Ode to Joy

Open doorway of an old church

Growing up, I went to Mass every Sunday, without fail. This was not a prescriptive activity enforced by my parents, but a voluntary activity of genuine pleasure which myself, my sister, and my dad shared. We would arrive at the early Sunday morning mass (late, usually), sit in the back pew with the ushers (because we were late), sing all the songs at high volume, and, after Mass (if my dad wasn’t spending ages chatting with people I didn’t know), we would race each other through the parking lot to the car. Or, if the weather was particularly glorious, he would break out into song — an Irish tune he learned from his dad or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” usually.

Looking back on the autumn when I finally stopped attending Mass regularly (my senior year of college), I realize that I experienced real grief at the loss of this practice. I had been attending for so long that I knew all the words to all the songs and recitations; I knew when to sit, and when to stand, and I knew, if only by recognition, my fellow Mass attendees — the community with whom I practiced. These were rituals that I knew so well, I didn’t have to think. Mass became a place where I could be, without any need to act. I could contemplate my struggles and joys, my hopes and despairs; I sat with them without the need to come to any conclusions or make any decisions. And when I left Mass each Sunday, I felt more centered — a certainty of self I could carry into spaces of uncertainty.

The reasons I had for ending this practice are tangential to my topic here, but, to state it briefly, it felt as though I was growing at the same time the Church was shrinking. I had started to see the world and human life as vast and complicated — and beautiful for that, while the Church proceeded to become more strictly assertive about its teachings. Mass was no longer a place in which I had space to question and consider, because it no longer seemed to be interested in questioning or considering.

I have not yet replaced the rituals which were such a crucial aspect in determining the essence of who I am, but I am beginning to redefine the sense of joy which was so foundational to my Mass ritual growing up. This joy was not simply elation at this thing or that, but a spiritual wellspring at the possibilities inherent in being alive. What characterizes this joy so well, I think, is a poem from Jack Gilbert called “A Brief for the Defense” as well as a reflection written about him after his passing by novelist Elizabeth Gilbert (They are both beautiful reads; enjoy the poem and the reflection).

“A Brief for the Defense” is, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes it, “a poem which defends joy against its critics and insists on the centrality of pleasure and wonder in even dark realms of human experience.” As she dives into this work further, “A Brief for the Defense” is not simply an ode to joy, but an obligation to joy. Elizabeth Gilbert defines it as a sense of “stubborn gladness.” Founded in the “human capacity for joy and endurance,” it is joy that we touch not despite our suffering, but within it. In an earlier piece, I explored the tenet of simple living and its intersection with patience, and asked what the “willingness to endure” suffering meant. Here, I think we find a piece of that willingness to endure.

One other poem which so well captures this sense of obligation to joy, with which I will leave you, is from the great Mary Oliver. It is these works which are helping me to redefine — or, perhaps, renegotiate — my own sense of spirituality, as I seek joy in the everyday.

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Excerpt from “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver

Photo by Genevieve Looby