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Meditation and the Emergence of Joy

November 8, 2010

. . . weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

~ Psalm 30

meditationJoy is an abiding theme in the scriptures, and a promise of good things to come. Isaiah 51:11 prophesies

. . . Everlasting joy shall be upon their head;

they shall obtain gladness and joy;

and sorrow and mourning shall flee away

The author of Acts declares (2:28)

You have made known to me the ways of life;

you shall make me full of joy with your presence.

and goes on to say in 14:17

. . . he provides you with plenty of food and fills

your hearts with joy.

“For the kingdom of God itself,” writes Paul to the Romans (14:17), “is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Further advice about the attainment of joy is given to us by John and James:

Ask, and you will receive,

that your joy may be full. 

~John 16:24

Count it all joy . . .

when you meet various trials,

for you know that the testing

of your faith produces steadfastness.                        

And let steadfastness have its full effect.

that you may be perfect and complete,

lacking in nothing.           

~James 1:2-4

       In the following prayers of saints and mystics, joy is associated with spiritual presence:

O my God,

fill my soul with holy joy,

courage and strength to serve you.

Enkindle Your love in me and then

walk with me along the next stretch of road before me.

I do not see very far ahead,

but when I have arrived

where the horizon now closes down,

a new prospect will open before me,

and I shall meet it with peace.

~ Edith Stein

O sweet and loving God,

When I stay asleep too long,

Oblivious to all your many blessings,

Then, please, wake me up,

And sing to me your joyful song.

It is a song without noise or notes.

It is a song of love beyond words,

Of faith beyond the power of human telling.

I can hear it in my soul,

When you awaken me to your presence.

~ Mechthild of Magdeburg

O thou dweller in my heart,

open it out, purify it,

make it bright and beautiful,

awaken it, prepare it, make it fearless,

make it a blessing to others,

rid it of laziness, free it from doubt,

unite it with all, destroy its bondage,

let thy peaceful music pervade all its works.

Fix my heart on thy holiness,

And make it full of joy,

full of joy, full of joy.

~ Mahatma Gandhi

     Joy, which is deeper than happiness, relates to the dimension of spirit in us. It may come to us as freely given grace, or it may emerge within us as a fruit of spiritual attentiveness and practice.  In Heaven in Ordinarie, Carmelite writer Noel Dermot O’Donoghue writes that “joy as we know it is always emergent.”  Joy and sorrow must be understood in relation to each other, as “intricately correlated and interfused.”  (102-103)  In this sense, joy is release from inner tribulation or bondage.  It is also an activity of the spirit that has borne what must be faced and lived through, coming out on the other side of travail, if you will.  O’Donoghue describes the movement of joy in this way: “The spirit must have space to be freely itself, a fountain leaping upwards to eternal life, strong to bear both sorrow and joy.”  (104)

     It is initially somewhat surprising to find a convergence of insight among various spiritual traditions on the value of meditation in combating the effects of sin and imperfection in the soul.  In Judaism, for example, we have the following teaching from Rabbi Nachman’s “Path in Meditation”: “No person, whether great or small, can perfect him/herself except through meditation.”  According to Nachman, only through meditation do people reach high spiritual levels.  (Outpouring of Love, p. 26)  The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a lesser known but incomparably valuable Christian text, alludes to Wisdom 16:20, when speaking about the nourishing effects of meditation: “. . . the food of angels . . . bread from heaven.”  Meditation is the “working” that brings about our deepest happiness.  He continues:

By this exercise we are to be restored; and for want of it we fall deeper and deeper into sin and further and further from God.  By perseverance and continual working in this exercise alone, without anything else, a person continues to rise higher and higher away from sin, and nearer and nearer to God. (124)

In the mystical theology which this text follows, faithful exercise of apophatic meditation “destroys the root and ground of sin.” (145)  Therefore, “whoever desires to come to the purity which s/he lost because of sin, and to arrive at that well-being where all sorrow passes away, must persevere in the labor of this exercise and endure the pain of it. . . .” (177) 

     From the Zen Buddhist perspective, we have the words of Kosho Uchiyama:

To truly repent does not mean offering an apology; rather, repenting requires facing life straight on, and letting the light of absolute reality illuminate us.  What does it mean to be illuminated by absolute reality?  “If you wish to repent, sit zazen (in meditation) and contemplate the true nature of all things.”  (Opening the Hand of Thought, p. 116)

When Uchiyama asserts that true repentance is actualized in sitting meditation, he is declaring with his Christian and Jewish counterparts that meditation is a site of emergence, and that the life of the spirit arises in us moment by moment.  As Shunryu Suzuki taught, “Moment after moment . . . we discover the true joy of life.”  From the Book of Wisdom we receive this instruction gleaned from contemplation:

Thus I understand the simple truth of life: 

there is nothing better than for you to rejoice

in every deed done in harmony with the moment.

~ The Way of Solomon by Rami Shapiro (Wisdom 11:8, 3:21)

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Last updated: 11/24/10.