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Excerpt from "Opening the Window: Sabbath Meditations"

“The Call to Joy”

by Leaf Seligman

I begin most days with a walk, often in the woods. While my dog, Zuki, follows her nose dashing about I list my blessings in a litany of gratitude. On the days when brilliant blue sky frames the unfurling leaves it’s impossible not to revel in the grace of the world. The woods are such a lovely antidote to human news. The way life teems among branches, fallen or standing, the scrub brush chattering around my ankles.

On Monday’s walk, overcome with delight at the shape of my life now, I recalled how I used to feel immobilized by the vast suffering in the world. How, I wondered, could I go about my plentiful life in the presence of so much need? In the midst of my fretting about what I could not do, could not solve and could not save, a friend asked, “What would it mean to answer the call to joy?”

I wasn’t sure I understood the question so I wrote it on a memo board. Daily, I pondered how my friend had phrased her question. She didn’t say, “What would it mean to be happy?” She didn’t ask what it would mean to be content or satisfied. She asked what it would mean to answer the call to joy.

The language of call is religious: the sound of the cosmos itself summoning us to something important, taking up a particular vocation or form of service. And since answering a call suggests a religious experience, I began to wonder how that relates to joy. What makes it a calling? Is joy a religious experience? And how do we recognize joy in the midst of a world blighted by suffering, in a culture preoccupied with happiness?

The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi writes: “Keep knocking and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look to see who’s there.” This suggests joy dwells deep within. It doesn’t float on the surface, like oil atop a rain-slickened road. It doesn’t come free in the cereal box or with a scratch card for the lottery. It takes its own time, and sometimes the path it travels tastes of sorrow, or regret.

For many of us, true joy arises in the shadow of difficulty or at least challenge. While pleasure may derive from momentary sensation, and happiness may bloom out of satisfaction or mirth, joy travels through fertile darkness to reach the light. It has a depth that resonates. Perhaps that’s one way we can recognize it: by the vibration we feel at the core of our being. . . .

While hope calls us back from the brink of despair by inviting us to imagine a different time, reality or place, joy summons us to inhabit this moment, already ripe. Joy calls to us in our uncertainty and offers itself within the very garden of our limitation. It does not depend on material possessions or success. It does even require happiness. It emerges when we risk revealing ourselves by naming our masks. It relies on our capacity to connect with what matters, to notice the pulse of existence that binds us to all being.

This is why joy is a religious experience. It not about singularity of a religious tradition or institution. Joy cares not if you are Sufi, pagan, humanist, Jew. It cares not if you are Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or animist. It doesn’t even care if you say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” It cares only that you keep knocking. That you engage with life on life’s terms, that you take an ax to the prison wall that confines your soul. Joy expresses life’s longing for itself.

“Keep knocking,” Rumi writes, “and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look to see who’s there.” Will it be you?

Writer, teacher, and pastor Leaf Seligman is the settled minister at First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. She has a master’s degree in writing from the University of New Hampshire, and has taught writing at that university, at Franklin Pierce University, at Keene State College, and in New Hampshire prisons and jails. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction and New Thought Journal. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where she won the Billings Prize for Preaching, she has served as a chaplain in both a hospital and a jail. Leaf lives joyfully with her dog among the trees of southwestern New Hampshire.

$16.50, Bauhan Publishing, www.bauhanpublishing.com

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