I had been pondering about joy for a couple of weeks when it greeted me unexpectedly in a crowded hallway one morning. It quickened me with wonder, a sense of flying on the wings of grace while people hurried past. In the hours that followed, I found myself rising to the vibration of the joyful energy within me, ready to shed unhelpful habits and embrace a higher way.

The joy from that moment still occasionally flickers within me in bright flashes that illuminate my soul for an instant, while other times it softly hums the Song of Redeeming Love in the background. The song soothes me when I start feeling overwhelmed and lean into it to breathe in a bit more light to get through the day. While the joy I feel can catch me by surprise, other times I seek it and it seems to elude me like a radio station I cannot quite tune into. There are periods of my life like the weeks following joy’s unexpected hallway visit when I sense joy settling more deeply into an abiding presence in my life.

Helga Meyer

This little rebirth of joy helps me better understand the theme of joy in Helga Meyer’s memoir, Under a Leafless Tree: The Story of a Mormon Girl From East Prussia, coauthored by my mother, Lark Evans Galli.

Since she passed away less than three years ago, I miss Helga’s ready laugh and the beauty of her “German tongue” as she affectionately spoke to those around her.[1] I remember how she often encouraged the people sitting next to her in church on fast Sundays to bear their testimonies, and how her deep love for everyone in our ward could cause her heartache when any among us were struggling physically or spiritually.

Helga was my mother’s visiting teacher, and upon hearing stories of her coming of age in World War II Germany such as an aerial attack on Hitler’s birthday, hiding from drunken soldiers, and being near starvation, my mother eventually began recording Helga’s memories and writing her story.

As one reader of the resulting book Under a Leafless Tree noted, what is remarkable about the Helga’s story is that “she does not dwell on the negative or morose elements of her story.”[2] Instead, the unbridled joy that was evident in Helga’s way of living is a theme running through her narrative. In rereading it I sought to understand the essence of joy: what it is, how it can remain with a person during the darkest times, and what it reveals about godliness.

Although it is the reason for our mortal existence (men and women are that we might have joy), joy can be challenging to conceptualize. I believe that joy like peace “passeth all understanding.” Comprehending joy can be particularly difficult for those who struggle with depression or any other condition that leaves them feeling estranged from joy for a season. While we may not understand all the reasons God allows this to happen, we know that joy is our birthright, and as we “live after the manner of happiness” our tears will give way to joy.

When Jesus was preparing His apostles for his impending death, he gently suggested that in a little while they would not see him, and they would experience weeping, lamentation, and sorrow as a woman experiences in labor. However, they would see Him again and no man would be able to take away their joy (John 16:19-22). We can take comfort in His promise when we are enduring the labor pains of our life’s work, knowing that the joy is “set before [us]” as it was for Him.

Although a measure of “joy cometh in the morning,” one thing so evident in Helga’s story and her demeanor itself is that joy is offered to the faithful even in and through tribulation. While a common dictionary definition of joy is “a feeling of great pleasure or happiness,” the word that I feel best accompanies joy is “enduring.” It has the power to abide with a person and continually enlighten her through difficulty. Helga said of her experience getting baptized in a river at the age of ten on a cool and stormy day:

“That happiness has never left me. This is what makes me strong. I didn’t realize that being baptized would bring me so much joy. The joy just wanted to come out, and instead of walking along nicely to church that Sunday, I was hopping along because I was full of joy and happiness. I am so grateful for that. I was so happy that I was a member of the church. I am as happy today as I was that day.” [3]

Rather than being simply a fleeting emotion, joy exists all around us wherever the Song of Redeeming Love is sung. All things testify of Christ, and they witness of His love aloud for anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand His ways. I believe that many who do not yet know of Christ find themselves humming along or even singing the song brilliantly as it leads them to Him.

While Helga may not have spent the rest of her life hopping along in response to the heights of exhilaration she felt following her baptism, she describes feeling an enduring joy that remained apparent to all around her throughout her life. She reminded me of the sister Elder Bednar described who affirmed in a testimony meeting, “I have great joy because of the Father’s plan of salvation.”[4] She knew her joy came from the Song of Redeeming Love, and as she continued singing it, it was visible as light to those around her. Elder Bednar recounted, “The light that shone in her eyes, the spiritually dignified tone of her voice, her bright and peaceful countenance—everything about her affirmed the truthfulness of what she was saying. She was filled with joy. She radiated joy. Indeed, she was becoming more like the Savior and receiving His image in her countenance (see Alma 5:14), a part of which was becoming joyful.”

