Some years ago, I was visiting a Benedictine monastery in Belgium when an episode occurred that still haunts me. What happened? Well, you need to picture a scene to get the full impact:
It was April, but still very cold and the chapel where we had just celebrated the Eucharist and the cafeteria to which we had retired for coffee lacked somewhat both for heat and light. There were about a hundred of us present, monks and seminarians mostly, along with a few lay people. All of us were somberly drinking coffee and making small talk, except for one child, a little girl of four. She, dressed in a smart, bright little coat, was skipping smack down the middle of the cafeteria, singing to herself, letting off steam after having been forcibly silenced during the long liturgy that had just preceded.
Maybe it was the cold and bad light or maybe it was the heavy monastic dress so much in evidence, but if the best Hollywood director in the world, or the devil himself, had choreographed the thing, it could not have been set up better. Everything about that little girl spoke of life, while everything about the rest of us spoke of soberness, lack of colour, lack of life, age, and dram duty. If God were running a public relations campaign, this would not be the film to show by which to draw anyone to church. At that moment, for all the world, it looked like there was more real life in one little girl, who had just been released from church, than in all the rest of us, God-fearing, duty-driven, church-going, wisdom-filled persons, none of whom could skip publicly if our lives depended on it.
I walked out of that cafeteria not knowing exactly what to make of this, given that I have some empathy for both sides of the equation, and I have noticed a lot of similar contrasts since. We all have. How often does it appear as though what is happening in our churches is dead, duty-driven and sterile, in comparison to that powerful pulse of life that literally surges out of our youth, our rock stars, our athletes, our secular comedians, our raunchy sitcoms, and so much else in our world that seems a lot freer and full of life precisely because, like that little girl, it has been released from church?
Time and time again, it seems that life, colour, and energy take their source elsewhere, not in the faith or in the church. For example, the very talented, powerful, young artist, Alanis Morissette, is, in effect, this little girl, grown up and with an attitude. A bitter, ex Catholic, Morissette complains of the “loveless priests” who run the faith and who stifle love and energy. Well, I’m one of those priests, stung by such criticism, even as I recognize some of its truth. A lot of the real energy that drives our world – and not just negatively in terms of greed and lust – does not emanate from the churches. A lot of joy, love, zest, and colour take their origins elsewhere.
There is a lot that needs to be reflected upon here, although in the end it is a considerably more complex than what is spontaneously suggested when we see a little girl happily skipping among sombre monks or hear Alanis Morissette whining about how erotically stifling was her Catholic upbringing. What this suggests is that we misunderstand the connection between life and wisdom and especially misunderstand how, lately, much of life is uninitiated by wisdom and much of wisdom is disconnected from life. What am I saying?
Too often today we confuse life and wisdom, or simply fail to distinguish between them. For example, we see a lot of life – raw energy, eroticism, colour, wit, intelligence, beauty, and health – simply divorced from wisdom, cut off from that which holds the community together at its heart. That is why something can be brilliant, funny, beautiful, healthy, and full of real energy and yet of itself be unable to deal with the real issues of meaning, community, family, suffering, death, wound, and forgiveness .You watch Seinfeld for fun, not for wisdom.
But the reverse is just as true. We often see a wisdom that is disconnected from life that precisely lacks any real connection to energy, eroticism, colour, wit, intelligence, beauty, and raw health. That is why sometimes someone can deal with the issues of meaning, pain, death, and forgiveness and yet be unable to radiate any real energy or health. You go to church for wisdom, not for fun.
It can be very helpful to know this. One should never confuse Alanis Morissette with Mother Theresa, nor Jerry Seinfeld with John of the Cross. In one, we see more the raw beauty and pulse of God’s life; in the other we see the maturity of God’s wisdom. Part of our task is to bring them together.