Archive for March, 2014


Lent (Day 23) — “God Has Brought Laughter to Me”

Martin, in chapter 8, revisits some of the themes from before.  The chief point he seems intent on making in this chapter is that pride sets us apart from one another and God, and that humility, or poverty of spirit, opens us up to that greater world.  And this pride can be a serious sort of pride (I think of Dick Cheney or Antonin Scalia, when I think of this kind of serious pride), but it can be of a different sort — it can be us working so hard at something and then expecting everyone to take note of it (and think “What a good boy (or girl) are you?”), and then getting upset when that doesn’t happen, or when someone forgets an appointment or something and we get all huffy about how “we’ve” been forgotten by some oblivious dolt.  

I was thinking a bit of runner’s highs.  Not that I ever really experienced it, but from what I hear, you can get to a point where you are one with the course, one with the activity of running.  While that is happening, you forget about the bubble around you and are one with your surroundings, one with the activity, and you are aware of the world around you in a special way.  For me, that would be a moment of revelation, and “I live for revelation.”  And that feeling is glorious.  It is not a feeling we can maintain for long periods of time, as that feeling is something akin to ecstasy.  Most of the time we are earthbound and stuck in our heads, but we get glimpses of that overarching unity, of the world in motion around us, but not all about us.  Those moments are glorious, and seem to me as true as anything in the world.  I’d like to think that an awareness of that feeling, of that sense of the world spinning around, but not about me, enables me, when I’m at my best, to be aware when others are making the world all about them, and gently nudging them out of that self-fixation.  But that awareness is often so brief it seems illusory, and the proud and powerful do seem to take control so much that it is difficult to hold on to that greater vision.  Still, it is a vision worth holding onto.  And it’s a vision that leads to forgiveness (including self-forgiveness) and love.  


Lent (Day 22) — what happens when you get up late?

Well, I was planning on publishing thoughts on more of James Martin’s book (I’ve got to return it by April 1), but I managed not to get up early enough this morning to continue reading, so this will be a more free-form meditation.  I’ve been thinking about joy a lot lately (I have to say that Martin’s book has made this a productive Lent — I remember a friend of mine speaking of how Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made his Lenten reflexions a few years back very productive and deeper — though I can’t quite agree with him on that film (I did see it, but will not see it again, in all likelihood), I think I may have some sense of how he felt, so thanks, Fr. Martin).  So, let me reflect on joy and my own spirituality.  I’m thinking that my life has been filled with joy (it’s had tough moments too, but mostly they have not defined me), and when I think of what makes me joyful, I think it is that I find the world ultimately miraculous.  And it may be that sense of miracles that make me think that my own version of Unitarian spirituality is very much of a Catholic variety.  I remember once an old friend of mine saying to me, as we briefly got involved one spring, that when spring came, even before it came, she could feel the sap moving in the trees, and things coming to life.  At the time, part of my motivation in wondering at that statement, and being wowed by it, was that I was quite infatuated with her.  But that infatuation has cooled into a solid friendship, and I still find that statement quite lovely and most powerful.  It’s a most positive affirmation of life, and of saying yes to the world.  It drips with the sort of mysticism that says that the world and I are one.  And when I contemplate our bruised and battered world, I do think that, more than anything else, we need some sense of that connexion, and we need to say yes, and we need to be joyous martyrs all (not to the ossified forms of religion or rigid tenets) but to the wonder of the world and all the beauty therein.  


Lent (Day 21) — “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks…”

