Last Saturday Joan, my friend with the theological chops, and I went to Seattle University’s “Search for Meaning Book Festival.” We had our tickets and were eager to attend right up to the day before it took place. Joan called on Friday night.
“Who am I kidding?” she asked. “I can’t spend the whole day there. I don’t have that kind of energy.”
“Yeah, neither do I.”
Earlier that day I had shoved my feet into a new pair of walking shoes to walk around Green Lake with my friend Nancy. By evening, it wasn’t only my feet that hurt. All those places where joints hang out with other joints were like a bunch of cars that had spun out in traffic with every one facing the wrong way. I would have happily stayed home and watched re-runs of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Joan said, “I really only want to hear the Jesuit.”
The Jesuit. Joan grew up Catholic and went to Loyola so Jesuit means something to her. I grew up in the Church of the Miserable Masochists. I don’t know Jesuit from Dominican from Franciscan other than if one of each walks into a bar, you’ve got a joke.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll go hear The Jesuit with you.”
The Jesuit was Father James Martin. He’s the chaplain of “The Colbert Report.” I bet you didn’t know the show had a chaplain. I wonder if “Everybody Loves Raymond” had a chaplain because the Barone family was Catholic. In any case, Joan and I agreed that if nothing else, this particular lecture would be funny.
With my unsmiling, everything-is-a-sin religious background, I am always impressed with the Catholic’s ability to laugh. I went to “Late Nite Catechism” nine times. I can’t imagine a Protestant counterpart. “Wednesday Night Altar Call! Hilarious and Cleansing!” In my experience, professional Protestants don’t laugh at all, let alone at themselves.
Father James Martin was preceded by a series of self-congratulatory introductions on the part of the festival organizers that wound their way down to introducing the man who would introduce the person who would introduce the speaker. I occupied my time trying to figure out how far I’d have to walk to get one of the cool red festival bags everyone was carrying. Honestly what I love best about conferences are the promotional freebies.
The Jesuit’s talk was mostly a string of funny stories. My favorite: He was at a conference in Africa. At the Q and A, all the priests left for a meeting, abandoning Father James Martin to a roomful of nuns. When he expressed some self-consciousness about being the only man in the room, one of the nuns piped up in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women!”
On Saturday someone asked a question about women in the Catholic Church. Father James Martin launched into a canned speech about how women were the first at the tomb, women were important to Jesus etc. I now understand the meaning of the expression “Jesuitical clap-trap.” One courageous voice called out frankly, “Do you think women should be priests?”
The Jesuit answered with an eight minute long joke. That was disappointing, though not unexpected.
It is such a stupid situation: a power structure that excludes at least half its talent, intellect, courage, wisdom and imagination. The Grande Fromages hoard their positions like dragons on their gold, deluding themselves that people actually believe it’s because of a couple of Bible verses. But all institutionalized religions eventually lose their relevancy. When their power starts to crumble, they fight to the death the persons they claim to serve. It’s the nature of The Beast, so to speak.
Meanwhile the essence of spirituality quietly flows along as the subterranean stream that it is. Here’s my idea of a conference: You get there and there’s nothing planned and nothing to do. This is my idea of a talk: the speaker gets up and says that everyone must find their own way. Then he sits down. I haven’t worked out how I would get any promotional freebies, but I rather think that if I found the meaning of life, I could forgo the totebag.
There’s a Sufi saying: There’s only one path and it’s yours. I like that.