January 2, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The master was in an expansive mood, so his disciples sought to learn from him the stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine.
“God first led me by the hand,” he said, “into the Land of Action, and there I dwelt for several years. Then He returned and led me to the Land of Sorrows; there I lived until my heart was purged of every inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the Land of Love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left in me of self. This brought me to the Land of Silence, where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.”
“Was that the final stage of your quest?” they asked.
“No,” the Master answered. “One day God said, ‘Today I shall take you to the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to the heart of God himself.’ And I was led to the Land of Laughter.” (TF p 126)
While I was in seminary reading biographies of great religious figures in history, I was most impressed by the mystics. One common element across the different faiths was the remarkable element of ecstatic love the mystics felt. The Land of Laughter is a fitting description of the experience described by countless mystics. So often the experience of God for these people changes them is a way that puts them out of sync with the rest of the world. They become as Fools for God, seeing a reality radically different from what most of us see and understand. I believe that a religious community such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life. I believe we should be fools, or at least fools-in-training.
A pious old man prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. And now, on his eightieth birthday, he prayed thus:
“Oh lord our God! Since I was a youth, not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and saying my prayers at the five specified times. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling, did I make without first invoking your Name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with women of questionable character, yet he’s rolling in wealth. Lord, I do not ask that he be punished, for that would be unchristian. But please tell me: Why, why, why have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?”
“Because,” said God in reply, “you are such a monumental bore!” (TF p27)
Hey, life is too important to be taken so seriously. You’ve heard the quip that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Deep laughter can be prayer just as surely as can tears or a moan. I had a professor tell me she could tell something of the spiritual maturity of a person based on the sorts of things at which that person would laugh. I felt some of the best praise I every received was from my chaplaincy supervisor when she wrote in an evaluation that I had an acutely developed sense of life’s absurdity. I don’t think I quite qualify as a fool, but I could make a case for being able to carry the title of fool-in-training.
There is a story of a western scholar who traveled to the east to learn from a spiritual master. When he arrived the master invited him to sit and share a cup of tea. The master began to pour the tea into the cup for the scholar and when the tea reached the top, the master continued to pour the tea. As the tea spilled out over the top of the cup, the scholar cried, “Stop, stop! The cup is full, it will hold no more.”
The master continued to smile at the westerner and said, “And so it is with you. You ask me to tell you of the wisdom I know, yet what can I offer you when you are already full?”
It is not easy to be a fool-in-training. The full-fledged fools we would learn from offer such compelling and yet confounding lessons!
A Guru promised a scholar a revelation of greater consequence than anything contained in the scriptures. When the scholar asked for it, the Guru said, “Go out into the rain and raise your head and arms heavenward. That will bring you the first revelation.”
The next day the scholar came to report: “I followed your advice and water flowed down my neck. And I felt like a perfect fool.”
“Well,” said the Guru, “for the first day that’s quite a revelation, isn’t it?” (TF p70)
We do not, however, need to pack up and go to China or Tibet to find a holy fool from whom to learn. The character of the fool pervades so many cultures and religions.
From Hollywood’s Forest Gump to Loki, the Old Norse god of Chaos, there are many examples. Puck, Pan and Winnie the Pooh all offer slightly different illustrations of the fool. Native traditions from North America and Africa present trickster characters in the form of familiar animals such as Coyote, Spider, Tortoise, and of course Rabbit. These animals echo through our secular culture as evidenced for example by specific rabbit characters such as Brier Rabbit and Bugs Bunny.
Harlequins, jesters, clowns and fools abound in Medieval and Elizabethan plays and stories. Truffeldino in the Servant of Two Masters, the Fool in King Lear and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are but a few memorable examples.
The greatest archetypal fool is from the story of the Fisherking. In one version of the Arthurian grail legend, the fool wanders in on the king who is dying. The king, who had sought the healing powers of the Holy Grail all his life, had grown old and weary with a sickness that wasted not only his body and spirit but also the land he ruled. When the king sees the fool he asks for a drink. The fool finds a cup, fills it with water and offers it to the dying king, who is instantly healed. The king realizes the cup he is now holding is the very artifact he had spent his life seeking. In disbelief bordering on jealous anger he asks the fool where he had found the precious Grail. The fool shrugs and says, “I’m not sure, all I know is that you were thirsty.”
Herein lays the elegant power of the fool. He, or she, is not really trying to do a great thing. The fool simply sees life differently. The fool lives in the world where the first are last and the last are first. Paradox, irony, and truth are her tools; love and understanding are his goals.
A philosopher, having made an appointment to dispute with Nasruddin, called at the appointed hour and found him away from home. Nasruddin had forgotten their plan and was in the teahouse playing table games and telling stories with his friends. After waiting for some time the philosopher grew angry. Picking up a piece of chalk, he wrote “Stupid Oaf” on Nasruddin’s door and left in a huff.
As soon as he got home and saw this, Nasruddin rushed to the philosopher’s house. “I had forgotten our appointment,” he said, “I apologize for not having been home. Of course, I remembered the appointment as soon as I saw that you had left your name on my door.” (DS p10)
Nasruddin the Hodja is said to have been a real person born in Turkey in the year 1208. Hodja means teacher, and Nasruddin was a teacher/wise man and sometimes a judge. He lived at the time of the powerful conqueror Tamerlane and is said to have won him over through cleverness and humor.
