Rituals of Joy
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 15, 2005
“A valley of love and delight”: what a delicious image that is. I’ve always thought to myself, “Yes, that’s where we ought to live our lives: in a lush, abundant valley, flowing over with the fruits of love and the flowerings of de-light.”
Now, of course, the Shakers, who gave us that lovely little song, were a curious bunch:
On the one hand, many of their worship services consisted completely of dancing—nothing but dancing; no long sermon; no involved pondering on the meaning of life; no words or prayers at all—just dancing.
Dancing can be a pretty direct road to the “valley of love and delight”, certainly. If you’ve ever lost yourself in the mad whirl of the dance at a wedding reception, or at a Christmas party, you know what I mean. Certainly, there are few better ways of accessing the right sides of our brains (or is it the left side; I’m always getting them mixed up—the creative side is what I mean) than dancing.
But, on the other hand, the Shakers, who were so into dancing and joy and the simple gifts of life, also believed in total abstinence as far as sexual matters were concerned—which didn’t do much for growth in their church schools, certainly, and so, they may have chosen their own extinction as a community of faith.
They seem to have been, as we all are often, somewhat conflicted. But they did leave us that wonderful song, certainly (and some rather nice furniture)—and they also remind us to look upon life, sometimes at least, as the “valley of love and delight” which it can be.
Certainly, this may be a necessary corrective for those of us who take ourselves—and life in general—way too seriously sometimes. I am hardly a cock-eyed optimist when it comes to life, and the older I get, the more I understand the traditional view of this earthly existence as a “veil of tears”—because, very often , that’s what it is… Maybe 60% of the time; maybe 40%… But as the Buddha said, “All life is suffering,” and while that might sound a little extreme for some of us, even the most optimistic among us has to admit that we do an awful lot of letting go in these lives of ours: One after another, we are called upon to let go of those we love. We let go of our children, as they grow older and take up lives of their own. We let go of those we’ve loved and lived with for the better parts of our lives. We let go of relationships that don’t work anymore. We let go of our most cherished hopes and dreams and expectations. Our aging bodies force us to let go of being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. We let go of so many of our expectations of what this life will be.
Yes, the older I get, the more you can make the case to me that this life is a veil of tears, and only the most hapless Pollyanna cam deny that sometimes (oftentimes) this life just isn’t very much fun.
But, if we are honest, we also need to remind ourselves that the pain of life is only part of the story. No pain lasts forever, either; they, too, shall all pass away. Even if we concede the valley of tears 50 or 60 percent of our lives’ landscapes, that still leaves us a lot of space for constructing something else. Even the Buddha, who taught that “all life is suffering”, also knew that there was a great deal of joy in life, as well. (Think of all those “laughing Buddha” statues you’ve seen in garden shops or nurseries or where-have-you: you know, the ones where the Big Guy with the great big belly is sitting there with that big smile on his face, seemingly overcome by convulsions of laughter and joy and mirth. This is the guy who taught “All life is suffering”? Well maybe it often is; but, in the meantime—why not laugh? And perhaps it’s the deepest, truest laugh that also contains the sighs and sorrows of our lives, as well.
The road of life may often lead us through the valley of tears. But maybe—just maybe—there’s another valley—a “valley of love and delight”—waiting for us on the other side of the tears.
There are glimpses of heaven waiting for us, in this life now. The surest way to gain those glimpses is by practicing simple rituals of joy in these lives we are leading.
How do we transform these lives of ours? How do we move toward that little bit of heaven here in Stoughton Center (or wherever we are)? Where do we look to find joy?
One day, the owners of the Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington had an idea. Business was pretty good, but life was boring. Just selling fish had gotten kind of old. They wanted to do something different. They wanted a life that had more joy in it. They decided they wanted to become not just the “Pike’s Place Fish Market”, but the “World Famous Pike’s Place Market” in Seattle, Washington. And, they did. Today, they’re one of the most famous marketplaces in the entire world, with thousands of visitors each day and hundreds of thousands every year. They still sell a lot of big, smelly fish—but now, they do it with more joy, and have more fun doing it. Indeed, they have found their bliss slinging around fish.
