Thursday, October 14, 2010

God's Good Humor

I am reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, a account of her extended visits to a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota.

One consequence of her experiences at the abbey was a growing respect for the Liturgy of the Hours, and especially for the liturgy's use of Sacred Scripture.

Norris recalled with a smile the observation of poet Oscar Wilde that one of the chief argument's against Christianity is the style of Paul's letters.

Anyone who has lectored at Mass knows the challenge of proclaiming one of Paul's long and convoluted sentences. By the time you get to the end you forget how it began; his meaning becomes elusive somewhere between the first subordinate clause and the third parenthetical observation.

For example, And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:11-14).

Norris said that listening to (as opposed to reading) Paul's letters (she didn't mention that it takes a good, interpretive reader to convey his message) allowed her "to take unaccustomed pleasure in the complex play Paul makes of even his deepest theology."

She heard the divine sense of humor in 1 Corinthians 1:21, For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that we come to know God not through human wisdom but through what it seems to be divine foolishness. Isaiah (29:14) said something similar centuries earlier.

Norris said, "Hearing the passage read slowly one night at vespers, I suddenly grasped the exasperation there, and God's good humor, and it made me laugh."

In 1966 Father Raymond Nogar, OP, wrote The Lord of the Absurd, part of which was a defense of his contention that it is not the order of creation that proves there is a God but rather the disorder, waste and inefficiency of our chaotic world.

The book's title caught my attention more than Nogar's argument. The God I encounter in my life as well as in my religion is indeed the Lord of the absurd.

Is it not absurd that God should create with a big bang, that creation should unfold over billions of years, that the Creator of it all should become part of his creation, that God should succumb (even temporarily) to the penalty of death?

There was a cross on the wall of the sanctuary at Sacred Heart Church in Fairfield, Ohio. It was an odd design. Some parishioner wanted it replaced. Rather than discard it entirely I put out it of the congregation's sightline, on the wall near the sacristy. I had a small plaque placed on it with these words: "You must look for the Lord even in the absurd."

Most parishioners have never seen the plaque. A few thought I intended ridicule. Many got the point: God is everywhere, and the divine sense of humor suggests that we ought to look for that presence all around us and in everything --in Paul's convoluted sentences, in the chaos of the universe, in oddly designed crosses, in the absurd events of our lives.

Protestant Kathleen Norris found God in a Catholic abbey. If I am open to it I can find God in unlikely places as well. God's good humor does explain the Lord of the Absurd.

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