Visiting the Preacher
Yesterday morning, Rodney and I attended Ascension Catholic Church. It was the most laughter and joy-filled service I have ever attended. To the service, Rodney brought his charisma, love for singing and conducting, and laughter. In a setting that is normally contained “within the lines”, Rodney’s bright colors fearlessly shown wherever they landed. Rodney loves to sing and his repertoire are mostly old time folk, Johnny Cash, and Gene Autry tunes. During Mass, while old hymns were being sung, Rodney participated at the top of his lungs with his classic lines of “Yankee Doodle had a farm!” and “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’”. Times where liturgy was read, Rodney found quite amusing and shamelessly unleashed his deep belly laugh. My instinct to quiet him down quickly kicked in. Yet every time I looked over at him, his beaming, toothless smile overcame my socialized reasoning and I just laughed along.
At the end of the service, an upbeat, Gospel song began on the piano and Rodney immediately began his well-practiced conducting skills. He picked both hands up and forcefully moved his arms from side to side, up and down with his pointer fingers out “conducting” along to the music. The more into the music he is, the more forcefully and almost frantically he conducts, so much so that the movement of his arms were causing his wheelchair to roll ever so slightly back and forth. He was unstoppable and having a ball.
This is worship. Attentiveness and presence to the immediacy of the moment. Unrestrained joy. Expressions of song, laughter, and movement. I had a smile on my face for so much of the service that my cheeks were tired by the end. I think Rodney’s worship probably put a smile on God’s face too.
“Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual JOY. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live. Life in this world is full of pain. But pain, which is the contrary of pleasure, is not necessarily the contrary of happiness or of joy. Because spiritual joy flowers in the full expansion of freedom that reaches out without obstacle to its supreme object, fulfilling itself in the perfect activity of disinterested love for which it was created” –Thomas Merton
Upon reading this for the first time, I was utterly taken aback. Shocked, confused and humbled. Thomas Merton’s words deeply spoke to me in that moment and I continue to ruminate on them.
In November, I re-injured my back, which threw me into some of the most intense and persistent physical pain I have experienced yet. Seeing as the back is central to just about any motion or position of the body, it was impossible to do anything without exacerbating the place of original injury. Needless to say, I was living with severe physical pain on a daily basis. Being an active person, biking for transportation, and working a job that requires me to be on my feet all day, I felt incredibly inhibited. Looking back though, this injury and subsequent healing journey has proven to be a profound learning experience, especially as it parallels my time being at L’Arche.
One lesson is how interconnected my physical and spiritual being is. My own sense of connectivity with the Spirit has long been very much based on how well my body and mind feel. So in times of great pain I begin to feel distanced and lost. This is one reason why Merton’s quote spoke so powerfully to me! It helped me realize that the point of a Spiritual Life is not pleasure, or in other words, freedom from pain and suffering. Far from it! As I have been learning, pain and suffering only deepen my Spiritual Life and relationship with Christ, they no longer detract from it. When JOY is the point of a dynamic Spiritual Life, pain and suffering no longer hold much sway. Christ experienced death and suffering after having walked here on Earth. Christ turned things upside down when he declared that pain and suffering will no longer distance us from the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, they will escort us directly into it!
L’Arche is a place that embraces rather than denies pain and suffering. It is considered to be an integral part of community and individual life. As I have plodded along my own pain and suffering, it has been alongside a vibrant and honest group of people with whom burdens are shared. Many of the folks I have gotten to know at L’Arche have disabilities that manifest themselves more evidently to the outside world. Some have physical handicaps that I cannot imagine. The paradox is that what appears to be their inhibitions to others, actually equips them to live a life of radical freedom and grace which most people (myself included) are incapable of. It seems that their suffering actually thrusts them deep into the exact kind of Spiritual JOY that Thomas Merton speaks of. Indeed, it seems like no coincidence that my back injury in November coincided with a re-entry into this exceptional and blessed community.