Once upon a time, when women were birds,
there was the simple understanding that
to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk
was to heal the world through joy.
The birds still remember
what we have forgotten,
that the world is meant to be
Terry Tempest Williams
I wonder if I can help ‘heal the world through joy’ as Terry Tempest Williams suggests? Epiphany is the winter season to allow my heart to do a lot of this wondering, pondering, chewing over, meditating. It is a turning-of-the-deep-soul-soil time.
As I look back over the Advent series I have just written, and try to fathom how to continue as a JoyPilgrim in 2021 in the midst of the continued uncertainty a worldwide pandemic has brought home to us all in the last year, I come back to a reminder from Victoria Finlay: colour is a happening, a doing, a verb, not a series of naming nouns (adventapertures2020: day three). I constantly need to remember that I, along with the world about me, is in constant, trembling transition. This is a daunting, unsettling, unmooring type of knowledge; but it is also a hopeful one, for it allows me to quiver in excited anticipation at the opportunities given for redemption and renewal: within me, with others, within the Earth, across the globe.
My Mum pointed me in the direction of another corrective to the idea of colour vision ever being fixed, through an article about the way that birds see colour: through four-dimensional light vision. Literally, I cannot compute this type colour vision. Birds “have this depth of richness that we can’t begin to imagine,” says Richard Prum, of the University of Kansas. “When my ornithology students ask ‘What does this color look like to a bird?’ I have to answer, ‘You will never know, you cannot know.’ It’s like asking what the music of bats sounds like.”
What a source of endless fascination and wonder-filled mystery that sentence is!
In the same article, John Endler, of the University of California, who studies how guppy fish perceive colour, (which changes within different environments), expands on how this UV signalling works for all animals:
The relative intensity of UV wavelengths versus longer wavelengths varies dramatically across different contexts. Ultraviolet light is relatively strong at dawn and dusk, when the sun’s low angle allows the atmosphere to absorb longer wavelengths and scatter shorter ones. Open, less vegetated habitats are richer in UV light because vegetation absorbs UV. Snow and ice reflect UV, whereas liquid water absorbs and transmits it. On cloudy days, UV’s relative intensity increases, and UV is stronger at higher altitudes due to the thinner atmosphere. Other factors include everything from latitude, season, and lunar phase to the reflectance of different rock types at the micro-site scale.
It makes sense to my (admittedly very unscientific) brain that not only do I as a human not have the ability to see the full range of colours dancing in the universe, that even if I did have the range, what I might want to name as a ‘colour’ would constantly be affected by the UV light playing off its’ shifting, shimmering surroundings. This is such a cause of creative wonder to me. It is also a very humbling reminder that God’s creative vision is infinitely wider, deeper, longer, than mine; and that I do not need to know all the things under heaven. In fact for me, Epiphany is often the season of unknowing, of entering into Mystery, rather than a blinding flash of wisdom suddenly transforming my understanding. And if I have learnt one thing over the past forty days of being a JoyPilgrim, it is that while joy as an emotion is often illusory in my life, Joy as a presence can be cultivated.
I found help for exercising my ‘rejoicing muscles’ in Christine Aroney-Sine’s book The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for delighting in God. She curates a journalling exercise adapted from the prayer of examen, a contemplative practice created by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century, ‘to examine our days, detect God’s presence, and discern God’s purposes’:
Write “I choose joy” on the first blank page …
Each night for the next week prayerfully think back over your day.
What did you enjoy doing?
What made you smile, laugh, dance, or shout out loud for joy today?
How did you respond to these joyful moments?
… Imagine God entering into your joy.
In what ways did these joyful moments make you sense God’s pleasure and draw you closer to God?
In what ways did they draw you closer to others?
What creative impulses or responses did they stir within you?
What could you do tomorrow to cultivate and grow that joy?
Name the tensions.
What destroyed your joy today and made you feel distant from God?
What distanced you from others and perhaps destroyed their joy?
What adjustments could you make to overcome the tensions and restore your joy?
Each evening, reward your self for the creative responses that enhanced your joy. Give yourself a special treat for each tension that turned into a joy-filled moment where you sensed God’s pleasure … Laugh at yourself. Toast yourself for being a person who is able to overcome tension and create joy spots. As you laugh I hope that you will sense God’s approval of your contemplation.
At the end of the week take extra time to relax and look over your week.
What gave you the greatest joy?
What do you think gave the greatest pleasure to God?
What could you do this coming week to expand your own joy and the pleasure you brought to God? (133)
The idea that God might delight in me shocked me, so conditioned am I to feel myself perpetually falling short of some invisible standard of perfection that will never yield the approval I crave. Believing the default lie of perfectionism that ‘I am not (and never can be) enough’ to God (or anyone else for that matter), is just one example of how I quench my joy, how continually I quench God’s joy both of me, and within me. As I continue intentionally exploring colour in all forms of my creative being and doing during 2021, as I stumble along as a JoyPilgrim, asking this simple question might be the most demanding Epiphany season: what can I do to increase my joy?
One of my favourite books of 2020 was Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses, and she writes of Joy’s ‘persistence’:
Joy has the ability to live with and through the sorrows. Perhaps the reason for joy’s persistence is hidden in a definition of joy that comes to us from the novelist Eugenia Price. “Joy,” she says, “is God in the marrow of our bones.” Joy is a deep well. If, in times of sorrow, we go down under the sorrow, we will discover that joy is still alive. Thus we will be able to raise high the chalice of our lives in any kind of weather. (50)
Increasing my joy depends on nourishing the presence of this precious marrow – and learning how to do so in all seasons. May I learn in 2021 how to delight God by consciously learning how to receive the eternal gifts found in the colours each day brings, in all weathers, so that I might pour them in the chalice of my life, lifting high the One in me who is Joy-with-us.
When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
John O’Donohue, from Benedictus/To Bless the Space Between Us
threshold to Joy. iPhone image.