lenten journal: shield the joyous


    My day started with a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of coffee, and this prayer of Saint Augustine, which is part of the Compline in the Book of Common Prayer and found in Nora Gallagher’s book:

    Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.

    She records her brother’s response:

    Shield the joyous. I like that. When you are joyful, you need a shield.

    I read the prayer to Ginger as she was getting ready for work and she repeated the phrase thoughtfully: “Shield the joyous.”

    I’m a big fan of verbs. They’re the best card we have to play in English. When I studied Greek in seminary, I learned that language was driven by nouns, which could be packaged in several different cases. Not English. We rely on action – and the verb is the action word – so much so that we try to turn our nouns into verbs. My new pet peeve is people saying they “were gifted” something. No. We already have a verb for that: they were given a gift. All of that to say I went back to the prayer to look at the verbs.

    • tend the sick
    • give rest to the weary
    • bless the dying
    • soothe the suffering
    • pity the afflicted
    • shield the joyous

    The five verbs that precede shield feel like the natural partners for the needs to be met. What we can do best for those who are sick is tend to them – take care of them. The answer to weariness is rest. Bless is packed full of forgiveness and compassion for those who are coming to the end of their days. Certainly those who are suffering need words and actions that lessen the pain. In Augustine’s day, pity was not about feeling sorry for someone but was also a word of compassionate action. All the recipients are vulnerable and fragile. In Augustine’s mind, so were the joyous. They needed to be shielded.

    Joy is fragile.

    I’ve never really thought about it that way, which makes me feel kind of stupid because the more I think about it the more obvious it seems. It’s fragile because it’s fleeting. Whatever the moment or the experience, there’s another moment quick on it’s heels. Perhaps that was part of Jesus’ point on the mountain after the Transfiguration when Peter wanted to build a small hotel and stay up there, caught in a moment of joy. “Wrong,” said Jesus in so many words. “We’ve got to go back.” When the returned to the others, everyone was in such a frenzy that no one asked what had happened. I realize there’s room to talk about joy as something at the core of our beings, thanks to God’s presence, but when we experience joy it’s at the thin places of life when it rises to the surface. Those don’t last long.

    Joy is fragile because it’s unfamiliar. I work with a lot of really good people who I think don’t expect joy in their lives. They know about the pursuit of happiness and love to have a good time, but as I watch some of them they seem to have allowed themselves to choose to believe that this is the way life is: you go to work, you party when you can, and you live with a lot of shit. Some of them have good reason to think that’s the way life works, based on what they’ve been through. It makes me sad and it makes me understand the prayer better. If I could give any of them a chance to expect joy in their lives, I would want them to be shielded long enough to know it was real.

    It’s also fragile because it’s so basic. In the Periodic Table of Life, it is an essential element, just like suffering. Though I make no claim to being any sort of scientist, I’m going to take my shot at a chemical analogy. I think I remember (from some chemistry class long ago) that some elements are not stable enough to hold together when they hit the air. They have to be protected, shielded, if you will. (And I know you will.) So it takes a lot of work to figure out how to make use of the substance because you have to live with the fact that it’s probably going to fall apart.

    I don’t mean to sound as pessimistic as that last sentence felt when I reread it. Joy is essential to the fabric of our humanity and it isn’t stable when it hits the air. (I think I’ll move on.)

    Though I read his prayer over breakfast, Augustine was praying at the close of the day, which is when I’m writing. He prays for those who have to work the night shift, or are keeping watch, or whose grief has taken away any chance of sleep, and then he moves to his list of vulnerable ones: sick, weary, dying, suffering, afflicted, joyous. As much as anything, he seems to me to be praying that we could all get a good night’s rest from the circumstances of the day. As Hedwyg quotes Madeleine L’Engle, “The problem with life is that it’s so damn daily.”

    And we are so damn human.

    The house is quiet now. All three of my girls did their best to stay awake until I got home from a very long day at work. Our friend Jay is spending the night, so Lola is keeping him company on the couch instead of being tucked in with Ginger and Gracie upstairs, as she always does when he stays with us. The night will be a short respite for us all because tomorrow already feels as though it is rushing to get here. As I think about Augustine’s prayer, I can name at least one person I know that fits each definition, so I will close by writing it one more time:

    Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.



    1. Beautiful! I have always loved that prayer at Compline. “Shield the joyous” struck me as strange at first, but I came to see how important it is, too. We are very vulnerable when we are experiencing joy. A hurt can be so much more devastating when it comes at a particularly joyous time, than if it comes when we’re just okay.

      (And BTW, thanks for the nod!)

    2. Thank you – your writing is so full of truth and life. My friend Anna is in hospital with her baby daughter who may not live for very long. She needs this prayer as her sorrow will no doubt last much longer than every hard-won joy.

    3. I have tagged you with the Thinking Blogger award. You don’t have to do the meme. But I did want to let me readers (all 10 of them) know about your blog. Your writing has led me to observe Lent this year–something I haven’t done in years.

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