Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nightlight to the soul

Just as there can be no real joy in life without first knowing sorrow, those who experience the depths of sorrow also know something about the gift of true joy. Joy and sorrow are, in effect, two sides of the same coin. I’ve found that those who have truly known sorrow—their own or that of someone they love—are often the most joyful people in the world. It’s the emotional flat-liners, those who succeed at cutting off the peaks and filling in the valleys of their emotional lives, who are most to be pitied.

Sorrow never comes invited into our lives. I did not choose to become a cancer patient. But by accepting the darkness that comes with a sense of loss, and knowing that the darkness is neither permanent nor complete, I can enjoy the light more than I ever imagined. It’s the kind of joyous light for which you had better leave your car at home. Joy, too, is transient, but while it lasts it’s intoxicating. Its memory brings a form of second-hand glow to the darkness when it descends. It can be a nightlight to the soul.

I have been resolute this year to live as if I meant it. The eight months since my last cancer surgery have been spent indulging my appetite for travel, spending time with people who are important to me, running hard (literally) and tending my garden. It’s been a time of great fun and adventure, and of self-discovery. I’ve experienced more joy than I thought possible. There have been days when I had to resist reminding others that this is what a gratified life looks like; not everyone shares in the economic privileges I enjoy, nor has the time I’ve had to do as I please. When I say that cancer has been a blessing in my life, this is one way I mean it: it has forced me to work and fret less and to open up time in which God can both bless me and allow me to bless others. It has both raised and deepened the spiritual topography of my life.

The joy that I have felt in these months can be described as a lightness of spirit. When you face the prospect of a premature exit from this earthly stage, but are in otherwise good health, you are unencumbered by many of the cares that otherwise weigh on us. I have little drive to achieve. I need prove nothing to others. I have completed my career. I have no desire to seek payback from those who I believe may have wronged me. I have no complicated schemes for the future. I desire less. I am at peace.

There was a moment last month when I was in England that brought my sense of joy in life to a brief pinnacle. By design, I planned my travel in the U.K. to include visits to a couple of the great cathedrals (see previous post). The soaring spaces of these churches in which man reaches up to God in stone are counterbalanced by magnificent stained glass in which stories of how God has reached down to mankind are communicated in visual art. What I felt missing in these great churches, however, were the actual people of God. Everyone there, myself included, was a spiritual sightseer. But when I reached Lee Abbey, I discovered a community of believers that not only spoke of God in personal terms, but on the last evening of my visit there worshipped together in a manner that brought me to tears. People from more than a dozen nations ranging in age from 15 to 85 raised their voices in prayer and in song to the God of all creation. It was exhilarating. The joy we experienced together had little to do with the space we occupied, and everything to do with the object of our adoration.

This, I’ve concluded, is the truest form of joy: the praise I lift to the Creator. The lightness I’ve felt at other moments in my life is the lifting of burdens by the God who loves me, and who loves to be loved in return. True worship is this connection with the source of all light and joy. My life is not only about worship, as much as I might wish it to be. There are other things in this world that I need to be about. But I do know that some day I and everyone in His presence will worship God ceaselessly. Our joy will be complete, and all darkness will be subdued. His light will fill the universe. We will be in a cathedral without walls, and his stories of grace will have only begun.


Steve said...

Well put, Peter.

Anonymous said...


I almost felt like I was with you as I read.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter-It is great to read your thoughts, thank you for them. The mention of joy being transcient, I have found the opposite to be true. That the joy of the Lord can be our strength. That it is one of the fruit of the holy spirit so it can be a like a permanent fixture in our lives. The joy of the Lord ain't going nowhere, it is here to stay.