“The weatherman says it’s miserable, but the snow is so beautiful….”
Indeed, snow would be an improvement on the view out my window this morning. The gray sky is alternating between spitting tiny drops of water and raining so hard the sound on the roof is deafening. With the lights off, it could be late evening in my office, even though the work day has barely started. It’s cold out and getting colder, but only enough to be uncomfortable. No snow for us this time around. Everything looks soggy, shrouded in fog, unapproachable. Miserable.
Misery is easy to come by most of the time, but especially on dark, damp days when the chill seems to seep into your cells and and your thoughts and your very soul. Periods of darkness, long stretches of waiting, seasons of change or heartbreak or uncertainty–these breed misery. I think about the emotional genius of J.K Rowling on days like today: her joy- and soul-stealing dementors, known for absorbing every speck of goodness and light from whatever space they occupy, create dank, misty days when they are reproducing. How perfectly appropriate. It’s also perfectly appropriate that Rowling’s cure for dementor threats is joy.
“In order for [the patronus charm] to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation ‘Expecto Patronum.’” -Remus Lupin (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
A patronus takes the form of an animal unique to each individual and is made of pure light, which repels dementors. It’s important to note that not just any random pleasant thought is adequate for producing a patronus. The feeling you get when you take that first sip of coffee in the morning is nice, but it won’t cut it, nor will your memory of winning a soccer game or a flashback of your first kiss. The magic only works when there’s true joy at the source, and we forget what joy looks like a lot of the time. We confuse happiness and joy with pleasure and excitement and temporary satisfaction. We boldly proclaim that “cake brings us joy” or that we are “so happy to have gotten a good deal on that car.” I can assure you, if you’re staring down a dementor and you need to expecto patronum, cakes and cars will not get the job done.
Expecto patronum translates (if a little loosely) from Latin to “I await a protector” or “I’m hoping for a guardian.” I don’t care how you feel about the Harry Potter franchise, I think we can agree that a common theme of Advent season is expecto patronum. I am so broken: I await a protector. I am weak and weary: I’m hoping for a guardian. It is so dark and scary: expecto patronum. Isaiah says, hundreds of years before Jesus was born,
“…there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest…for unto us a child is born…and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace….” (Isaiah 9: 1-6, NIV)
He is telling these miserable people to hang tight, because help is coming. The light is dawning. A protector is on the way! Expecto patronum! He is telling them everything is going to be okay. Rejoice! I mean, sure, it’s going to be a while, he might have added. But it’s going to happen. Find your joy. Expecto patronum.
Feeling miserable when misery is afoot is the path of least resistance. No energy is required to lie down and let your current circumstances run you over. Enemy soldiers and tyrant kings. Illness, political corruption, social injustice, poverty. Doubt and fear and uncertainty. Dementors. So many of us lose our souls to our oppressors, either because we cannot see joy through the darkness surrounding us, or because we have forgotten what real joy is. We learn in the third Harry Potter novel that dementors guard the wizard prison, and that the inmates are so filled with despair and anguish–so devoid of happiness–that there’s no threat of a stray patronus. Joy simply doesn’t exist there. Later we learn that only real, deep, genuine joy can conjure a patronus. It must be the life-giving, heart-filling sort of happiness–unconditional, sacrificial love, for example–that is so immense it’s almost terrifying, because holy shit, how can I live without this now that I know what it feels like? And that is what makes it patronus-worthy: the indelible mark it makes on you, the part that stays with you even when the moments or years or decades of joy have ended.
We have a pretty significant advantage over the weary waiters whose lives were shrouded in darkness in the years before Jesus was born–we no longer have to wait for our protector. He already came and fulfilled His mission, and He left us some clear instructions to follow: be joyful, let your light shine, love each other, take care of your people, just to name a few. And even though he also left us with this great eternal hope, the world we live in is hostile and ugly and teeming with dementors. But we were not created for despair, we were created for joy–and the difference between the two is a choice. A choice to see the light and feel His warmth and conjure up our own magical light shield to fight off our dementors, or to be consumed by ugliness.
There’s a phrase in “Here it Is,” hands down my favorite song from Over the Rhine’s reality Christmas collection, that always stops me in my tracks: the scary, scary beauty of what’s right here. That’s how I would describe the kind of joy that conquers darkness and dementors. You are filled with it, and changed by it–it is permanently tattooed on every atom of your being, and it makes you weak in the knees and powerful beyond measure. It is love, pure and simple. The love you feel for your children, your spouse, your closest friends, the love they give back to you. The love God had for us when He looked down into our darkness and sent the greatest patronus of all time. And it is yours for the choosing. All you have to do is close your eyes, let it fill you up, and ask. Expecto patronum. I promise you, the answer will always be, “Here it is.”
Somewhere down the road
We’ll lift up our glass lass
And toast the moment
And moments past
The heartbreak and laughter
The joy and the tears
The scary, scary beauty
Of what’s right here
I’m wrappin’ up my love this Christmas
And here it is
“Here it Is”
Lyrics by Linford Detweiler, performed by Karin Bergquist/Over the Rhine