It has been a while since my last blog post. Back in August I wrote a list of topics I wanted to write about, continuing the themes of faith and sexuality I had wanted to address in this blog. I am sure I will get back to them at some point, but in the meantime life has thrown me some huge life-altering events, some paradigm shifts even, and I need to start writing about some of it.
Still reeling from the shock of the loss of two family members (which I wrote about here), Hannelie and I headed down to Somerset at the end of August to spend some time with both of our families. My family has always been into horses, and it was while riding with me and my little sister that my vibrant, active mum suffered a stroke and had to be airlifted to Frenchay hospital in Bristol.
There was no indication that this would happen, although she had complained of feeling a bit unwell earlier in the day. It was a beautiful day, one of the last of high summer. The sun was hot and as we rode we disturbed clouds of incandescent dragonflies from the hedgerows. For me it had been some years – at least eight – since being in the saddle, and there was a great swell of joy in my heart as we turned the corner at the bottom of a recently ploughed field to canter for the last time before heading home.
Everything that followed afterwards – the fall, my sister’s horse bolting (she fell too, into the stubble at the edge of the field) , the relief that my mum was walking and talking suddenly turning to panic as she deteriorated quickly, the air ambulance, the long night in the relative’s room and endless cups of tea – none of that has taken away my memory of that perfect joy.
Happiness can be taken away in an instant, but joy remains. C.S Lewis distinguished joy from happiness or pleasure:
I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” Surprised By Joy
Joy is deep and is unaffected by circumstance. Jesus told his disciples that he would be taken from them and that they would grieve, but that he would return and then no-one would be able to steal their completed joy from them (John 16:22). Joy leads to rejoicing, or perhaps we need to rejoice despite everything and thus be led into a deeper joy.
Lewis chose a good title for his book, Surprised by Joy. Moments of joy have taken me utterly by surprise and remembering them seems to lift any tendency towards despair (this is not to say that I feel happy all the time!). The sudden sight of a heron on the Levels, the cry of a buzzard overhead and the time I saw a swan taking off with a great beating of wings (I don’t know why they were all bird-related!) have given me a sudden gut-wrenching stab of pure wild joy this week, like God was saying “just look! Look at this! Isn’t it the most beautiful moment? And it’s just for you!”
Joy is the “sudden gift,” the “small familiar pain”, that Carol Ann Duffy wrote about in her poem Prayer. It is bound up in a moment, yet lasts beyond that moment, transforming a memory, a grief, a hard day, into something good, like sorrow into dancing.
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Carol Ann Duffy