meaningful mondays: exploring joy

[So that I can share my weekly faith columns that run in our daily newspaper, Meaningful Mondays will be a duplication of those essays, published Saturdays in The Forum and reprinted here with permission.]

Living Faith: Contemplating my word for 2013 – joy

By Roxane B. Salonen, The Forum

It starts sometime between November and December – the ruminating over our word of the year.

“Have you thought of yours yet?” she asks.

“Getting closer, but I haven’t pegged it quite yet,” I reply.

My friend Mary started this little exercise several years ago as a new year blogging challenge, and I quickly latched on. Since then, we’ve inspired others to similarly choose a word at the top of the year to define the one upcoming.

Though it’s not a complete science, the result tends to be a mix of hope along with our reality of the moment of choosing. Most years we revel at how synchronous our word and year turned out.

Because it’s what I was feeling at the time and wanted to hold onto, I chose “joy” for 2013.

My choice begs a bit of an explanation, however. After all, if I were to set out believing every day of my 2013 would be happy, almost inevitably I’d come out the other end disappointed.

But to me, joy isn’t synonymous with happiness, and that’s why I felt brave enough to lay claim on it.

It was a few years back that my writing friend Emilie Lemmons taught me about the true meaning of joy through a column she wrote for a Twin Cities diocesan newspaper just weeks before her death at age 40.

She’d been to church earlier that week and was lamenting the fact that the church bulletin had suggested cultivating “a joyous mind, heart and spirit.” She was incensed at how a mother with Stage 4 cancer could be asked to do such a thing. Seething, she endured the rest of the service “like a hard stone.”

Later that day, Lemmons picked up the book “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” by Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician and counselor who had done spiritual work with cancer patients.

In it, a passage on joy stood out, she recalled, through which Remen had mentioned “people with terrible illnesses who nonetheless choose to show up for whatever life may offer.” She’d described them as “intensely alive, intensely present.”

Lemmons further quoted Remen: “I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness. Joy seems to be a part of an unconditional will to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations.”

Remen concluded that joy seems a function of the willingness to accept the whole and to show up to meet with whatever is there and, in that way, “seems more closely related to aliveness than happiness.”

Lemmons thought of the passage later when, upon opening a gift from friends, she burst into tears. She recognized them as tears of joy, she wrote, but said they seemed to be “coming from the same place deep inside me where my sorrow dwells. It was as if joy and sorrow were intermingled in an intense response to life.”

Her column concluded on a hopeful note, and though Lemmons succumbed to the cancer shortly thereafter, I have to believe she is now experiencing a joy that never ends.

After I shared Emilie’s column on my blog recently, a friend sent me a quote she couldn’t attribute but had given her hope in a time of difficulty: “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is being full of the presence of God.”

It is here where I find my definition of joy and why I chose it as my theme word for 2013.

I expect neither bliss nor perfection in the coming year. But if I can cultivate joy through working on my relationship with God and, through that, be more often than not “full of the presence of God,” my year will, indeed, be joy-filled.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email