Strong Joy

The joy of the Lord is your strength. —Nehemiah 8:10

God strengthens us for our pilgrim journey in many ways: through the company and example of those who have gone before us, through Word and Sacrament, through prayer.

When the going is tough, we sometimes assume that the nourishment God offers is a form of hard tack: meager K-rations of the spiritual life. We may think (God knows I have) that a grim perseverance, a sort of perpetual psychic fast, is all that will keep us going.

We persuade ourselves that tight-jawed determination is the bread and water allotted, that the dancing joy of the great saints is not for us—that delight in God is a kind of insubstantial affair of whipped cream and chocolate, permitted occasionally for refreshment or reward but not intended for real sustenance.

So the promise of the prophet Nehemiah brings us up short: When the people wept in compunction for their sins, he urged them to persevere not by adding to their shame and self-reproach but by reminding them that their deep strength lay in the Lord’s joy.

We may forget that the most abiding perseverance is sustained not by self-will but by joy.

For Christians, the joy of our Risen Lord is indeed what gives us life. This joy is not the shallow ephemeral pleasure that the world understands, but the invincible love at the heart of the universe—not a frivolous confection of sugar and cream, but the strong wine of God’s real presence with us.

When Samwise Gamgee, at the end of J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, is half-carrying Frodo up the last terrible reaches of Mount Doom, the hobbits do depend on the magic lembas bread the elves have given them. But more important in keeping valiant Sam’s heart set on their arduous, apparently impossible journey is the memory of the elves’ songs. The joy and beauty of elvish music is Sam’s real strength, the starlight the elves have given him his only light in the evil darkness.

Tolkien was an ardent Catholic, and it is difficult to believe he did not have both the Eucharistic nourishment and the mystical sustenance of joy in mind when he wrote of Sam’s long walk in the darkness of Mordor.

Dear Risen Lord, whose joy is our strength, you have given us your own nature as our food and drink. May we rely more and more on you as all we need. May we participate ever more deeply in your own Resurrection, even as we journey in darkness.

Originally published at explorefaith.org.

Deborah Smith Douglas has degrees in literature and law, has been trained in spiritual direction, and is a member of the Episcopal Church. A Camaldolese Benedictine oblate, she has led retreats throughout the United States and Britain. A frequent contributor to Weavings, she is also the author of The Praying Life: Seeking God in All Things and, with her husband David Douglas, co-author of Pilgrims in the Kingdom: Travels in Christian Britain.

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