Midsommar Most Heat Moon
My biggest source of simcha right now is Kate’s ongoing recovery from this Sjogren’s flare. She’s smiling, eating much more, moving around with more energy. This is after seven months of more or less declining health. Now we have to bulk her up, get her back up over 100. Last night I made jucy lucy’s and served them with the leftover gazpacho from the havurah (fellowship) on Wednesday. If you’re familiar with Kate’s struggles with weight, this is soooo ironic.
Once a month I have kabbalah on Tuesday night, then the Wednesday night havurah, a monthly mussar potluck, and on Thursday afternoon the mussar class Kate and I have attended for over a year. It’s been a gradual process, integrating into the life of Beth Evergreen, but a very good one for both of us. Kate’s living out her forty year ago conversion in a Jewish community and I’ve made many friends, learned a lot about this ancient tradition.
Oddly, the Wednesday havurah focus on joy, simcha, has challenged me more than any other moment in that year. Even though I dove into my Celtic heritage after I left the Christian ministry, my personality was formed in a northern European, Teutonic, ethos. In this regard it’s no wonder I found the Scandinavian culture in Minnesota so easy to adopt. There is a broad sense of community in it, a sense that we’re all in this together, that translated into a political culture I found nourishing.
But at an emotional level it has that northern European focus on hard work, duty, obligation. Also emotional reticence, a certain level of dourness. Joy was not a value. In fact it was, if anything, suspect as possibly leading one away from the serious pursuits of life. And it’s the serious pursuits that matter in this culture: family, career, ambition, political work. Sitting in the rocking chair, chugging down a PBR and watching the game, while allowable, was not something to be admired. At least in the version of this culture that was mine.
It’s also no wonder that I found the Calvinist thrust of Presbyterianism a good fit, too. It emphasized thinking, concluding a direction based on theological logic, then doing whatever was necessary to get to the goal. Since it reinforced the culture I found in Minnesota and my underlying Teutonic seriousness, being a political agent for the church fit me well. Until it didn’t.
I was good, am good, at challenging unjust social realities. I can put my head down and push forward against power. Likewise, I can choose priorities in family situations, put my head down and push forward against formidable obstacles. I can even identify what needs to change in my own life, put my head down and push forward against entrenched parts of my own personality. No, of course the results are not always one to one with my hope, but I can usually say that I gave whatever it was my best.
Rabbi Art Green, in his Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, says: “A healthy religious life has to make you more free, lightening your burdens in life rather than adding to them. To begin by saying: “Judaism wants to help increase the joy in your life,” we’re setting the reader out on a course toward that healthy religion.” Say what?
Or, this from Rebbe Nachman: “The greatest mitzvah (good deed) is to live in an abiding state of joy.” Rebbe Nachman also said: “It’s a mitzvah to be happy.”
A religious culture focused on joy? That’s outside my experience. Even a focus on joy without a religious context is outside my experience. That’s not to say, please don’t misunderstand me, that I don’t experience joy. Joseph. My friendships in the Woolly Mammoths and among the docent corps at the MIA. Reading. Travel. Jazz and classical music, especially the Baroque era. Rock and roll. The mountains. Most of all my 28 year long love affair with Kate. All joyful. So, yes, I know joy and have it in my life. In fact, I would say that the last year or so has been the most quietly joyful period of my life.
But to put joy at the center of life, to find a way to live in an “abiding state of joy” would never have occurred to me. In my life joy is an occasional matter, not a focus. How could it be? Joy is not what’s important: justice, duty, commitment, loyalty, honesty, authenticity all come before it. If joy were never experienced, life could be full, well-lived. Hmm. Maybe not.
Chochmat HaLev says: “Joy is the both the origin and outcome of our most sublime thoughts and deed. It enables us to reach beyond our small selves to connect with our innermost being and with other beings. While depression closes doors, joy opens all the gateways.”
“We cultivate this virtue by fostering an awareness of our deep interconnection with all Being.”
This is a challenge I want. One I’m going to embrace. But I’m going to have figure out how to use spiritual judo on my Teutonic soul. Living as if is the way in, I know. I’ve done it before and it works. So, for the next few months I’m going to learn how to live as if joy, living in an abiding state of joy, is central to my life. I’ll let you know it goes. Joyfully.