been an avid runner and cyclist, so the cold takes me away from hobbies I love. Having six children in the house bouncing off the walls and unable to toss them all out into the yard to work off their energy further complicates the winter months in our household.
Winter certainly has its virtues. There’s beauty in warm fires, hot cocoa, and sledding in the snow. I think there’s value, too, in living through a cycle of seasons. I wouldn’t want it to always be summer. As New England poet Robert Frost might put it, winter is its own form of Eden. We need a bit of chill in our bones. If anything, it helps us to greet springtime with greater appreciation.
Advent, as a Church season, occupies a similar place in our imagination as winter does. Advent is like winter in comparison to the blazing warmth of Christmas. I quite like Advent, but much of the world skips over it because it’s penitential and dark. It’s strange, then, that Gaudete Sunday, or Joy Sunday — represented by the rose-colored candle on the wreath — arrives half-way through Advent. Joy is a virtue that, even if it comes to full bloom at Christmas, is born in the silent womb of Advent.
Joy is, perhaps, not what we think. It arises from mysterious sources.
As human beings, what gives us joy? In the past I’ve tricked myself over and over again into thinking I would achieve perfect joy if only I made a certain purchase, achieved a desired level of recognition, or indulged in little pleasures like over-eating and watching too much television. Those little endorphin-fueled moments are short-lived. They burn out quickly and leave us dissatisfied. We always want more, and the wanting is what saps our joy.
Advent marks out a different, more difficult path, but it’s a path that creates genuine, long-lasting, healthy joy. It’s challenging to pin down how or why the darkness of Advent generates joy, but not too long ago I was reading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and a few of his insights on joy are applicable.
First, Ignatius says to cultivate joy in order to obtain joy.
“One is to ask for joy with Christ in joy,” writes St. Ignatius. In other words, maintain a joyful intent when you ask God to give you more joy. It simply won’t do for me to beg God for joy, or blame him because I’m not feeling it, if I spend all day indulging in sadness, self-pity, or jealousy. Joy doesn’t arrive out of nowhere. It cannot be dependent on circumstances from outside ourselves, but must begin within.
Second, Ignatius indicates that we must be mindful of the entirety of our lives – the good, the bad, the past, and the future.
He says to consider, “How I shall find myself on the Day of Judgment, to think how I would then want to have deliberated about the present matter … in order that I may then find myself in entire pleasure and joy.”
Ignatius takes the long view. When we look back on our lives, will we regret our words and actions? If so, those same words and actions also won’t bring us joy here and now.
We tend to seek joy in the wrong places. We’re conditioned by advertising and envy to desire certain possessions and experiences, but they leave us feeling empty. In my life, for instance, I’ve discovered joy when I put in the time and effort to be with my family and spend time with my children. Pay attention to when you truly feel lasting joy. You may be surprised.
Finally, Ignatius has this sensible advice: Enjoy your life and don’t feel guilty about it.
He writes, “Use light or temporal comfort — as, in summer, the coolness; and in winter, the sun or heat – as far as the soul thinks or conjectures that it can help it to be joyful in its Creator and Redeemer.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure and feeling gratitude for our blessings. We don’t always believe we deserve joy, so we reject it when it comes our way. Ignatius is clear, though, God doesn’t want us sad and miserable. He made the world for our enjoyment, so as long as our desires are healthy and moderate, we ought to take great joy in what God has provided for us, how beautiful and good this life really can be.
During the patient, frustrating wait of Advent, we can intentionally cultivate joy, consider how it applies to our entire lives, not only the highlights, and prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas guilt-free.
St. Ignatius teaches that we live an incarnational faith and that God gives us joy in any and all circumstances. This is true joy, the ability to be happy no matter what, whether it’s in the dark of winter or relaxing on a beach in the sunshine — Advent and Christmas.