Two words I often don’t hear together: “contemplation” and “fun” — or, for that matter, “mysticism” and “fun.”
Recently I have been thinking about this, and I decided it was worth writing about.
I like having fun.
If you know me in person you know that I have a playful, almost goofy personality. I have a fondness for madcap TV sitcoms, for awful puns (the groanier the better), and for kittens (even if you hate cats, you gotta admit, kittens are fun). I love miniature golf, fireworks, piñatas, banana splits, 1960s beach movies, cosplay, animated films… the list goes on. I’m an unapologetic fun-aholic.
So why would someone as adorkable as me choose to give my life over to a spirituality that at times can be somber, if not even severe or (gasp) joyless?
Well, there are several ways to answer this question.
Perhaps what first comes to mind: contrary to what the history of dour religiosity might suggest, joylessness is NOT a contemplative virtue. So whoever decided that spirituality can’t be fun (or have fun) appears to have gotten it wrong in a basic way.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to figure out that joylessness does not belong in the spiritual life. After all, joy is one of the fruits of the spirit (see Galatians 5: it’s second only to love). So how does it make sense for spirituality to promote the absence of joy as a virtue?
I’m not enough of a scholar to be able to trace all the sources of grim and dour joylessness in the history of Christianity. But certainly one source of our mirthless heritage goes back to the very founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict. In his Rule of Saint Benedict, this sixth-century Italian saint displays a marked discomfort with laughter (with no nuance to indicate that sometimes laughter can be toxic — think of derision, laughing at another person’s expense — but sometimes laughter is truly a sign of joy and delight in the blessings of life).
Plenty of voices early in the Christian tradition emphasized “sobriety” — not just the absence of alcohol, but really the absence of humor and mirth — as an essential virtue. I think this is a classic case of making one mistake in an effort to avoid another. Certainly, a meaningful spiritual life requires that we refrain from a kind of frivolity that refuses to take seriously the challenging tasks of surrendering sinfulness and cultivating real virtue; but since when did we have to be sourpusses as the only way to avoid being goofusses? It doesn’t make sense when you think about it.
Like it or not, sourpuss spirituality is our heritage, and while you can certainly find traces of humor and levity and joyfulness showing up in our tradition (for just one example: read The Letters of Evelyn Underhill and get a load of how crazy she was for cats), it seems that the mystical center of gravity tends to be, if not joyless, certainly not anywhere near “having fun.” Spirituality is about having a relationship with God, for heaven’s sake! No time for fun and games!!!
Unless, of course, God wants to be our playmate (and spoiler alert: I think that’s exactly what God wants with, and from, us).
Could it possibly be the case, that there really is a place for fun and playfulness in the spiritual life? What would it look like? How could we cultivate it?
If you want to begin to explore that question, check out Fr. James Martin’s delightful book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. Filled with innocent jokes, sly humor, and a spirituality that is grounded in optimism, this book is an excellent primer for anyone (contemplative or otherwise) who wants to make fun a central part of a healthy spirituality.
But I’m not just writing about spirituality in general — I’m writing about contemplative spirituality. And how can a spirituality that is founded on silence and stillness have anything to do with fun, laughter, and merriment? After all, “fun” usually implies the energy of play, of silliness, of amusement — think of kids running around and squealing as they goof around. How does that square with the somber stillness of a practice like Centering Prayer?
To answer that question, we need to remember that every lung has two functions: it breathes in… and it breathes out. You need both movements for healthy respiration.
The contemplative life operates in a similar way. The “inhalation” of contemplative silence and stillness is not the entirety of any spiritual life — not even for the most austere, withdrawn monastic. It needs to be paired with the “exhalation” of a life well lived, fully and completely. This can take different forms. It can mean doing good work, often in service of others (think about the necessary link between contemplation and action). But I believe it can also point to the healthy and natural place of qualities like wonder, amazement, appreciation, and yes — mirth, joy, and even fun in any life that is well-rounded and fully-embraced.
Having a “fun contemplative life” doesn’t mean you need to be silly during silent prayer. Continue to enjoy the deep rest and peace that silence brings. But just like you pair a delicious meal with just the right wine, think about how you can pair the serene stillness of contemplative practice with ways in which you can cultivate joy, merriment, laughter, and even fun in your life. As a contemplative, you will be drawn to humble, innocent and caring ways to meet laughter — never at another person’s expense. That’s as it should be. But we know what poor St. Benedict missed: you can have fun in a manner that is grounded in delight, compassionate to others, and joyfully immersed in the love of God. That’s the kind of fun worth having!