Every year on the third Sunday of advent, the church asks us to do a meditation on joy. That seems a curious thing to ask, though it becomes less curious when we actually reflect on the nature of joy. What is joy?

Few things are as misunderstood as is the notion of joy. Of itself that wouldn’t be serious except that in this case we are often left chasing the wrong things in life.

Too often we confuse joy with good cheer or with a certain rallying of the spirit that we try to crank up when we go to a party or let off steam on a Friday night. We tend to think of joy this way: There is ordinary time in our lives, when duty, work, emotional and financial burdens, tiredness, worries, and pressure of all kinds keep us from enjoying life and from being as cheery and pleasant as we would like. We think of ordinary times in our lives as keeping us from joy – the grind, the routine, the rat-race, the work-week – and so we look forward to special times, weekends, nights out, vacation times, social times, celebrations, and parties where we can break the routine, break out, enjoy ourselves, and experience joy.

Joy then is identified with the boisterous good cheer we try to crank up at parties or the lack of pressure and the freedom from burdens that we feel when on vacation. But is this joy? It can be, though often isn’t. The loud robust cheer that we enter into at parties is often little more than a desperate effort to keep our depressions at bay, a form of denial. That’s why the good cheer dissolves so quickly when we go home and why, three days after returning from vacation, we are again just as tired and in need of a vacation as before.

What is joy? Joy can never be induced, cranked up, or made to happen. It’s something that has to find us precisely within our ordinary, duty-bound, burdened, full-of-worries, and pressured lives. This is joy: Imagine walking to your car or to the bus after a day’s work, tired, needing some rest. But, just as you reach your car or the bus-stop, you fill with a sense of life and health; in some inchoate way, all jumbled together, you feel your body, mind, soul, gender, sexuality, history, place within a family, network of friends, city, and country, and this feeling makes you spontaneously exclaim: “God, it’s good to be alive!” That’s joy.

And as C.S. Lewis puts it, it has to surprise you. You can’t find joy, it has to find you. That’s its real quality. You can go to a party and say, “Tonight I’m going to have a good time, if it kills me!” It might! Indeed parties and letting off steam have their place. You might even find good cheer at a party or find a good distraction and these can be needed therapy and a good respite from hard work. But neither is joy.

Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the various versions of The Prayer of St. Francis put it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love, and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out. That’s the great paradox at the centre of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.

If I go about my life demanding, however unconsciously, that others carry me rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off of others rather than trying to feed them; creating disorder rather than being a principle of peace; demanding to be admired rather than admiring, and demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me, no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer. I’m breathing the wrong air into the universe.

The great mystic, John of the Cross, ends one of his most famous instructions with this poem:

To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

That, and that alone, is a recipe for joy.