They found their bliss by looking at what they were doing closely and discerning four ECPs—or Essential Creative Principles-- in their lives. Activate these four Essential Creative Principles, they said, and you’ll find what you’re looking for; you’ll know bliss; you’ll discover joy; you’ll end up in that valley of love and delight.
The four ECPs are (and each one has a great big exclamation point after it):
These are the ways in which we transform the “damn dailies” of our lives—the have to do’s; the ought to do’s; the need to do’s—into rituals of sheer joy.
First of all—PLAY!
Most of us could stand to cultivate a little more playfulness in these lives of ours. The fish guys decided that rather than just carrying the big, heavy smelly fish from one end of their store to the other, like they always did, they would start throwing fish across the counter to one another. Soon, the fish at Pike’s Market started flying feverishly all day long, and the ritual of “tossing the fish” was born. People started coming from near and far to watch—and before you know it, the fish guys in Seattle weren’t bored anymore and they really were “world famous”. Just by injecting a little bit of play into what they were doing.
When we dare to play—when we engage in “recreation”—we truly do re-create the situation we’re in. We can transform our mundane (maybe boring) reality into something that’s more joy-filled.
There’s nothing like laughter to transform an overly-heavy or draining experience, and get the juices of life flowing again. Laughter is the best antidote to boredom there is. According to Paul McGhee, a well known play therapist, play provides four important spiritual gifts for us (and the same is true of laughter and humor as well):
First of all—it lowers our ego boundaries; it gets us outside of ourselves; it frees us from the trap of self-consciousness, from being overly concerned with our little problems, our point-of-view, our need to control every aspect of a situation.
Second, playfulness helps us to let go; it connects us with bigger, wider forces in life; it turns our focus toward forces in life bigger than we are.
Third, it connects us with those around us; a smile makes a wonderful bridge; our laughter becomes one with that of those around us; when we laugh together, we share the breath of life with each other. In play, we engage the beings of others; our humanity meets and merges with theirs.
And fourth, play and humor revitalize us; they uplift us, and give us a new surge of energy, and hopefulness. They even oxidize our blood!
When we engage life with an attitude of playfulness, we are bidding the angel inside ourselves to come out and play and take our place, if only for a little while.
The second great Essential Creative Principle is BE THERE!
Until we know that each moment is precious, there will be no hope for us. Until we learn to cherish (and live!) the moment we’re in, right now, we will never experience the true ecstasy of life. We may as well be a living corpse.
“Why, who makes so much of a miracle?” Walt Whitman wrote. “To me, all life is a miracle/ Every moment of light and dark.”
According to the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, what we need to experience this sense of the miracle nature of life is an attitude of mindfulness—that attitude of “Be There!”—of being present in the moment. Thich Nhat Hahn writes:
“I think the real miracle is not to walk on the water, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
We apprehend this miracle, Thich Nhat Hahn believes, by being present—and by practicing being mindful—conscious—of where we are, and what we are doing, in each and every living instant.
We need to feel ourselves in the world, and not just as disembodied brains or spirits, skirting or hovering above it. We need to pay attention to the natural world of which we are part—and that alone can be enough to wake us from our human-centered, egotistical doldrums and hopelessness. The Earth has so much to teach us; and one of her most important lessons is hope. In “The Peace of Wild Things”, Wendell Berry writes:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
II rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
By knowing the moment, we “rest in the grace of the world”, and can come to know some deep sense that “All will be well,” as Blessed Julian of Norwich taught. From this sense of benediction, there arises a great joy.
The third Essential Creative Principle is MAKE THEIR DAY!
Notice the choice of adjectives: not “Make My Day”, but “Make Their Day”—make someone else’s day. Not “What’s in it for me?”, but “What can I give away to others?”
