Surprised by Joy

Yesterday, I mentioned some waiting. Then, after I posted that blogpost yesterday, I drove to the city where my parents live, where we went to wait for the oncologist to talk with my Dad. In that doctor’s office waiting room, I tried to cheer us all up by reading aloud from Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain.

I think I already told you, it’s Dad’s copy of the book (“To C. S. Lewis”); and she writes this snippet that I read:

Peace of mind, peace of soul, peace of heart — our spiritual leaders promise them all, and we, for whom there is no peace, snatch at them in our bewilderment and despair. God, for many of us, is a life preserver flung to a drowning man.

And so he is, if you happen to be drowning. But you can’t drown all the time. Sooner or later you have to start merely living again; you reach shore, splutter the water out of your lungs — and then what? Throw away the life preserver? If your interest in God is based on fear rather than love, very likely. In such a case, you will be willing to pay very high for that life preserver as you go down for the third time; you will offer for it all you worldly treasures, your lusts and greeds and vanities and hates. But once safely on shore, you may be minded to throw it away and snatch your treasures back.

We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasures; he is fun and light and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him.

What I haven’t told you, and what I didn’t read, is that joke that Joy Davidman starts her little book with. It’s the one that she sort of concludes by acknowledging, “Not a very funny story perhaps; there is too bitter a point in the laugh.” But what I’m realizing as I’m reading aloud is how she’s continuing the laugh, the sweetbitterness, the surprise in joy that comes after the pointed bitternesses. (You might get the book to read it for yourself so as to spare yourself having to read longer in this new post of mine.)

The wait for the doctor was unusually long. And the talk with the physician went on long too. We were there until past dark, until way past closing, until a point at which the janitor actually popped in on us, surprised. Dad has inoperable cancer, incurable stuff. It’s also, it seems, in his bones, as it was in Joy Davidman’s. She mentions the “splutter… out of your lungs,” and Dad’s have cancer in them, a coughing splutter that has cracked one of his rib bones already.

I think I already told you how she writes letters. How she writes is for all the world to see now in a book compiled by Don King, thanks to her sons and to her estate. Did I tell you how surprised we are, my Mom and I, by her cussing, her post-conversion cussing? See what we mean?

You can see the progression in her writing, not just of the cancer. There’re her conversions, from Communism, from atheism, from general theism. Obviously, there’s conversion to a profound belief in an enjoyable, lovable God, the Jewish God because she’s always Jewish in her conversion to Christianity. This is also conversion to cancer, in her bones. She’s come to joy in God, and she has to wait for a word. She writes in one of her letters a word. See what we mean?

The effect of the word of the doctor on my Dad, on us who love him. We get, my Mom and I, for the first time I’m guessing what she means, this Joy. It’s news that is very difficult for her, for her husband of more than half a century, this man who will celebrate his 75th birthday next week. He’s a changed and changing man, a man of love now. He says he’s ready to fight, ready to go home when his time has come too. It’s difficult this surprise.

King starts his book of Joy Davidman’s letters with her poem, “Yet One More Spring,” in which, very beautifully, she writes of the despair of dying, of her death. It’s as if she’s prophesying, writing for someone she loves dearly. And this she’s written long before these conversions had ever begun.

“Out of my bone the jointed corn,” is one of her lines as she wonders how her body will be absorbed and answers the question of her first line of the poem, “What will come of me.”

I wish I had time to reproduce the entire poem. Here are just the final few stanzas that continue to speak of surprise:

But I would be more than a cold voice of flowers
And more than water, more than sprouting earth
Under the quiet passion of the spring;
I would leave you the trouble of my heart
To trouble you at evening; I would perplex you
With lightning coming and going about my head,
Outrageous signs, and wonders; I would leave you
The shape of my body filled with images,
The shape of my mind filled with imaginations,
The shape of myself. I would create myself
In a little fume of words and leave my words
After my death to kiss you forever and ever.

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4 responses to “Surprised by Joy

  1. we wait with you – that’s a phrase in the psalm I was reading yesterday (27:14)
    wait on יְהוָה
    be resolute and he will assure your heart
    so wait on יְהוָה
    and this morning the midrash blog let me hear the spirit weeping for her children – Rachel – Ruach-el – nice word play. Reminds me of the play in the Song on the names of the animals.
    So the Spirit is Israel’s first love.

  2. Thanks, Bob, for this very meaningful word! If I were to say Words fail, you my friend know what I mean. And also thanks for the wordplay.

  3. Kurk, I just read this post of yours. I’m glad you could read some of Surprised by Joy to your family. I’m guessing you yourself are experiencing some surprise and joy, as well as sadness (which can co-exist with joy), as your father’s cancer eats up more of him. I wish you well on this section of the road .

  4. Thanks Wayne. Just woke up from a dream in which my son was also diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, so I guess my father’s cancer is somehow eating up more than just him: it’s gnawing away profoundly at my subconsciousnesses. Thank you for reading here, and more thanks for your comment and your kind wish!

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