Spring has arrived, the light has returned, and the trees and flowers bless us with their sweet aromas. But even in this season of hope, many people seem to be caught between joy and suffering. They describe feeling both hopeful and hopeless, or they describe an emotional numbness. Perhaps you’ve been feeling something similar.
I am sure you can think of a dozen circumstances in your life right now where it feels justifiable and natural to complain. But I challenge you to not go there. Instead, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and turn your attention to cultivating peace, joy and doing or giving to others.
This poem by Franz Wright offers hope in challenging times:
…I am very worried and happy
…And there is nowhere I would rather be
alive or dead
than in this world,
housing perpetual births and disappearances
and [I] am glad (the wind is blowing, it is written, adore
and am speechlessly grateful and glad and afraid
I don’t mind saying that I am scared
to death of God: I am
afraid and blind and ignorant and naked and
I’ll take it!…..
I can’t grasp it, but I am so very glad.
~“A Word For Joy” in God’s Silence
The Two Gifts of Joy
There are two gifts that come with joy: The gift of faith, and the gift of suffering. In medicine, we generally try to alleviate pain, and we don’t equate suffering with joy. But what if we change our point of view to allow for joy within suffering?
Recently, I was deeply moved by an article in JAMA Neurology by Benzi M. Kluger, MD, entitled “Joy, Suffering, and the Goals of Medicine.” Dr. Kluger explains, “Joy may be conceptualized as a positive counterpoint to suffering. We propose that joy should be defined by the individual as that which separates thriving from mere survival.” I frequently use the phrase “thriving beyond surviving” to explain to my patients my goal in health restoration and wellness.
Kluger goes on to say, “Exploring how people living with serious illness can still bring joy to others (eg, through storytelling or their very presence) is particularly powerful, because giving joy is both a source of joy and an empowering experience for people who often feel like a burden. When we speak of easing suffering as clinicians, we imply addressing symptoms or reducing negative emotions. However, what we more often do as friends or family, intuitively and effectively, is to increase joy. We bring gifts, share memories, and watch comedies. We are not ignoring suffering. We are responding to suffering by reaching for joy.”
Joy as a Therapeutic Tool in Medicine
We have a great opportunity to recognize and study joy as a therapeutic tool in medicine, and it is our responsibility to partake of this. Bringing love and joy builds a physical health framework for conceptualizing positive interventions that may be used both to achieve positive end points and directly reduce suffering; however, it is very possible to experience both physical pain and spiritual joy as one experience.
“By recognizing joy as an explicit goal, we acknowledge subjective well-being as something to aspire to in the care clinicians provide, rather than mere happenstance that may occur when suffering diminishes.”1
Now I want to tell you a little story. Several years ago, a patient of mine told me that her mother had developed acute leukemia and was very ill. She asked if I would see her mother as a patient, but before I could do so, her mom declined so rapidly that she was admitted to the hospital. After a battery of tests, the doctors told her there was nothing they could do except ease her pain with opioid drugs.
Her daughter asked if there was anything I or she could to do to help her. I advised her to bring roses to her mother, and to anoint her mother’s feet, hands, and forehead with essential oils. She could then pray, or simply be still, while continuing to touch her mother. She took my advice and shared with me what a beautiful experience she and her mother had during her mother’s ascending (passing). Modern medicine relieved her mother’s pain, but it was the rose that lifted her heart and brought her joy. And the anointing created an atmosphere of beauty and comfort and opened the path to the Great Mystery.
After the flood, the dove came to Noah, having “in her mouth an olive leaf” (Gen. 8.11), the symbol of unction.
Anointing of the sick and dying is also called the Sacred Mystery of Unction. Unction not only unites us to the Spirit, but creates in us a renewed Spirit, a sanctuary, “and let them make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in thee.” (Ex. 25:8)
“And it shall come to pass on that day, that his burden shall be removed from upon your shoulder, and his yoke from upon your neck, and the yoke shall be destroyed because of oil.” (Isaiah 10:27)
The Promise of Spring
Spring blossoms are often called ephemerals. Their beauty brings joy, but it is short-lived, and they quickly disappear. Instead of mourning their brevity, remember these fragile blossoms are the beginning of the process that creates the fruits and other foods that nourish us in later seasons. In a spiritual sense, let the joy that spring flowers awaken in you provide nourishment for your spirit. These fruits of the Spirit—fruits of love, comfort, forgiveness and understanding—will mature and ripen with time. Our task is to endure with joy and ripen until the door of fruitfulness opens and we become new again as fertile seeds that we sow as words and deeds of love in the world.
Holy Dormition Byzantine Franciscan Friary
Easter is my favorite day of the year and the meaning of rebirth is something all of us can embrace. While living in the Holy Dormition Byzantine (Eastern-Rite Ukrainian Catholic) Franciscan monastery, I recall getting up before the crack of dawn on Easter morning, parading around the outside and then entering into the church for Easter liturgy. We listened to the great homily of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every Easter Sunday. Saint John was given the name “Chrysostom,” which means “golden-mouthed,” because of the beauty of his oratory. In his homily he said “Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.”
I was moved by Pope Francis Palm Sunday Homily and wanted to share these words of his: “Can we still be moved by God’s love? Have we lost the ability to be amazed by him? Why? Maybe our faith has grown dull from habit. Maybe we remain trapped in our regrets and allow ourselves to be crippled by our disappointments. Maybe we have lost all our trust or even feel worthless. But perhaps, behind all these “maybes,” lies the fact that we are not open to the gift of the Spirit who gives us the grace of amazement.”
As the plants arise from the earth and flower, gifting us with their beauty and scent, we too can surface from the winter, and shine with a new sense of renewal, joy, and loving kindness. May you all be filled with the spirit of rebirth, the grace of amazement, and shine like the Easter Lily!
 Kluger, BM., MD., Benzi M. Kluger, MD JAMA Neurology March 2021 Volume 78, Number 3 265.
 Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(7):1123-1132. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827