This giving doesn’t come out of a sense of sacrifice and martyrdom (though both may have their place in this human epic). It sure doesn’t arise from a sense of drear duty and joyless responsibility. It arises, rather, from a deep understanding that “the joy that isn’t shared dies young,” as Ann Sexton wrote, and that “Love isn’t love till you give it away”.
Joy is not a dead letter, but a flowing stream. By practicing acts of kindness and compassion, we enlarge our own beings; we expand our souls—probably more directly than through any other form of human endeavor. Is it possible to feel any better than when we do something decent for another human being? Is there anything that we can buy for ourselves, or any special something we can horde unto ourselves, or any physical or sensual pleasure that can personally experience that can compare to the satisfaction of taking the time to listen to someone who needs to talk; or to give someone a completely unexpected gift; or to bring a little sunshine or joy or mirth into the life of another human being—to let them know that it is important for the world for them to be here, right now?
Nothing on this Earth compares to the human communion of lives shared. It is the closest we come on Earth, I believe, to knowing the kingdom of heaven.
Practice simple acts of kindness toward others, and these may well be the most blessed rituals of joy of all.
The fourth Essential Creative Principle is CHOOSE YOUR ATTITUDE!
Feelings in life just are. We can’t choose how we feel. We may feel lots of different things in this life, maybe even at the same time: anger, hurt, fear, love, joy, shame, guilt, pride, sadness, wonder. It’s a long spectrum, and we’ve probably all spent some considerable time at each station along the spectrum.
We can’t choose how we feel. But we can choose—and we do choose—how we deal with our feelings; how we manifest them; how we live them out in the way of the world.
Sometimes, it is the most profound and deepest smile which contains the sadness and burdens of life, as well.
Albino Luciani was, in many ways, a simple and unassuming man. He was born into a poor family in a small town in the mountains of northern Italy. His father was a migrant worker, who spent many months away from his family, and an ardent socialist. His mother was a devout Catholic, for whom devotion and prayer and spending time at church were the center of her life.
Young Albino followed his mother’s way (though always remembering his father’s hard work and care and concern for the people). He studied for the priesthood, was ordained in 1935, and eventually became an energetic and much-loved teacher at the Gregorian Seminary in Belluno.
In 1958, Pope John XXIII appointed him bishop of the small diocese of Vittorio Veneto, northwest of Venice. There, he was known as the “people’s bishop”, visiting each one of the 180 parishes of his diocese twice a year, and often making rounds among the sick in the area’s several hospitals. In 1969, Luciani was named by Paul VI to be Cardinal Patriarch of the ancient and prestigious (though not terribly large) archdiocese of Venice. There, he stayed for nine years.
Then, in August of 1978, Pope Paul VI died after a long illness. Much to the amazement of the world, simple, unassuming Albino Luciani, archbishop of Venice, was named the new pope. He chose as his name John Paul—the First. As he told the crowds in St. Peter’s Squarewho came to greet him: “I have neither the greatness of heart of Pope John, nor the learning and wisdom of Pope Paul, but now, I am in their place. I know your prayers will help me.” He chose as his papal motto, simply. “Humilitas”.—Humility.
John Paul I would be pope for only 33 days. But during that time, he captivated the world—not with any great teachings or eloquent speeches—for there was not time for those. He won over the world simply by hissmile. He became known, simply, as “The Smiling Pope”. And that is how the world remembers him still, when it remembers him.
“When he smiled, it was like he was seeing something the rest of us couldn’t see,” one person who met him said later. For in that smile, John Paul I seemed to be hinting toward that valley of love and delight. He knew that our simple, ordinary human joys are but the hintings of the deeper divine joy in which we have our truest being. Even when we was gone, the smile lingered. Even after we have touched the life of another, our presence lingers.
May we, too, be the little smile which, though delicate, can remind others of the love of God. May we, too, endeavor to be hints of springtime in the midst of this way too wintry world. May we bring just a bit of comfort and joy, hope and courage to this world of ours, and in so doing live a little bit of heaven, in this blessed moment. In all that we do, may our lives become rituals of deep and abiding joy.