There was a cartoon in the Aug. 29 issue of The New Yorker titled “When Monks Marry.” Two monks, both with shaved heads, are sitting in what appears to be the lotus position. It’s hard to tell because their robes are draped over them in identical ways as they face us. Each has a grimace and the smaller monk, perhaps the wife, says, “The depth of your wrongness is so deep that it is unknowable.” I laughed out loud.

The cartoonist is named Kim Warp. He or she, let’s say Kim is a she, has caught the spirit of our time, maybe in marriage but certainly in public discourse. It is a cruel and polarizing spirit I find painful and frightening. Warp’s cartoon is funny because that spirit is spoken in the language of mystics.

Where do we find a countervailing spirit? Warp is halfway there. Having her couple looking like Buddhist monks may suggest that even our sacred traditions have fallen prey to rigid and angry antagonism. Or she may be suggesting that in this faith tradition, words for angry feelings can be found to continue a dialogue. I suspect her intent is the former, but either way she gives us a picture that allows us to laugh at ourselves, which is the stuff of grace.

This is hopeful in the way that our ability to laugh at ourselves is hopeful. The hope is in grace, be it small or large portion. Grace or gracefulness leads us to whatever mutuality will be found by those increasingly fed up with our present political scatology grounded in its bitter either/or hyperbole. This is definitely not the both/and perspective of the mystical traditions.

Words of grace are the bedrock of our faiths’ oral traditions – words such as kindness, justice, humility, compassion, love, reverence, sacrifice, faithfulness, joy. The frightened spirit of our day, tempted to domination as the way to happiness, appears to categorize these words of grace as weak, boring, the practice of losers. And they are boring in the abstract, but courageous when practiced in the real world of a frightened culture. My church may have found a book full of such words.

The church I attend, The First Parish in Yarmouth, is, as are many others, a good church. One thing that makes it so is that in our search to understand God and grace in our lives we have found ways to tell one another stories of our fears, our vulnerabilities and our losses, and tell, if found, how and where love and forgiveness appeared in the midst of them.

Our church Library Committee looks for books for a “church read” three or four times a year that explore expressions of that spirit in our lives and the life of the world. The congregation is invited to read them. Each is then integral to a sermon preached on a Book Read Sunday. The book we have recommended for our next read, to be preached about and discussed on Nov. 20, is “The Book of Joy – Lasting Happiness in a World of Change.” It gives voice to the Spirit that moderates our fear, maximizes our hope and empowers the opening of our hearts and souls to and for one another and others.

“The Book of Joy” records a week-long conversation between a Tibetan Buddhist, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a South African Christian, Bishop Desmond Tutu. These are playful holy men who kneel tall in our world longing for grace-filled words. They are well aware of the struggles, brutalities and the bloody abuses of ego-driven power in our world. They know pain in their own lives and of the pain in the lives of all people. Yet in and through it and above all, as a consequence of their faiths and practices, they know joy.

One aspect of their delight is found in their laughter. The editor of their conversations, Douglas Abrams, comments in the foreword on the laughter coming from the rooms they shared. A story is told of their waiting in the wings to appear in conversation before an audience. As they were about to go on stage, the Dalai Lama grabbed Tutu’s neck as if to choke him. They wrestled playfully and Tutu admonished him with a wink, “Is this any way for holy men to behave?” Their laughter affirmed that it was. There are a number of significant themes dealt with in the interchanges of the two men, for example, beginning on page 193 “Perspective – there are many different angles.”

These days, good humor and mature perspective seem wanting in much of our political discourse. Thus happiness, which leans toward but is not joy, is thought to be found in infallibility and domination. Safety is sought by projecting blame and denying vulnerability. The cost of this strategy is the loss of intimacy, empathy and authenticity. In religious terms, this is a refusal to confess. The irony of this stance is that it prohibits forgiveness. Forgiveness, given and received, is the stuff of grace that opens the doors of our hearts to experience love and practice mutual aid, just where joy is found.

May the day come when The New Yorker’s married monks speak of their mutual forgiveness, acknowledging that it comes from an unknowable source and yet, at the same time, is of their making. This is one of the paradoxes found in mystical insight and, at least to mystics, is funny. That cartoon will not be as funny as its predecessor but it will speak of grace and show joy on their faces.

Bill Gregory is an author and retired UCC minister. He can be contacted at:

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