I’ve always known this in theory: Joy, at its core, is linked directly to the core of a person. It isn’t an emotion, nor is it dependent on the surroundings. It is happens on the inside.
I think about this kind of joy when I lower the garden tomatoes into the boiling water.
I stir. Those plump red orbs bob and bounce in boiling water.
I’ve known saints who’ve endured the blistering sufferings of this life, and I’ve seen the agony as they’ve gone through the fire. I’ve sobbed with them as they grieved incalculable losses, faced fears of Everest proportions, received word of hopeless diagnoses. And I have secretly feared that the horrors of life would snuff out their innocent light.
But I’ve witnessed their joy in suffering: It is not slapped-on happy. It is the gentle hand that reaches back around, maybe years later, to find the people who are just now passing through the waters. And true, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I’ve seen it enough to know that joy can look exactly like this — like an age-spotted, gnarled hand on the shoulder of a 40-year-old woman.
Steam rises from my pot. The water churns the tomatoes for fifteen seconds, but right there in the heat, it might feel like forever. Especially when all you want is out.
If you’re going through hell, Winston Churchill said, keep going.
I spoon out the tomatoes, placing each in an icy bath — part of the blanching process.
I remember, too, the saints who’ve endured the coldest journeys. They’ve never felt the experiential God that others sang about in the sanctuary. Yet I’ve seen this: how they press in behind the Savior anyway, picking up a cross and walking behind their invisible King.
In the heat and the cold, I’ve watched parts of people die. I’ve watched parts of myself die.
That’s not all bad.
I pick up a tomato from the icy bath, and am surprised at how easily layers of once-tough skin peel back. The tomatoes are soft in my hands.
I don’t think there’s a “right way” to suffer, to grieve, to endure.
But I’ve seen the sacredness of suffering, how the heartbroken have crawled on their knees through the trenches, and come out, somehow, miraculously with a heart intact, a heart more tender to the sufferings of others.
They know the pain of the fire, the loneliness of bitter-cold, and the vulnerability of this peeling back.
And yes, I’ve seen people recoil. I know people who had too much burned and peeled away. The rest turned hard as stone.
I’ve known a woman who shuddered in the cold, dark night of doubt for years. I used to look at her in the mirror every morning.
But I know this too, because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. I know that saints are born in the fire of adversity, and in the cold of doubt, and in the peeling of holy refinement.
The saints don’t wear wings and halos, but every morning, they put on denim and T-shirts. They don’t play harps on fluffy clouds, but they sing in my church choir. No one ever gave them a medal of honor, or a gilded certificate, but I can run my finger down the church directory to find their names. Their dates are etched in granite at our church cemetery, across the road from the steeple.
I’ve seen how true saints can wear the mismatched pairing of suffering and joy.
I’ve seen how people can reach the bottom of their souls, to find that even when their lives have been laid bare, their heart is miraculously intact.
And it is a thing of arresting beauty.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
~ Isaiah 43:2