Cultivating Radical Joy

Elul Day 8

A friend of mine sent me this quote today:

“It is  your birthright and natural state to be wise and noble, loving and generous, to esteem yourself and others, to be engaged in the world in awe and in depth, to have courage and to rely on yourself, to be joyous and effortlessly accomplished, to be strong and effective, to enjoy peace of mind and to be present to the unfolding mystery of life.”  
-The Divine Beloved (Trebbe Johnson)

Intrigued, I googled the source and found a very interesting website promoting, among other things, retreats about radical joy for hard times. What makes RADICAL joy different from ordinary joy? Is it expressing joy despite difficult circumstances? Or is it about expressing joy in a particularly unique way? The website described these retreats as opportunities for "rediscovering meaning, compassion and joy in a period of darkness."

I have learned so much about radical joy from my friend Rev. Janice Steele. Janice is part of an incredibly talented musical family, and she was also raised in the Pentecostal church. Music (gospel music in particular) has always been one of her extraordinary gifts.  Janice and I have had many conversations over the years about spirituality, God, and faith; we have celebrated each other's holidays together and visited each other's houses of worship. A few years ago, Janice was ordained by the United Church of Christ and started her own church in Sacramento, Imani Community Church. My friendship with Janice, and visiting Imani, have taught me about connecting with the Source of Joy even during the most difficult circumstances. African-American theology and spiritual traditions have provided communities of comfort, praise and justice for centuries, and I am inspired by the unapologetic expressions of radical joy and hospitality that I have witnessed there. 

Cultivating joy during hard times has been preached about, written about, sung and prayed about by many cultures and faith traditions. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic rabbi, taught mitzvah g'dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid– it is a great mitzvah to be living with joy always." I also remember the film "Life Is Beautiful," in which Roberto Benigni plays an Italian father who helps his son retain his childhood delight amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. I actually saw this movie with my own father, and by the end of the film the two of us were in a puddle of tears, laughing and crying and hugging. 

During Elul, one of the things I am working on is increasing my capacity for joy, and decreasing the amount of time and energy I spend being judgmental, defended, or cranky. If Rebbe Nachman, a man who is said to have lived with an inordinate amount of physical and emotional suffering, committed himself to a path of radical joy, maybe I can too.