He is said to have died around 1284. Even in death he makes one laugh and pause to wonder. His grave is marked by a single iron gate. The gate is locked – but there are no walls on either side.
Since his death the people of Turkey and many other countries in the Middle East have been telling stories about him. Some may be true; others surely are made up, inspired by his character. Stories are still being made in his name today. Custom has it that when you tell one tale about Nasruddin you must tell another: more to the point, one cannot help but tell another. (DS p10-11)
One night a neighbor strolling by Nasruddin’s house found him outside under the street lamp brushing through the dust. “Have you lost something, my friend?” he asked. Nasruddin explained that he had lost his key and asked the neighbor to help him find it.
After some minutes of searching and turning up nothing, the neighbor asked him, “Are you sure you lost the key here?”
“No, I did not lose it here. I lost it inside the house,” Nasruddin answered.
“If you lost the key in your house, Nasruddin, why are you looking for it out here?”
“Well,” Nasruddin replied, “there’s more light out here, of course.” (DS p101)
Nassrudin rode the train to work every day. One day, as usual, the train conductor came and asked him for his ticket. He began fumbling around in his coat pockets, and his pant pockets, and then in other people’s pockets. He looked in his briefcase, in his bags, and then in other people’s bags.
Finally the train conductor said, “Nasruddin, I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That is where most mean keep it.”
“Oh no,” said Nasruddin. “I can’t look there. Why, if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.” (DS p 51)
These two stories about lost keys and lost tickets are delightful because they are both entertaining and enlightening. They carry the quality of a good parable in that there is a twinge of recognition for the hearer, but it comes at you sideways. The truth sneaks in on the wings of laughter.
An old rabbi was lying ill in bed and his disciples were holding a whispered conversation at his bedside. They were extolling his unparalleled virtues.
“Not since the time of Solomon has there been one as wise as he,” one of them said. “And his faith! It equals that of our father Abraham!” said another. “Surely his patience equals that of Job,” said a third. “Only in Moses can we find someone who conversed as intimately with God,” said a fourth.
The rabbi seemed restless. When the disciples had gone, his wife said to him, “Did you hear them sing your praises?”
“I did,” said the rabbi
“Then why are you so fretful?” asked his wife.
“My modesty,” complained the rabbi. “No one mentioned my modesty!” (TF p113)
I think the reason I particularly like this story of the old rabbi is how easily I can identify with him. I have a foolish bumper sicker on my car that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” The fool challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, negates preconceived notions. Since I was a teenager I have loved a playful little quip that says, “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.” It was Ben Franklin who said, “Alas if I ever became truly humble, I would be proud of it.”
A ninety-two-year-old priest was venerated by everyone in town. When he appeared on the streets, people would bow low – such was the man’s reputation his holiness. He was also a member of the Rotary Club. Every time the club met, he would be there, always on time and always seated at his favorite spot in a corner of the room. One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he vanished into thin air because, search as they might, the townsfolk could find no trace of him. The following month, however, when the Rotary Club met, there he was as usual, sitting in his corner.
“But, Father,” everyone cried, “where have you been?”
“In prison,” said Father calmly.
“In prison? For heaven’s sake, you couldn’t hurt a fly! What happened?”
“It’s a long story,” said the priest, “but briefly, this is what happened: I bought myself a train ticket to the city and was waiting on the platform for the return train to arrive when this stunningly beautiful girl appears on the arm of a policeman. She looks me over, turns to the cop and says, ‘he did it.’ And to tell you the truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty.” (TF p113-14)
What would you have done if you were in the priest’s position? Granted you’re not a priest, but I bet most of you are not fools either. I certainly am not foolish enough to follow that fine priest’s example. But, then, I don’t think we each need to follow a strict example to really learn to laugh at life’s absurdities and live. I think we need to cultivate that sense of reality that seems so upside down to most people. I think we need to risk our respectability more. As a faith tradition we are too concerned with our respectability, yet being respectable leads us away from being radical and into becoming irrelevant!
The sannyasi had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the sannyasi.
“Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on the forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond; probably the largest diamond in the world, for it was as large as a person’s head. He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. Next day at the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.” (SB p 140)
Indeed, the wealth that makes such foolishness possible is hidden in a radical upside-down understanding of reality where the first shall be last and the last shall be first; where earthly power is nothing compared with the power that is given to the peaceful, the impoverished, the persecuted. But beware, for even peace, poverty, and persecution can be polluted into uselessness if you push them. Beware. Beware! “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!” (Rumi)
A car accident occurred in a small town. A crowd surrounded the scene so that a newspaper reported couldn’t manage to get close enough to see the victim. He hit upon an idea. “I’m the father of the victim!” he cried. “Please let me through.” The crowd let him pass so he was able to get right up to the scene of the accident and discover, to his embarrassment, that the victim was a donkey. (TF p189-190)
In a world without end, may it be so!
(TF) Taking Flight by Anthony De Mello
(SB) The Song of the Bird by Anthony De Mello
(DS) Doorways to the Soul by Elisa Pearlmain