Deepening Our Capacity for Joy

Deep acts of goodness, joy and awe–the via positiva–are the medicine to combat the distress and despair that pandemics and other hard times can elicit

Matthew Fox

Here we are in the second month of the new year, and Covid is still with us.We all had such high hopes that the pandemic would be over by now, but the virus keeps manifesting itself in new strains and it is depressing. So once again I turn to the wisdom of the Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich. As you may know, Julian lived in England during the 13th century where she suffered through wave after wave of the bubonic plague. But she did not lose hope or her capacity for joy. She did not fall into despair.

In early December, just as Omicron came on the scene, I led a retreat in Tucson, Arizona, using Matthew Fox’s book on Julian as a guide. I wondered the day before I left for Tucson if I should cancel the retreat. All of us were vaccinated and boosted, but still I questioned whether it was the prudent thing to do. I waited for my phone to light up with text and emails from participants who wanted to cancel. But it didn’t. We were all committed to going it seemed. Everyone had been with me to Tucson before, and I think we were counting on the healing landscape of the Sonoran Desert to rekindle our capacity for awe and joy.

And that’s exactly what happened! I’ve been to this particular retreat center many times, and I am always aware of the beauty of the desert landscape, but this time was different. Perhaps it was because it had been two years since my last trip to this site, or maybe it was because travel has been fairly restricted during much of the pandemic.

But this time it was as though the proverbial scales had fallen from my eyes! It seemed that I had seen “through a glass darkly” in the past, but now the desert was brilliant and even miraculous. I could marvel at the huge Saguaro cactus outside my window, with its several “arms” reaching up toward the sky. I was in awe of how many of these Saguaros stood like sturdy wisdom teachers and prayerful presences surrounding the retreat center.

Matthew Fox says, “to marvel reverently is to admit awe into our lives. Awe is marveling.

Indeed, the root meaning of ‘miracle’ is marvel. Marveling is a holy act, and we should indulge ourselves often in marveling.” These saguaro cacti moved me to joy, and they are a kind of miracle as they grow only in the Sonoran Desert. Their green color belies the fact that they are as strong as the sturdiest oak. Their presence filled me with joy! I was grateful that this beautiful site has been preserved and used as a retreat center to allow all spiritual pilgrims who come there to marvel at the miracle of the landscape. Julian of Norwich reminds us that life will always contain both pleasure and pain, both joy and sorrow. Both are necessary for our creativity to thrive and to lead us to transformation. The danger is to let ourselves become so bogged down in the negative that we fail to see the positive. Sometimes it takes a new and different landscape to awaken us to the positive that is ever-present even in the midst of grief and loss. But always the marvelous is accessible and even immediate. Be on the lookout today for the goodness that ignites joy and awe in you. If we ignore our capacity for wonder, we are surely lost.

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