In chapter 7 of his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin, SJ lists five FAQs he gets in various lectures and appearances:
1. Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time? Answer: No. Life has many tragic moments filled with incredible sorrow. Not to feel sorrow and loss would be inhuman. He cites the story of Jesus and Lazarus, in which “Jesus wept.” He also noted that when he has teared up at funerals of friends and acquaintances, he has been criticized by some for not focusing on the resurrection but on the earthly passing of someone. Again — he stresses that life is painful at times and not to recognize it is inhuman. But joy can come out of sorrow, and it is possible for humor to lighten the sorrow somewhat.
2. How can I find a sense of joy if I’m unhappy? Though he didn’t emphasize this, my response would be to let it come when it comes, and not to try and force it. Sometimes the way to joy is to let grief and sorrow play themselves out. But an openness to joy can help one get through most trying times.
3. I’m not a funny person. What do I do? Well, some people think they are not funny, but can be, and remaining open to the possibility of that gift is important. But also, it is possible to be around others who are funny and appreciate their gifts. In Martin’s eyes, humor is something akin to gratitude. So appreciating others who are funny can have the same effect as being funny oneself.
4. What can I do if I live or work in a joyless environment? His advice here is tough to follow when all seems dark, but one is not defined by one’s environment, and even the blackest situation has some bright moments, or moments that are incongruous. So, if work is tough, one can find friends to hang around with after work and laugh about the silliness of the workplace. Certainly a lot of great stand-up comics do this very thing, on a big scale.
5. Father Martin, do you want to hear a joke? Answer: Only if it’s a good one! Of course, it makes sense to end this chapter on a joke. But the idea of a “good” joke is double-edged. On the one hand, one wants to hear a funny joke. But on the other hand, one wants to cultivate a positive sense of humor, and not celebrate mean-spirited humor. This chapter seemed to me to be a bit of filler, and I didn’t find it quite as satisfying. Martin went over some of the territory he’s already explored.


Lent (Day 20) — halfway through — Ch. 6 “Laughing in Church”

Martin’s purpose in Ch. 6 is twofold.  First, he wants to suggest that too many church communities are deadly serious.  And when someone in power takes themselves too seriously, the result is often deadly.  And second, there is good humor and bad humor.  Humor meant to demean someone is hurtful and can do quite a bit of damage.  Martin tells a story about himself as a boy — he was watching some sitcom that had edgy humor.  In the context of the show, that edgy humor was a lot of fun, but when he turned one of the edgy humor on a classmate the next day, he could see that the joke (a funny insult) tossed at someone in real life is not funny, but hurtful.  And that misstep has stayed with him throughout his life.  Though he doesn’t spend all his life fretting about this mistake from his youth, I think this is a good kind of guilt — it stays with him, and helps to serve as a reminder to be gentler and more mindful.  Humor used as a weapon is especially hurtful, as ridicule demeans who we are and makes us doubt our inherent worth and dignity.  

So humor can be somewhat risky, but the risks of lack of humor are great too.  The most memorable line from the chapter is: “(W)hen bishops, priests, sisters, brothers…act as if they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, that no job is as difficult as theirs, and they alone are responsible for doing God’s work, then we’re in trouble.”  It is not that the work of the church, or the believer is not great, and seems overwhelming at times, but when the focus becomes us as guardians of God’s way — we’ve already lost focus on the way itself.  


Lent (Day 19) — “A Study in Joy — the Visitation”

As he does, from time to time, in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin now turns from his disquisition on joy to look at a biblical instance of it.  In this brief chapter, or interlude, he looks at the story of the Visitation (the visit by Mary to her sister, Elizabeth, then pregnant with John the Baptist, who leaps for joy in her womb when Mary visits).  The visitation comes after the annunciation, when Mary has been informed by the angel Gabriel, that she is pregnant with he who will be a savior.  Both stories come from the Gospel of Luke.  The stories leading up to the birth of Jesus are of a type with the “birth of the hero” in pagan mythology — a young woman, beloved of some god (usually Zeus), is made pregnant by the god, and then either departs, or is cast aside by her people.  The story of the annunciation and visitation fit this narrative pattern — 1) the young girl finds out that she is now pregnant through some mysterious circumstances, and 2) she goes away (here to help her sister Elizabeth who is also somewhat mysteriously with child — she’s supposed to be too old).  And for pagan listeners (Luke is mainly aiming at the Gentile audience), that similarity would certainly come to mind.  The counter argument that would be made by devout Christians is that the birth of Jesus is an historical incident.  Well, the historical reality of a Jesus, known as the Christ, is most likely.  But this narrative follows the rules of such miraculous births and is not history.  Even if you accept Jesus as a person who did live in the 1st c. AD (or CE), his condition as divine, and Mary’s condition as a virgin, who gives birth somehow miraculously, is still a matter of faith, or of acceptance in some other way.  