I wondered how Helga could cultivate such joy in her countenance when she also knew how it was “when the bombs are falling, when something is burning, and somebody dies.”[5] While her hardships were extreme, she recognized that she is not unique in experiencing challenges and that “Life is really a struggle for anybody at any time.”[6]

At the end of her book, Helga offers some insight into how her practice of gratitude, singing the Song of Redeeming Love aloud in the mornings, opened the way for joy:

“Even when I was married, but especially now since I am alone, when I wake up, I say out loud, ‘I thank thee, my Father in Heaven, for being alive, for having the gospel in my life.’ Other people might think, Maybe she is a little crazy, but I do need that. When I am alone and reading the scriptures, my heart is full of thankfulness. I have many tender tears of joy. Every time I read the Book of Mormon, it gets more precious. Every scripture, the light is shining on it. You can be alone, but you don’t need to feel lonely if you have a strong testimony of the gospel.”[7]

While Helga found this joy particularly during times of solitude, she also recognized that it can be continually rekindled through strong connections with family and community. Under a Leafless Tree is full of memories of how she deeply enjoyed the company of others. It occurs to me that the word joy is an essential element of “en-joy-ment” which stems from Old French enjoir, “to give joy, rejoice, take delight.” In his BYU address on October 22, 2019, David Brooks thoughtfully describes the joy that community connections can bring: “That is what happens in a community. The behaviors, the norms, and the gifts get replicated and spread around by people who are deeply engaged and deeply seeing one another. To me, the end result of all this is a sort of joyfulness.”[8]

I think David Brooks really captures why one can feel such joy in the company of others in this statement: “Happiness is the expansion of self, but joy is the merger of self. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you forget where you end and something else begins, when you really are seeing deeply into each other.”[9] Helga was one who looked into people’s eyes, smiled, and spoke as if she were seeing them deeply. The common greeting in India “namaste” is often interpreted to mean, “I see the divine within you.” I believe that when we see one another deeply enough, the divine within us recognizes the divine in the other person and we find ourselves resonating together with the Song of Redeeming Love.

David Brooks expressed that a person may feel happy alone (through accomplishments), but joy was something more. It is a curious question whether it is possible to feel joy in complete isolation, and I agree with him that it is not. Understanding the communal nature of joy helps explain why Helga found such joy by herself in the mornings. In her times of greatest solitude (of which she had many, such as being parted from her family during the war, and living as a widow, a single mother, and a divorcee) she felt joy because she was never alone. She constantly knocked on the door of her Savior and her Heavenly Parents, and kept knocking through the darkest times I can imagine, and they answered. Clearly, Helga’s Heavenly Parents were continually orchestrating her life and knocking at the door of her heart as well, sending her dreams and guidance even many times when she chose not to listen. The other day I told my mother that Helga’s story was truly a love story, full of her love for God, God’s love for her, and her desire to share that love with all who knew her.

I still wonder why I felt sudden joy in the hallway one morning, but I accept it as a gift. At a time when I had been trying to comprehend joy in preparation to write this essay, the Lord extended His love to me in a moment as if to say, “This is joy.” I believe joy is always about connection. When we feel deeply our connection to nature, to each other, or to God, this is when we hear the Song of Redeeming love running through all things, and feel the joy of being One that the Savior promises all His children.

[1] Helga Meyer and Lark Galli  Under a Leafless Tree: The Story of a Mormon Girl from East Prussia, 2015 (page xii)
[2] Reader review, Goodreads August 28, 2013
[3]Meyer and Galli, page 38
[4] Elder David A. Bednar, “Jesus Christ: The Source of Enduring Joy.”
[5] Meyer and Galli, page 199
[6] ibid
[7] ibid, page 102
[8] David Brooks “Finding the Road to Character,” BYU Speeches, October 22, 2019
[9] ibid