Sunday, 30 June 2013

"I acted and behold service was joy"

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

I love these words of wisdom by Rabindranath Tagore. There is such a universal truth revealed within them. A truth I have known from time to time. Even in the midst of difficulty, through service, I have experienced joy and happiness. I have learnt, although sometimes I do still forget, that beauty, truth and meaning truly emerges in and through love and service for life. Through giving myself fully to life I know joy; I know the joy of being alive. I sing the joy of living. Life has taught me that it truly is in giving that we receive.

Through faith in life itself, by giving ourselves fully to life, we know joy. Joy is an attribute of a full, rich and deeply meaningful life. It is radically different to fun, pleasure and happiness, these are merely emotional qualities. Joy is a spiritual quality that is present within us, despite life’s circumstances. Joy is about connection, intimate connection. When I know joy I am at one with life and with myself.

I was recently sat with a friend, his partner and their new born daughter Erin. It was an absolute joy to be in their company and to see the utter bliss that they were experiencing in this new life that had taken over theirs. Now this friend is also experiencing grief and pain right now as he has lost a very dear friend to an illness both he and I have found merciful release from. He is not in denial of the pain of his grief, he is feeling it deeply, that said at the same time he is able to truly know the joy in the life of his daughter. It is a joy we have all known I am sure in one way or another. The joy though is not just in the person, it comes in the connection he is experiencing  My friend’s joy is in that sense of connection he experiences between himself, his partner and their daughter, they are one, they are the one undivided whole. It is beautiful to behold.

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I often feel this kind of joy in the company of people who are willing to truly be themselves, to let their guards down and truly let go. I feel it in the company of certain old mates and I often experience in Cafe Nero on a Tuesday morning after the weekly meditation I attend. In that time there is a real sense of connection, of being fully alive, of utter joy. This Tuesday morning time brings to mind some words by Walt Whitman I recently encountered.

“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
Laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm
Ever so lightly around his or her neck for a moment,
What is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”

“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, Laughing flesh is enough,”

Those couple of hours I share on a Tuesday morning, is utter bliss, complete joy and deeply inspirational. During this time I experience utter connection.

Now there are those who will say that joy is for the immature, the blind, the Pollyanna’s of life. How can you know joy when we are surrounded by so much unhappiness, when there is so much misery in the world? They say that life is not filled with joy, but, misery and suffering. The epitome of the anti joy brigade would be someone like Thomas Hobbes who in “The Leviathan” wrote:

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

I will repeat the last few words “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”

Not a lot of joy to be found there me thinks...maybe maybe not...

Carl Scovel, whose writing was much loved by my old minister John Midgely, has taken a very different view of life. The heart of his faith was something he described as the “Great Surmise” at a talk he delivered at the 1994 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly he described what he meant by it:

“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, finite, but this good intent in creation is our source, our centre, and our destiny...Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

Life really is about how we see things, our perspective. Is life “Nasty, brutish and short”...Maybe, maybe not?

Or is it a “Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy ”...Maybe, maybe not?

Joy for life itself can be known even during life’s troubles and difficulties. The people Jesus spoke to 2,000 years ago were not living easy and comfortable lives. Those people knew about conflict, oppression, tragedy and almost constant grief. He told them that all that was wonderful, life-giving, life affirming, all that is meaningful was theirs. He said to them “Enter into my kingdom with joy.” He also told them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

The kingdom he spoke of can be with us right here right now, we can know and experience the commonwealth of love right here, right now. And how can we know it? Well by following the commandment to love one another. Now please do not confuse this with some mushy sentiment; love is not this at all; love is an act, it is a way of being. The commonwealth of love comes into being by giving ourselves fully to life, to one another; through giving ourselves fully to life and to one another we truly realise the joy of living.

Tagore said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

This is the purpose of the religious life to awaken joy through service to and for one another. Joy is about connection, intimate connection. When we give of ourselves to others and to life we know the joy that is truly living. That said when we live only for ourselves and live dis-connected from life, we quickly become joyless once again, we lose faith in God given life, our experience of life becomes dulled and meaningless.

True religion is all about connection; it’s about re-binding all of life together. It’s also about commitment, to each other and to life itself. I make that commitment in so many ways, I especially do so during that Tuesday morning meditation group. I see that same connection in the relationship that my friend and his partner have with their daughter.  These are commitments of love, they are commitments of service on so many different levels; service to something more than self; service that brings joy to life.

Tagore said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

We can make that dream a reality; we can make joy a reality. It becomes a reality through love and service to and for one another. For it is in giving that we all receive.

As Gandhi wisely pointed out “...even as we serve others we are working on ourselves; every act, every word, every gesture of genuine compassion naturally nourishes our own hearts as well. It is not a question of who is healed first. When we attend to ourselves with compassion and mercy, more healing is made available for others. And when we serve others with an open and generous heart, great healing comes to us."

It is in these moments that we truly know joy. Not by chasing after it, like a kite that’s blown away in a storm. We will never catch up with it that way and even if we do it will get blown away come the next storm. Instead it comes to us when we give ourselves fully to life and those around us and connect to it all that is. It is in these moments that we realise that life itself is a joy.

To live life fully is to know joy; to live life fully is to serve one another; to serve one another is to be fulfilled; to be fulfilled is to experience and to know joy.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”


  1. Beautiful, powerful text. Thank you for so much truth, inspiration and beauty.