Posted May 02, 2012:
Surprised by Joy

by Irma Zaleski.

When I was a child in Poland before the Second World War, we used to spend nearly every summer at my grandmother’s house in the mountains.

My grandmother was brilliant and wise, although bitter at times. She had lived through a world war, revolutions, a bad marriage, and the death of two children.

What had saved her sanity, I believe, was her love of beauty and a passionate interest in all the things of the mind. She loved literature and art; she was fascinated by science. But above all else, she loved the mountains among which she lived.

One night, I must have been five or six at the time, I was awakened by my grandmother leaning over my bed. There was the noise of a great storm outside. Grandmother picked me up and carried me out onto the big veranda which ran all along the front of the house.

"Look!" she said, turning my face towards the mountains, "Look, this is too beautiful to sleep through!"

I saw black sky torn apart every few seconds by lightning, mountains emerging out of darkness, immense, powerful, and so present, so real. Thunder rolled among the peaks.

I was not frightened—how could I be?—I was awed. I looked up at my grandmother’s face and, in a flash of lightning, I saw it flooded with wonder and joy.

Not the exuberant, noisy joy that is the natural gift of a happy child, but a deep mysterious joy I had never seen before. My grandmother was my first teacher of joy.

In the Christian tradition, joy is not a merely human emotion but a spiritual experience. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a grace of the Incarnation, the gift of Bethlehem. This is why we are always, as C. S. Lewis said, "surprised by joy."

It may burst upon us unawares in moments of great happiness, in a world flooded with beauty, in an experience of deep love.

But joy may also come to us in the midst of suffering, at the end of our endurance, in the face of death. It breaks into the prison of our misery and pain and, for a moment, we forget ourselves and are free. We become simple, like children.

Children see God quite often, I think. They see him in the essential mysteriousness of things. They experience him in a wild joy which seems at times to possess them in the midst of laughter and play.

When we grow up, however, our minds are most often too restless, too noisy, to hear the sound of God’s coming. We cannot believe what our hearts experience; we cannot find him among the evils which seem to rule the world.

And so, we need to re-learn to recognise the signs of the Divine Presence and to become simple like children. We need to find our way back to joy.

My own childhood ended in 1939 when my world erupted into the chaos and darkness of war. I was then only eight years old.

The war years in Nazi-occupied Poland were not conductive to joy. Like millions of others, we lived on the edge of disaster, surrounded by horror and fear. There was very little beauty in our lives.

We did not go to the mountains; we heard very little music. Orchestras were disbanded and radios forbidden; cinemas and even schools were closed. We dwelt in a bleak, inhuman world, in rooms filled with the belongings we managed to save, always on the edge of hunger, always aware of evil and danger lurking outside.

And yet, even during the darkest years, there were times when joy would suddenly burst out of darkness like lightning and, for a moment, all was well.

It could have been on a summer night, when tossing and turning on the bed I shared with my mother, I would hear the song of a nightingale in the jasmine bushes outside, and the beauty of it would be nearly impossible to bear.

Or on an autumn evening as I was hurrying along a gray, empty street, anxious to be home before the curfew, I would look up and see the flaming glory of the setting sun and, for a split second perhaps, there would be no more darkness or war. The darkness, of course, would soon return and I would run home, fearful again of the curfew police.

The war finally ended, although not in the way we had hoped. In September of 1946, my family escaped from communist Poland, and after a dangerous and difficult journey, we eventually reached Britain.

As soon as we began to settle down there, my parents decided that, in order to learn English as quickly as possible, I was to be sent to a boarding school in Scotland run by Benedictine nuns.

Though I loathed it at first—I was angry, rebellious, homesick, and struggling with the new language—the nuns won me over in the end.

In spite of myself, I was moved by their kindness and the beauty and peace of the life they had embraced and by the way they prayed and sang in church.

Sometimes, as I knelt with the other girls at evening prayers in the dimly lit church, a faint scent of incense lingering in the air and the flickering flame of a vigil light throwing immense shadows on the high ceiling above, the horror and the chaos I had lived through receded, and I would find myself relaxing into silence and peace.

It was at that convent school that the beginning of an insight which lies at the root of all Christian life began to grow in me: that, in spite of all the darkness and sin we experience in this life, God is very beautiful, and all created beauty is a sign of his presence and that, in the Incarnation, God has taken on our human reality and made the joy of the angels ours to experience and live.

But the gift of joy, the gift of God’s presence does not always manifest itself in beauty and peace. It does not always come to us in moments of ecstasy and insight.

We need to find a way of living the joy of his presence in every moment of our ordinary lives. That means breaking down—not once, but moment by moment, day by day—the many protective walls that we have built around our anxious, time-bound egos and opening them to what is beyond.

This is, it seems to me, the true meaning of asceticism.

True asceticism has little to do with self-punishment and shame and even less with self-hate and blame. It is not a struggle against ourselves, but a struggle to become truly ourselves: free and unafraid as God has created us to be. This is why, I think, as Catherine Doherty used to say, "a sad hermit is not a hermit at all."

I met Catherine Doherty in 1964 when I was spending the summer with my children at our family cottage near Combermere. But I did not really become close to her until a few years later, at a very difficult and painful time for me and my family.

Catherine knew what was happening in my life and showed me great kindness. She invited me often to Madonna House for a visit and Mass, and sometimes for dinner.

(This good fortune did not last too long. She had a horror of people becoming too attached to her instead of God. But, while it lasted, it was a very great gift.)

Once, I remember, as I sat with her at table, she talked about suffering and joy. And then, to my great embarrassment, she got up, took my hand and pulled me up from the bench. "Come and dance with me," she said.

I had seen her dance before in the dining room or before the icons in the chapel, and was strangely moved, but the thought of doing it myself in front of the whole community made me cold with embarrassment and fear.

I was sure I would be clumsy and stumble; people would laugh. But Catherine would not be denied. And so I got up and danced behind her around the room and up the centre with the whole community clapping in rhythm.

My embarrassment soon left me. I forgot myself; I was free and full of joy. We were dancing together before the Lord.

And so, it was at Madonna House that I began to realize more fully that true joy does not depend on momentary insights and even less on feelings or moods, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a glimpse of the beauty of God, and a sign of his presence.

And I began to realize that God never comes to us alone, but brings with him the whole universe. He opens our hearts to the beauty of everything we see or touch or feel and of every human being we meet.

This is the joy of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who having spent thirty years alone in the silence of his cell, would run out to meet every person coming towards him, bow down to the ground and say, "My brother, my sister, my joy!"

This is why all true saints have always loved every creature that came from the hand of God. Love does not discriminate or condemn. Love embraces all things in that great, empty silence beyond words which is the wide-open door to heaven and to an unending joy.

Irma Zaleski, who is the published writer of a number of books and articles, is a friend and neighbour of Madonna House.


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