One of my earliest childhood memories is being about two or three years old, walking along a Florida beach with my parents. My father showed me a starfish that had washed up on the beach. He explained to me that if it lost one of its arms, it could over time regenerate them again. I have been thinking about that image of regeneration lately, as summer arrives after the year of pandemic, a year that was somehow both exceptionally busy at my job and isolating at the same time. As I write this, I look forward to a few weeks where I will see my family and in-laws after a long absence. I also hope to do some hiking and reading while staying near some beautiful natural spaces and fit in my annual silent retreat. I hope that these times of vacation and retreat will be regenerating. I feel the need to “regrow” parts of myself and my relationships that felt a bit lost during the pandemic.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius names four “weeks” to characterize the experiences of retreatants. Each of these correspond to the approximate amount of time that a retreatant might spend with a particular set of prayers if doing a 30-day retreat. But these weeks also name certain movements in the spiritual life, modeled after the life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Week Four is a Resurrection-oriented week. The grace for which retreatants pray is to know the joy of the Risen Christ. Mary knew joy when she encountered her Risen Son. The friends and disciples of Jesus knew joy when they reconnected with him again.
For me, joy is a gift from God, not something that I produce, but there are conditions that we can cultivate in order to be more receptive to joy: gratitude, connection, and surrendering to the knowledge that God takes care of us through all we experience. It’s like cultivating good soil to grow plants in a garden. Something beyond us “grows” the joy, but we can get the soil ready so that it’s in better condition for what is planted there to spring up and blossom.
When we pay attention to the gifts that God has given to us, even the most ordinary and simple gifts—like attending to the beauty and peace of the natural world around us—we are more likely to experience joy. Ignatius also was aware that when we thank God for these gifts, we also feel more generous in giving ourselves back to God. This sense of mutually receiving from God and giving back to God can lead to an experience of deep joy.
After a year of being quite isolated, I’m also finding joy in connection. In Scripture, Jesus reconnects with his friends after rising from the dead. It’s in connection with others—family, friends, our parish or work communities—that we often find joy naturally and spontaneously arises. Who has not sat with friends, eating a simple meal, and not noted the joy of talking and laughing with friends?
Last, I know that I am more joyful when I am not weighed down by anxieties but trust that God is with me through all that I am experiencing. I can then live in the flow of day-to-day life. In scriptural accounts after the Resurrection, Jesus’ friends let go of their old fears and live into a new life full of trust in God. My work, my writing, and my relationships are all more joyful when I live in this trust that God’s loving presence is with me and the larger family and community of which I am a part. Like the starfish, we can and do “regenerate” when we live in that love.
Where do you find joy? Where are you experiencing new life or feeling a sense of gratitude or connection?