An Infallible Secret of Joy | Dreaming Beneath the Spires

Anita Mathias

I have always hungrily sought joy–primarily in reading and poetry as a child and teen…  And, having lived in some beautiful places in my life, such as Nainital in the Himalayas during boarding school; and in Norham Gardens, facing the University Parks, for two years as an undergraduate at Oxford, I’ve almost unconsciously relied on natural beauty to lift my mood.

The first house that my husband Roy and I bought (in 1992, in cash, since the church we then attended taught, correctly!, that debt was a menace) though rambling and roomy, was in a city street in Minneapolis, close to the University of Minnesota where Roy was a postdoc. Houses to the left and right, in front and behind us. Walking through city streets, I’d wonder if joy was even possible in a busy twentieth-century city cut off from nature.

I asked a speaker at a retreat this question, and it led to a five-year discipling relationship in exchange for editing his first book. (Miller describes this exchange, significant for both of us, in his excellent A Praying Life.) My spiritual life deepened. I found joy in gardening, running, walking or travelling as a family, movies, gazing at art, reading and writing, in prayer and the Bible, in friendships, and the two book groups I run, but still, it was dappled joy as flickers and lightning bolts, rather than as a settled, abiding state.

My Christian book group has just read a brilliant book, The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard. He elucidates the secret of joy as expressed by New Testament writers. The secret of joy, Willard says, is to accept the life you actually have, with its frustrations, thorns and thistles, “as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing.” Consider trials and suffering pure joy, the Apostle James writes, and even rejoice in them, the Apostle Paul says, because they develop perseverance, character and maturity. And these we need for a fruitful, happy, and successful life.

Our bodies can only become super-flexible through yoga and stretching; super-strong through lifting weights and resistance exercises; and gain endurance through long-distance runs or walks. Mastery, whether in writing or mathematics, only comes through homoeopathic doses of suffering… the more distractions and low-value activities we sacrifice for our craft, the better we get. And accepting the demands of life cheerfully—the discipline necessary to maintain good health, a tidy home, healthy relationships, and to work well, make money and save money—develops character.

Hassles, pain, illness, injustice, slander and long-deferred dreams are all things we can validly pray to be delivered from; “deliver us from evil,” we implore in the Lord’s Prayer, or as Jabez famously puts it, “Bless me so that I will be free from pain.” But burdens and challenges come as teachers. They tattoo lessons onto our skins and implant them in our brains.

I’ve gained my deepest convictions through failures and mistakes, for instance, reading or working so intensely, for so long, that I burn out.  These convictions include:

  • Get your house tidy before you read or write.
  • Make sure your body is happy before you read or write. Keeping your body happy helps keep your mind, spirit, and emotions happy. Burn off bad moods by running. As Rick Warren writes (in deeply wise daily emails you should subscribe toJ), If you want to change anything, start by changing your body.
  • Practice intermittent fasting. It will help you lose weight, and remember to pray. (I’ve lost 82 pounds. J)
  • Avoid sugar and carbs.
  • Be friends with God. “Abide” in Jesus. If you are stressed, stop; re-establish peace with God before doing anything else.
  • Hey, forgive. Drop things into God’s hands; ask him to bring good from them.
  • Trust God. Drop life’s sadnesses, worries and conundrums into his hands.

And more recent “learnings.”

  • “People are God’s treasures,” in Dallas Willard’s phrase. How you treat people matters to God.
  • Prioritise friendship. Get together with friends twice a week. Have meaningful conversations. Life is too short for “small” talk.
  • All money is God’s money. Don’t fret about it. God is the giver.
  • Wait twenty-four hours before writing contentious emails!

This is a secret of joy: “In everything give thanks,” as the Apostle Paul writes, because God, the great artist, can bring extreme goodness out of anything–character flaws, broken relationships, wasted time and effort, financial losses, life’s thousand sadnesses.  He is creative, wily and kind enough to do so. So train yourself to be happy, even grateful, in the murk and mud.

So I preach to myself–Count it all joy: the admin, the tedium, the hassles.  You are becoming strong by hefting the weights of life. You are developing the character you’ll need to do what you really want to do with your life. Your failures teach you what you must learn to get good at life. And sometimes you’ll turn to God in desperation, and the Spirit will have his “dark descending,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase, and pour God’s love into your heart. You will increasingly experience it—great waves of the love of God, shaking you.


I have published a memoir recently, Rosaries, Reading, Secrets: A Catholic Childhood in India, a passion project which took longer than it reasonably should have done.

Links–UK, US . Available wherever Amazon sells books, and through other online booksellers.

I would love you to read it.

A decade or so ago, the blogger and writer Jeff Goins offered to read a blog post, have a look at one’s blog site, and have a skype chat about both of them with anyone who bought his first book and sent him the receipt. Well, I was just experimenting with blogging, so I did, and he did. And I found it helpful.

So, now that I am figuring out creative ways to get my memoir into the hands of readers, I would like to offer something similar.

1 Buy a copy of the book in whichever country you are,

2A leave me a review on your Amazon site, 2B and pop it over onto Goodreads,

3 then send a screenshot or link to receipt and review to [email protected] and also your WhatsApp number (or we could connect on Facebook Messenger, Skype or Zoom, Google Hangouts) and we’ll have a 15 minute chat,joy video or audio as you prefer.

A conversation…about what? Anything you’d like to talk about, ask about, or discuss; anything you think I might be able to help you with. Here are some of my passions and interests: Writing. Reading. Prayer. The Bible. Theology and theological questions. (Hearing the voice of God. Spiritual disciplines like fasting).  The ketogenic diet and exercise (on which I’ve lost 82 pounds). Running book groups. Travel. Gardening. Decluttering. Any thorny issues you’d like to talk or prayer through. Parenting and universities (my younger daughter is in her final year of medicine at Oxford University, and my older daughter, who did Theology at Oxford Uni  is now training to be an Anglican priest at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, while working on an M.Phil. Both agreed I could add parenting to this list!! :-).

I will definitely chat to everyone who buys a copy and reviews it, at the rate of one or two people a day, first come, first served, until I’ve chatted with everyone :-). Thank you.

© Anita Mathias. First published on

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