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While church in travail, better laugh than quit.

I am still living on the margins of the Catholic church. Whether I am to be counted in or out depends upon which authority sets the boundary guards. If the guards are from the people's militia, I am in; if they represent the High Command, I am out. Some officers, of course, are more rigid than others. Colonel Ratzinger, I think, would not have passed Jesus Christ himself - but then that's the reason I am still able to believe in Jesus Christ.

Be that as it may, I like to keep in touch. I subscribe to the American National Catholic Reporter, the English Tablet and the Canadian Catholic New Times. However, the regular reading of these worthy journals presents a painful challenge to my mental stamina. No sooner have I come to terms with the latest betise from Rome than it is succeeded by another piece of folly.

Should I cancel my subscriptions and try to forget completely the three-ring circus in which I have been caught up since boyhood? No, there is an alternative. A voice within whispered: "For God's sake, laugh at it." I realized God was trying to give me a sense of humor. There is nothing more cleansing than a good, hearty laugh at the antics of God's servants.

Let Starhawk be our guide. (For the uninformed, Starhawk is the wonderfully wise witch who so frightened Colonel Ratzinger that he silenced poor Matthew Fox because of his association with her.) I am thinking of her comments on a scene of bishops engaged in the liturgy. They are dressed in women's attire. They are walking on a red carpet, a symbol of the menstrual flow, and distributing the consecrated bread. Now when else do these revered gentlemen fulfill the function of feeding their dependents. Symbolically, they are usurping a woman's role. Thank you, Starhawk, for the insight.

Perhaps we should be asking not whether women should be ordained, but whether men should be. Are men the best guides to the basic rhythms of life? Their attempts to serve in that capacity become comic. In "Behind the Veil," a film of the National Film Board of Canada on women religious, there is a scene of prelates pouring out of some meeting at the Vatican and a voice is saying some words to the effect that these elderly, celibate gentlemen have been discussing questions of contraception and abortion. Another set of Vatican prelates consider themselves as competent to lay down every detail of women's religious life. The incongruity of it!

Admittedly, the discussion of sexual morality is not quite the shameless farce it used to be in my student days. We argued then whether it was immoral to use tampons instead of sanitary napkins. The point at issue was whether tampons caused sexual stimulation. Another question was what should one do if the bed collapsed during intercourse. At stake was the principle that once begun, the sexual act must be completed.

No doubt degenerate instances of the noble art of counseling, but would we not be attributing to God a perverted sense of humor were we to suppose that he did intend to set up a celibate teaching authority to determine the behavior of the sexually active. Here, however, we must be careful.

If laughter is not to become an expression of cynicism, it must erupt from a background of sadness over evil. All genuine clowns are sad. Joyful laughter is not cynical. Cynicism has been described as enlightened false consciousness." The cynic has seen it all. For selfish reasons the cynic has neutralized the sources of motivation toward the good. Cynics are not open to conversion because they begin by mocking any motive that may break in upon their enclosed self-seeking consciousness. Their laughter becomes a contemptuous braying.

But what about the sadness in which the ability to laugh joyously is rooted?

People whose lives have some depth are filled from time to time with a sense of spiritual sadness. There, are various kinds of sadness. I am not talking of the sadness that follows a bout of sensual indulgence. That is just the effect of a temporary physiological flatness or exhaustion.

The sadness I am referring to accompanies a perception that things are not as they ought to be. When all is said and done, life is a sad affair. The world has its moments of glory, but it lets us down in the end. Our own road is lined with unfulfilled or abandoned ideals. Something has gone wrong. Why do we ourselves, other persons, society, history, the church, God, seem to fail us in the last analysis?

The perception is not limited to those who have reached a cynical old age. I have heard a child say "I'm sad" in a context that made it a response to the universe, not a reaction to a passing frustration. Such spiritual sadness is, as it were, a grieving that is not limited to a particular person or event, but reaches out over the universe and grieves.

The perception, then, at the source of sadness is that the world, life, society, ourselves are all not as they should be. Something has gone wrong. In general terms, we can say that what is should not be and what should not be is. This was the context in which the doctrine of oral sin, dominant in Western Christendom until recently, was formulated by Augustine. Unfortunately, his formulation was too narrow and bound up with a distorted sexuality.

As a starting point I prefer the cosmic vision of Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans. There, he sees the whole creation as "groaning in travail," as "subjected to futility," as waiting "with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." It is a vision of human beings, together with nature, groaning in a common state of futility, longing to be free from a bondage to decay, hoping for a bodily redemption and an entry into the true liberty of the children of God.

We do, in fact need redemption. Things have gone wrong, and for us Christians they are put right only by the divine redeemer, Jesus Christ. But Christ has already redeemed us. Should that not mean that there is no place any longer for sadness? That our response to the universe and history should be simply one of unalloyed joy?

Christians know that that is not so. Whatever the reasons for the delay in the completion of our redemption, we live in a world shot through with sin and evil, contradiction and futility, suffering and death. Christianity has no theoretical answer to the negativities we face in our human existence. Instead, it offers us a way of life and a compassionate God who shares both our sadness and our joy.

Sadness and joy are depth feelings. They are linked together in the dialectic of human existence. Joy is negated by sadness and sadness by joy; the double negation opens us to ever higher glimpses of the transcendent.

Laughter is a more worldly response. It is a therapeutic outburst that prevents sadness from overcoming our joy. Does God laugh? I like to think he does. God as compassionate grieves with our sadness. We must hope that he joins in the laughter that accompanies our joy.
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Author:Davis, Charles
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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