That does not change, as I see it, the value of the story.  This is a story, as Martin describes it, of joy and of joyfully accepting God’s will.  Even if you don’t believe in a personal god, it is possible to say “yes” to life, say “yes” to the universe.  And that’s what the story is all about — Mary, a girl who had a lot to be worried about and frightened of (she was a young girl, after all, and pregnant under mysterious circumstances doesn’t win you any friends in a moralistic society), says yes to life.  It is an act of submission, but also an statement of readiness to play a part in the unfolding universe.  Even if one has no choice — one’s in the game of life whether one likes it or not — saying yes to it, and stepping up, is a brave and wondrous thing.  And her own concern for her sister Elizabeth and the love that the two share (she doesn’t get kicked out of the family, as might very well happen in the “hero’s birth” stories) is something worthy of praise, and does bring joy to this reader, in any event.  


Lent (Day 18) — I Awoke, cont’d

On his final two points in the chapter on “I Awoke,” Martin discusses service and joy as ways to God.  Service is a key thing in RC spirituality, and most Catholic schools now require a service project in order to graduate.  The point about service, which some people very much resented and resisted when the requirement was first introduced, was that service was key to getting free from selfishness.  The way out of selfishness, and a fixation on oneself, was to turn that focus to others.  As we saw others and became open to their situation and presence in the world, we were able to lose our often intense focus on ourselves and our own troubles.  In addition, when we work with people with troubles, we can often learn to take our own difficulties in stride, as we witness others heroically facing up to their own struggles.  It can also lead to a sense of gratitude to what we have, when we see someone else worse off than we are.  And working with people quite different from ourselves is a way to get out of our comfort zones (a larger prison than our bodies, but still egoism, if extended).  When we have to leave our comfort zones, we are at a loss, and at such times, we are open to revelation and a renewed sense of connexion with the world at large.

On the matter of joy, I like Martin’s final statement in this chapter: “Joy is not a selfish thing to seek, but a selfless thing to find.”  When we are at one with the world, we feel a deep and abiding joy, and that is not selfish, as we are not simply caught up in our own selves and our own image, but on something greater and more majestic than ourselves.  


Lent (Day 17) — “I Awoke”

Continuing to read and meditate through James Martin, SJ, Between Heaven and Mirth — now Chapter 4, “I Awoke: How Vocation, Service and Love Can Lead to Joy”

In this chapter, Martin notes that joy is not simply something that happens, though there is some truth to joy happening or surprising us (but partly that’s because we are ready to notice that surprising event, which only happens because we’ve made some effort to be “ready”).  In the first part of the chapter he discusses “vocation.”  Many see “vocation” as something related only to the ministry or priesthood, but Martin suggests that everyone is called in some way — to be a teacher or a doctor or something else, or to be a good friend, or a good spouse.  That those are our paths to help enact God in the world, and of our following God’s goal for us to be the best person we can be.  

For someone without the Judaeo-Christian background, one might see this as being one with the Universe, or somehow being in tune.  And when we are in tune, when we are “in the groove,” we do experience a sense of joy — we are doing what we should be doing, no matter how difficult.  Doing what we should do might be exhausting, but it leaves us with a sense of joy — that we’re in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.  

I’ve known several people who took some job to get by, or to make money, but were generally miserable.  They were not living authentic lives.  Some, though, did find some authentic outlet in non-work activities.  And, to the extent that they could give energy into that authentic outlet, they felt pretty good about their lives.  

But I wonder — isn’t it possible that someone like the Koch Brothers, or Dick Armey, or Dick Cheney, or Richard Nixon, or even Joseph Stalin, felt that they were doing their great work?  And that they enjoyed what the did, and took great joy from it?  Of course, one might point out that some of them doing what was joyful to them resulted in pain for certain individuals.  And that pain had to be overlooked for these individuals to continue in their path — in other words, they took some joy, but had to lose part of themselves to ignore the pain of others.  Even for people going down dark paths, there must be some sense of joy.  But, that joy or delight, coming at the expense of others, must be false at some level.