Lent: Day 2 — the journey begins

The thing I associate most with Lent is giving stuff up.  I saw some story yesterday about Twitter tweets where people were announcing things they were giving up for Lent (some said “Lent”).  And that got me to wondering about “giving stuff up.”  In some sense, we are making a sacrifice during Lent (those who do give stuff up), but I think something can be said for giving stuff up. In many ways we get accustomed to having things, and that tends to make us dependent upon them, or can.  We get accustomed to sweets or alcohol or some other substance, and when we don’t have it, we feel something is missing, and even, in extreme cases, go through some form of withdrawal.  But there are people who have to give up all sorts of things for economic or other reasons, and their sacrifices are often greater than something we give up for 40 days.  Besides, there is something beneficial about giving stuff up.  In shaking us out of our accustomed ways, we are jarred out of a form of stupor, and that’s good.  In being without some treat for a period of time, we come to savor it all the more when it returns.  I remember a Greek Cypriot I knew in grad school.  He spoke of his mother and others of an older generation on Cyprus who would largely give up on meat during Lent.  And that sacrifice, with greater reliance on vegetables, proved a blessing — the people looked on it as a form of detox.  And I recall my father, who very much believed in the power of prayer, once cutting a deal with God — if some medical emergency turned out well for a loved one, he would give up smoking for a full year.  The emergency did pass, and my father, always a man of his word, did impose a smoking ban for a year, something that must have been tough as my mother continued to smoke, as did most of his friends and workmates.  And that had a double benefit — it did help clean up his lungs over the course of that year, and in demonstrating discipline, one finds it easier to demonstrate it again when needed.  

But I was going to use these posts as a reflection or dialog with James Martin and his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, so I’d better get my undisciplined self to work.  Martin’s opening chapter (really his prolog) is entitled “Excessive Levity.”  He opens the book with a parable of sorts.  A good friend of his, a Jesuit at Fordham University, is known for his clever and humorous sermons.  His sense of humor has made him something of a favorite at the school and attendance at his masses is always quite high.  This friend, when on a retreat (I’m thinking it was likely the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius), had to speak with his spiritual advisor about faults (there’s a week of meditation on faults or sins in the Spiritual Exercises), and he confessed that he sometimes went too far for a joke, that he sometimes engaged in “excessive levity.” The advisor, a dour older Jesuit, looked at him and said, “All levity is excessive.”  

Martin, of course, does not share the older Jesuit’s view of spiritual practice or probity.  As the unofficial chaplain of The Colbert Report, he is, of course, an advocate for humor.  But he notices that many people think that humor and joy have no part in spiritual practice, that they are a form of indulgence, and a lack of discipline.  And some see people engaged in humor as not being sufficiently serious or grave (they lack gravitas).  I agree with Martin that these people have a very constricted view of spiritual practice.  There are, of course, times when one needs to be serious and not joking — if someone has just been mugged, or had an accident, joking doesn’t help that person in his/her pain.  But humor is a sign of celebration, a great halleluia, often, and that surely is part of God (assuming a belief in God), as it is a part (and a cherished part) of life.

I think I’d say that humor does something else.  It pokes fun and pokes holes in the structures we build.  Humor short-circuits the serious structures of life.  In some ways, when people are put down by structural bias of one sort or another, humor is a way to undercut that.  Structures, philosophies, frames of reference are necessary to any system of thought, and to progress in general, but in some worst cases, a rigid adherence to dogma or a political position results in atrocities (consider the case of the Cultural Revolution of China in the 1960s, or the Communist witch hunts in this country in the 1950s or even the panicked outrage some religious and cultural leaders have towards some of the statements of Pope Francis).  Even in cases where it has positive and not negative outcomes, there is a danger in adhering too closely to beliefs, and humor, in its gentle undercutting of those rules and regulations allows for some breathing room, some thinking room.  And that is truly important and a gift, I think.  

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