Caring for Joy

Narrative, Theology, and Practice

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Mary Clark Moschella
Theology in Practice


This book by Mary Clark Moschella, professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale, explores how those doing demanding work that they feel called to do sustain connections to life-giving sources of joy. In this constructive task she uses both biography and “ethnography,” employing tools explored in her earlier book, Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction (Pilgrim Press, 2008)For Moschella, pastoral theology's focus on being present with suffering caused pastoral theology to neglect the importance of joy in the context of discipleship—both in ordained ministry and in work for justice. She explores the topic of joy by drawing on the biographies of Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark; the spiritual director, author, and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen; director of a gang outreach program known as Homeboy Ministries, Roman Catholic priest Gregory Boyle; civil rights activist and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray; and Paul Farmer, who works to bring medical services to the poor in Haiti while also teaching at Harvard Medical School. This book explores how pastoral workers connect to joy while not being blind to suffering. By rooting her pastoral case within narratives, Moschella shows how joy is possible through the stories of those who have found it amid their work.

The first chapter explores joy's place as it is explained in science and philosophy.  This empirical grounding to the exploration of specific biographies of individuals that follow in later chapters. Drawing on sophisticated studies on the relationship between emotion and cognition, she explains the ways that joy is an action-shaping emotion. The chapter moves on to the latest in neuroscience to show how our developmental patterns are affected by the way that joy can shape our hormonal patterns. 

Turning from theory to stories of ministry, the first biography the book explores is that of the Rev. Heidi Neumark, former pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in an economically depressed area of the South Bronx. Moschella explores Neumark's autobiography, Breathing Space (Beacon Press, 2003). Neumark continually references both scriptures and Christian mystics, finding in these texts God's promises and laments. She holds up Neumark's own practices of embodied relationships with her community and family as models for understanding the way God keeps us centered and joyful. She also notes the importance of Neumark's use of writing to step back from the demands of ministry to process and grieve.

Moschella then explores the life and struggles of well-known spiritual writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. Since Nouwen's death, there has been more public acknowledgment of his anguish over his loneliness, his sexuality, and his need for intimacy. The book explores those difficulties, relating them to how, amidst profound struggle, Nouwen stayed centered on community and the celebration of the Eucharist as a way of finding joy and connection to God. But Moschella finds in Nouwen's story a lesson in how the acceptance of our own suffering can open us to the suffering of others and make room for joy in our lives. 

From there, Moschella turns to another story, this one of Father Greg Boyle, known for his work among the gangs of Los Angeles. Boyle states that compassion means standing with the other that “stands in awe of what the poor have to carry instead of judgment about how they carry it” (98). This chapter explores one of the central tensions in faithful Christian ministry, that the love pastoral workers have for the people they serve and the overwhelming needs of those people can lead individuals to burn out. Here, Moschella refuses the easy answer to the problem of burn out, which makes it psychological only, and instead explores its sometimes spiritual roots. Boyle admitted that when he was burned out, he stopped praying. Boyle lost his connection with the real source of joy, the God who had called him to serve among the gangs in Los Angeles. Moschella notes that Boyle is deeply rooted in his belief that we are called to relationships of love and that in our love for one another God is found and joy can be found as well. 

Caring for Joy next turns to Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist, priest, and lawyer. Her life helps to explore the topic of joy in the difficult work of social justice which is no less a call on the Christian than is a life of service in ministry, which Murray also performed. Murray worked to attend college in New York, and after losing a legal battle when she refused to sit in the “assigned” seats on a segregated bus traveling in Richmond, Virginia, attended the Howard University School of Law. Her career as a lawyer and her resistance to injustice allowed her to find joy. She later connected her faith and her justice work, becoming the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, serving a parish in Baltimore. 

Finally, the book turns to the story of the well-known activist and physician Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health. Farmer was deeply influenced by liberation theology. In the practice of accompaniment, Farmer sees himself as working to understand how Partners in Health can help people thrive where they are, with the conviction that the communities often know better than “outsiders” what that flourishing consists of. Farmer is also sustained by the idea of medicine as “vocation.” Yet Farmer's work is also sustained by its visible effects; as a doctor, he can make a big difference in the health of his patients, even as his organization works to create wider ecosystems of flourishing. 

Caring for Joy turns from stories back to the practice of pastoral care. Its closing chapter focuses on practical issues that are raised in pastoral care and secular therapy. Moschella closes on the relationship between narrative and the care of joy. This chapter draws from theories of narrative therapy on how we can explore and frame our own stories in more joyful ways. 

This is a rich and important book on joy in pastoral work and life. By setting the work in the context of both science and narrative theory, this is a truly wise book of practical and pastoral theology. The Baptist theologian James McClendon recommended looking at exemplary Christian lives as a source for theology but few theologians have taken that route. Here, Moschella has done so in abundance. For putting the topic of joy back on the map of pastoral and practical theology, this book will appeal to those who work in pastoral theology and in pastoral ministry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice of East Carolina.

Date of Review: 
February 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Clark Moschella is the Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction, and many other publications in pastoral and practical theology.


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