At one point in college, I seemed to be going on a retreat every other weekend. It got so bad that my brother had to stage a faux-intervention. “Michael, don’t you need a retreat from retreats?” he asked.
What my brother was saying – in as supportive a way as he could – was that there was a more than good chance I’d confused “being serious about my faith” with “being serious all the time.” Because, at the time, I wasn’t a fun person. I can only imagine my brother was also thinking, “Dude, lighten up.” Or, if he was feeling particularly witty at the moment, “Michael, Christ is risen. Tell your face.”
I couldn’t agree more.
A few years down the road what was clear to my brother then is much more clear to me now: the spiritual life should make us more human; an encounter with Jesus should make us smile and even laugh – especially at ourselves.
Not long ago I was asked to give a day-long retreat to 200 of the sophomores in our high school. During the week leading up the retreat, while I was still brainstorming what I wanted to say, I was talking to one of the students about my plans. While we were talking she asked me sophomore relevant question A-number-1: “Is it going to be fun?”
Fun wasn’t what I had been planning.
I’d been hoping for a profound spiritual experience. I wanted to facilitate an experience of the gravity and weight of the Jesuit-Catholic tradition, not some day of entertainment. Still, I kept thinking about her question in the days leading up to the retreat. And after a few days of wondering and wandering I realized: I had gotten it all wrong. A fire hose of spiritual insight simply would not work for sophomores – for most of us, really – without some fun, simple pleasures.
Thanks be to God for this student and her question. Because of her I reorganized what I was planning. Sure, I still shared the spiritual meat that I wanted to get across, but the day also had side dishes of Rihanna and J. Biebs. And it worked. Rather than fighting off the spiritual experiences I so wanted for them, the fun moments enabled the students to let down their defenses, and thus go much deeper.
A homily or spiritual talk may be absolutely profound. It may be theologically rich, and philosophically rigorous. But if there is no humor, if I have to stretch for an anecdote I can relate to – if there’s no fun in it – it’s often completely forgettable for me.
My student and my brother agree: the holy without the human isn’t really holy, or, we are human beings, not spiritual machines.
Since relearning that old lesson at my student’s hands (and since the retreat went so well) those words have been staying with me, deepening themselves in that familiar, holy insistence: “there is more here, Michael.”
I’m becoming only more convinced that encounters with the holy should make us more human, more able to smile, more able to laugh until it hurts.
I’m becoming more convinced that it’s not only that fun crumbles the walls we put up so as to allow spiritual insights to enter, it’s that the spiritual life is fun – or at least it can be.
To wit: Jesus’ life. I know it might not be obvious, but Jesus was funny. He hung around with semi-nudist fishermen1 and gave his friends some perhaps-ridiculous-nicknames – honestly, Jesus, “sons of thunder”?2 “Rock”? I can even imagine his mischievous grin after another perfect rejoinder to another set of religious leaders who’ve tried to stump him.
While the countless repetition of stories and the distance from his cultural context may obscure it, Jesus was funny, and if we are given the grace to see ourselves in a new light, we can be pretty hilarious ourselves – especially in the repetition of own particular spiritual foibles. I mean, if my students tried to give me some of the same justifications that I give to God or to myself, I would simply laugh. After all I have only learned 742 times3 that I can’t earn God’s love, and still I continue to act as if I can. But instead of getting mad about it and embarking on yet another round of self-recrimination, it seems more in line with my brother’s reminder to smile at how I never seem to learn.
Additionally, Jesus was the life of the party. His first miracle was at a “jarrer.” (I’m assuming that’s what they called a party where loads of alcohol was held in jars, just like we have keggers.) Moreover, he did not simply change a little bit of water into wine. Some scholars estimate that the water he changed to wine was about 150 gallons – 750 bottles. Since this all happened after the party had housed the initial stock of wine like a 20 year old on Bourbon St., I can only imagine that some of those in attendance were more than a little drunk off their donkeys.
Perhaps merry celebration as exemplified by Cana is a natural result of letting Jesus transform us in the way that he did the water, or the way he did the whole community at the last Easter Vigil liturgy I attended.
It featured 80 Tanzanian kids – each looking like they’d drunk a J-Lo + Michael Jackson milkshake – absolutely bringing. down. the. house. with their dancing. They were beaming. Their parents were beaming. I was beaming. It was impossible not to smile. This was resurrection spirituality and it’s Fun! best. Parenthetical paragraph coming.
(It’s sad that I do not always see such a noticeable celebration of life at Mass. During the opening procession and closing recession, I often wonder whether the priest tells the altar servers, “Ok, team, put on your serious faces and get your prayer hands ready.” Why do we consider folded hands more of a symbol of holiness than smiles and dancing?)
Jesus came that we might have “life in abundance.” Since my student’s reminder, the question of how to find “life in abundance” in my own life is an important question for my own Examen. Is my life is becoming more abundant? In giving retreats or in teaching religion, are such activities helping my students to be more fully alive? What do my students’ faces look like as they leave my class?
The sophomores at the end of this retreat seemed to leave a little lighter; their greetings to me in the following weeks were more joyful and playful. While it might have resulted from being allowed to listen to Carly Rae at school, I think (and hope!) that some of it was because the fun encounter with God we’d had had actually lightened their burdens and made them feel freer.
When I was a kid struggling to take some medicine the doctor recommended to my mom that she empty the capsules into some pudding or apple sauce and then have me consume them. I did so happily.
While my ability to swallow pills is now much better than my four-year-old self, my attention span, especially for things profoundly spiritual, is not so much greater. I am a human being, and I need light, simple pleasures and funny stories of real people that connect with my experience. And that’s okay.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that my brother was right, and my student too; the best road of the Holy Spirit runs right through the profoundly human. They – and God – are right: there is more there than I’d expected.