One of my earliest childhood memories is that I was around two or three years old and walking down 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 he lost one of his arms, it could regenerate over time. I’ve been thinking about this image of regeneration lately as summer comes after the year of the pandemic, a year that was kind of extraordinarily busy with my job and at the same time with isolation. As I write this, I am looking forward to a few weeks to see my family and in-laws again after a long absence. I also hope to get some hiking and reading while staying near some beautiful natural spaces and fitting into my annual quiet retreat. I hope these vacation and retreat times recover. I feel the need to “regrow” parts of myself and my relationships that felt a little lost during the pandemic.
In the retreat, St. Ignatius mentions four “weeks” to characterize the retreatants’ experiences. Each of these figures represents the approximate time a retreat participant could spend with a particular prayer group when doing a 30-day retreat. But these weeks also name certain movements in the spiritual life that are modeled on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The fourth week is a resurrection week. The grace that retreatants pray for is to know the joy of the risen Christ. Mary experienced joy when she met her resurrected son. Jesus’ friends and disciples experienced joy when they reconnected with him.
To me, joy is a gift from God, not something I create, but there are conditions we can cultivate to be more receptive to joy: gratitude, connection, and surrender to the knowledge that God cares for us through everything we experience. It’s like cultivating good soil to grow plants in a garden. Joy “grows” a little outside of us, but we can prepare the soil so that it is in better condition so that what is planted there will sprout and bloom.
If we pay attention to the gifts God has given us, even the most common and simple gifts – such as paying attention to the beauty and peace of the natural world around us – we are more likely to experience joy. Ignatius also knew that when we thank God for these gifts, we also feel more generous when we give ourselves back to God. This feeling of mutual reception from God and giving back to God can lead to an experience of deep joy.
After a year of being pretty isolated, I also find joy in connecting. In the scriptures, Jesus reconnects with his friends after he is resurrected from the dead. In connection with others – family, friends, our parish or work group – we often find that joy comes naturally and spontaneously. Who hasn’t sat with friends, had a simple meal and not noticed the joy of talking and laughing with friends?
After all, I know that I am happier when I am not burdened with fears, but trust that God is with me in everything I experience. Then I can live in the flow of everyday life. In biblical accounts after the resurrection, Jesus’ friends let go of their old fears and begin a new life full of trust in God. My work, writing, and relationships are more joyful when I live with this confidence that God’s loving presence is with me and the larger family and community of which I belong. Like starfish, we can “regenerate” ourselves when we live in this love.
Where do you find joy? Where do you experience new life or do you feel a sense of gratitude or connection?
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash.