The Eternal Now

Spirituality of Improv, The Holy Trinity

One summer, I disciplined myself to take walks like “Eyes” does. I paused to look at the patterns and shapes of flowers, the stippling of color along their petals, the bend of their long stems. I opened myself to the silhouetted patterns of leaves against the sky as the buds unfurled and the sunlight grew in strength from April to late August. When it rained, I stood over the puddles and studied my muted reflection, broken by the impact of drops and the ridges of ripples. One day, coming back home, I looked at the dirt and bracken beaten down around the edges of a parking lot, and I thought, “this is the only time I’ll see this with these eyes, see this particular pattern of twigs and trash and stones. They’ll never be in this exact pattern again, the sun will never slant onto them in exactly this way, I’ll never again find the posture and the position of my body that allows me to see how dark and hard their shadows are.” Everything is ephemeral, and I felt very grateful to God for being in each and every moment, for abiding in the eternity that these passing things have a permanent home in. They exist here only moment by moment. With God, they exist forever.

That Autumn, my mother died. She was in the ICU for a month, and day after day my father and I were with her, in among the tubes and trays and beeping machines. At first I kept to the disciplines that had filled my summer with such a feeing of grace. I quieted my breath, paid attention to my body, felt how my emotions played themselves out in my stomach and shoulders. I was a spiritual warrior, an unassailable castle, and I would agree to listen to grief and learn from it, but it wouldn’t break me. Three days before she died, my daughter and I went to see Arrival, the science fiction movie starring Amy Adams. The movie begins with a death, the death of her daughter, but is really about time and eternity. The aliens experience time differently, and their language reflects an understanding of the eternal now. My daughter and I left the theater with our hearts in our throats. The hospital was on the other side of the highway, and the tower where my mother lay was visible from the theater’s parking lot. I checked my phone and saw, miracle beyond miracles, that she had come out of her coma, and we drove to the hospital and found her sitting up in bed, her eyes open, mouthing words around the tube that snaked down her throat and into her lungs. We told her how much we loved her, tried to explain what had happened to her. She tried to write us a note with her swollen hands, an illegible scrawl. But it didn’t matter. She was getting better. Soon we’d get to talk to her, to sit with her at the dinner table, to watch her age with grace and, eventually, far into the future, die with dignity.

The next day she had slipped back into a coma, and my brothers were summoned from California to be there at her death bed. In the following months, as grief took hold of me and all of my disciplines fell away, my daughter would talk about time. She said that she didn’t necessarily believe in life after death, but she did believe that all time was the same in the eyes of God. With God, all things are eternally alive, in all of their different moments of existence. My infant mother was with God in the eternal now, and my dying mother was with God in the eternal now. And each moment of my own life, and my daughter’s life, will continually exist in God until the end of time. That is what is meant by God’s eternity.

To walk like Eyes, to be aware, to perceive, is more than a pleasant past time, more than a spiritual discipline that makes one aware of mystery and beauty and fills one with gratitude. To walk like Eyes is to touch God’s eternity, to see the incredible preciousness of each passing thing and to know that it really isn’t passing, but eternal. After her sister died, the artist Lori Esposito embarked on a series of “grief walks.” She would place water and dye on a porcelain plate and walk with it until the water had evaporated and a pattern of dye was dried to the plate. If the weather was humid, these walks would take hours – if it was arid, they would be quick. She walked in all weather. I walked with her once, and stared down at the crystalline patters of dye that rimed the edges of the plate where the water had splashed, and at the diminishing pool of tint in the plate’s center, the way it dried in waves, lapped like the patterns of tide on a beach. I breathed and moved my body and concentrated on the plate. Lori was teaching me to understand and participate in grief by understanding and participating in the now. Because it’s in the now that all things are returned to us. It’s in the now that the world is restored.

Sarah Laughs, and Her Laughter Helps Us: A Homily

Scripture, Spirituality of Improv

In the 18th chapter of Genesis, Sarah laughs, and I think that her laughter is of prime spiritual importance. It’s proceeded by three mysterious strangers appearing to her and Abraham while they’re camping by the Oaks of Mamre. These strangers tell Abraham that Sarah, who is ninety years old, is going to have a baby. She’s listening to this exchange from inside of her tent, and her response is a giant guffaw (or maybe a snigger, the type of laughter isn’t really specified). Let’s take a minute to briefly recount what’s happened to Sarah so far in the Book of Genesis, so that we can decide whether her laughter is justified. In Chapter 11, we learn that Sarah, although very beautiful, is barren. Regardless, God tells Abraham that Sarah’s offspring will become a great nation. Abraham doesn’t seem to be paying very close attention to this, because in the very same chapter he and Sarah go down to Egypt in order to avoid a famine, and Abraham says to Sarah, “Hey, you’re really beautiful,” which seems like a compliment, but then he says, “because of your beauty, Pharaoh is going to want to kill me so that he can take you as his wife. So when we get to Egypt, lie and say you’re my sister.” This plan works out, in that Abraham isn’t killed, but Pharaoh, who does think that Sarah is really beautiful, says, “Great, she’s your sister? Then she can marry me, no problem.” Good thing she’s barren, or her progeny might have ended up being Egyptian rather than Hebrew. But then God sends some plagues on Pharaoh’s household, and Pharaoh figures out that it’s because of Sarah, and he kicks both her and Abraham out of Egypt, after loading them up with gifts so that God will stop being mad and the plagues will go away. Then poor Sarah is dragged back up to the land of Cana, where her husband decides that he wants to fight in a war against King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and off he goes to battle, and Sarah must be thinking, “if he dies, there goes the great nation that God’s supposed to produce from my offspring.” But he wins and comes back with all the spoils of war, so everything is fine. But still no baby. So Sarah thinks, “maybe this really isn’t about me,” and she says to Abraham, “sleep with my slave girl, Hagar, and she’ll give you a son.” So Abraham does and sure enough Hagar has a baby, who she names Ishmael, although he never goes off with Captain Ahab to hunt white whales. Now everything seems fine, but in Genesis 17 God says, “Nope. I said that Sarah would give rise to nations, not Hagar (although Ishmael’s going to be the father of some pretty great nations, too).” So we come to today’s reading, Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre, and Sarah is ninety years old and has been waiting a long time to have a son and see God’s promise fulfilled. And when three mysterious strangers show up and tell her and Abraham that it’s about to happen, she laughs.

But why dos she laugh? Why do any of us ever laugh? What is laughter all about? Well, according to humorologist Salvatore Attardo, laughter is all about breaking Paul Grice’s rules of conversation. Grice didn’t set the rules of conversation, of course. Those have been there from the very beginning. But in the nineteen-seventies he came up with an influential theory to explain how conversations work, and he created four maxims to describe what we’re doing when we talk to each other. His big idea, which these maxims expand on, is that conversation is all about cooperation. We assume that the people we’re talking to will cooperate in the conversation that we’re having with them. We assume that in conversation two or more people are building something together, even if they’re having an argument. When someone breaks the rules and the conversation is in danger of falling apart, we laugh, at least according to Salvatore Attardo. So laughter is a sign that the conversational contract has broken down. Sarah’s laugh seems to indicate that communication between her and God has broken down.

Here are Grice’s four maxims, with commentary and jokes:

The Maxim of Quantity – When we talk to each other, we expect our conversation partners to give us just the right amount of information, neither too much, nor too little. This is why we find mansplaining so annoying. We don’t need a dissertation on the process of carbonation when we ask for a soda. But giving too little information also violates the maxim on quantity. Attardo’s illustrating joke is this: Question – “Do you know what time it is?” Answer – “Yes.” I have to admit that when this type of joke has been directed at me, I’ve found it more irritating than amusing. And we might ask, is it enough for the three mysterious strangers to simply tell Sarah that she’s going to have a baby? Are they giving her enough information?

The Maxim of Relation – Say only what is relevant for the current purposes of the conversation. In other words, don’t digress. Attardo uses this joke to illustrate: Question – “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer – “Fish!” In Sarah’s case, is it relevant to tell a ninety year old that she’s going to have a baby? Seemingly impossible things seldom seem relevant.

The Maxim of Manner – Be brief, but avoid ambiguity and obscurity of expression. Breaking this rule leads to Abbott and Costello’s old “who’s on first” routine. Groucho Marx also made good use of it when he said that “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” The three strangers’ announcement to Sarah seems equally bizarre and obscure.

The Maxim of Quality – Don’t say things that you know are false, or that you don’t have enough evidence to support. In other words, don’t lie. Mark Twain was guilty of breaking the maxim of quality in his joke about Cincinnati. He said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” Funny, but obviously untrue. This is the one rule that the strangers’ proclamation doesn’t seem to break.

So Sarah laughed because the three messengers of God who visit her and Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre broke Grice’s conversational maxims, at least the first three. The only maxim that the heavenly messengers don’t seem to break is the Maxim of Manner. They’re brief, unambiguous, and the opposite of obscure. “You will have a son.” Full stop. But God is expansive, mysterious, and ineffable. Doesn’t communication with God always break Grice’s Maxim of Manner, just because God’s very nature is beyond what we’d consider mannerly?

Sarah laughed because her communication with God had broken down. God had broken the conversational rules. And God always breaks the conversational rules, just because God is God, and will never adhere to the Maxim of Manner, and doesn’t seem to have much use for the other three maxims, either. If this is true, isn’t all of our communication with God primarily marked by laughter? Or shouldn’t it be? Not because we find God funny, not because we’re mocking God, but because we find the communication itself to be so weird and abnormal that it amuses us. The communication breakdown is all on our end, not God’s. We fail to truly hear and to understand God, so we laugh. But God hears and understands us, even our laughter. And as the scripture says, Sarah gets this. She says, “God gave me laughter.” Laughter is a gift from God.

And yet, despite everything I just said, the real question isn’t why Sarah laughed, but how does the fact of her laughter help us?

Well, mostly it helps us with our internal transformations. I’ll go so far to say that there’s no transformation without comedy. When something truly life-altering and transformative happens, it breaks all of Grice’s maxims, shatters the rules of normal behavior, and leaves us feeling lost and confused. Even if it’s a good thing. Any young parent can tell you that the birth of their baby has altered their life in surprising ways. They have to adjust to new versions of themselves. And although there’s a never ending series of books to tell them how to do that, and even though they’ve taken countless birthing classes and received the unasked for advice of many older relatives, they still find themselves confused and perplexed and not knowing how to live into their new role as parents. Fights about getting up in the night to see to the baby aren’t fights about that at all. New parents are wondering whether the person they made the baby with, whom they were pretty sure loved them and had their best interests at heart, will really choose sleep over them. It all gets very tough and complicated, and if you can’t laugh about it together, things aren’t going to go very well. I say it here and I’ll say it again – there’s no transformation without comedy.

But don’t just take my word for it, take Richard Sewall’s. In his book A Vision of Tragedy, Sewall suggests that tragedy is tragic because it disorders the world. When you experience a tragedy, all the day to day assumptions that you’ve built your life around are called into question or disappear entirely, and you find yourself out on the moors with a deranged parent who’s just gouged his own eyes out, like in King Leer. Or you gouge your eyes out because you find you’ve been sleeping with your mother accidentally, like Oedipus does. There’s a lot of eye-gouging in tragedy, and very little in comedy, because tragedy leaves you feeling blind. You can no longer see the order that you thought was implicit in the universe.

Comedy seems to make fun of order, even seems to undercut order, but it secretly rebuilds it. Sewall says that comedy relies on a vision of ultimate harmony, and I think he’s right. It’s never satisfying unless the order that it makes fun of is replaced by a new sense of order – in romantic comedies, this new order is usually symbolized by a wedding.

Comedy redeems the pain of transformation. Transformation always has its portion of suffering, and no transformation is quick and easy. One of my favorite quotes from Saint Anselm comes from his poem on baptism. “After I lost the joy of my baptism,” he wrote, “I wallowed in manifold sins.” It’s hard to imagine what sins the kindly old saint was wallowing in, but I’m grateful to have him affirm that baptism doesn’t just clear away all of the tragedy from a Christian’s life. People of all faiths, and probably of no faith, have had similar experiences. You undergo a conversion, or a rite of passage, or some world-shattering life event, and then you sit there wondering, “now what?” And you find that you’ve dragged your old self kicking and screaming into the life of your new self, and the old self isn’t happy about it, and is still pretty persuasive about going back to all of your old bad habits. And because we’re susceptible to that old self’s arguments, we slip back into old, destructive ways of being, and regret it, and stew in a sense of our own horribleness and hypocrisy. So, no matter how much we wish it was otherwise, transformation involves suffering.

Comedy, with its wry, sassy approach to suffering, acts as a kind of hangover cure. Sure we messed up, but it’s not the end of the world, and we probably learned something. But we won’t really be able to accept what we learned until we can laugh about it. Once you find that you can tell a story about yourself, a story in which you look ridiculous, you know that the story has lost its shame. Yes, it’s a story of failure, but the failure has taught you something, and the new self you’re becoming delights in self-knowledge, even values it more than looking cool or being perfect.

In order to get there, you have to embrace humility, accept your foibles and failures, and shrug off the pride of perfectionism. Hard stuff, I know. But many, many mystics are agreed that without humility, the human soul can never really know God. Humility is of prime spiritual importance, and most of our transformations are, at root, about learning to be humble. Comedy is all about humility – the humbling of the great as their ridiculousness is exposed, the exalting of the humble, who are shown to be cleverer and wiser than anyone suspects, and the humbling of our social contracts, which are revealed to be nothing more than a set of rules or maxims that, granted, have their usefulness, but often deliberately block beauty and cage grace. Can laughter help us learn how to be humble and navigate the many vicissitudes of transformation, so that we can discover a new order, a new harmony, and be delighted by it?

I think it can, but only if we learn how to surrender control. And control is a hard pattern to break. We often think that control is the antidote to fear. I’m afraid that people won’t do what they said they’d do, that no one will show up, that everything will go horribly wrong and I’ll look like an idiot. So I rush around trying to control everything, which just means that if everything does go horribly wrong, all of the blame is going to devolve on me. A vicious cycle.

But in the spiritual life, you can’t control grace. For me, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where we all help each other to overcome our fear and let go of our need for control. Where the Holy Spirit moves through us and makes each of us a leader when we need to lead, and let’s each of us be a follower when we need to follow. It’s a place where failure is acceptable and transformation is real. It’s a place where laughter harmonizes our lives and gives us back the order that tragedy takes away. Sarah laughs in the Kingdom of Heaven because she’s surprised by a miracle and humble about her own understanding of it, and because God has overwhelmed her with information and gestured towards the intense transformation that’s about to swamp her life. And her laughter has something to teach us – how to be humble, how to accept transformation, how to see things as they really are, how to live in real community, and, most importantly, how to respond to God with surprised joy.

Name Untroubled, I Will Trouble Your Name

Spirituality of Improv, The Holy Trinity

My friend Laurie and I have been reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three One of Bourgeault’s central points is that we make a mistake when we think about God as a person, and the Trinity as persons. What if we were to think in terms of process, rather than persons? Not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but Unmanifest, Manifesting, Manifested. Her emphasis in this formulation is on action. God is unmanifest, huge cosmic, beyond our knowing and understanding. God is manifesting, reaching out to us, trying to lead and teach us. God is manifested, active in our lives, a continuous presence.

I really like this, but I am given pause by one aspect of it, mostly because it seems to contradict some of my thoughts on the spirituality of improv. Bourgeault describes this trinitarian process as affirming, denying, and reconciling. If God is unmanifest, than “God manifesting” is really the opposite of that. God, who is beyond our understanding, becomes human in Jesus, and is therefore understandable, or at least partially so. These first two movements of the Trinity seem to contradict each other. How can something that is eternally beyond our knowing become known? For Bourgeault, this is exactly the magic of the process. We affirm one thing, then we affirm something that contradicts it, and then we find that, instead of existing in continuous opposition to each other, a third thing happens that reconciles the first two. So the ineffable, mysterious God becomes known in Jesus Christ, and remains both known and deeply mysterious in the actions of the Holy Spirit.

Another book I’m reading, Scott Weems Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why has helped me to understand this. In fact, reading the two books together has been positively thrilling! Weems, a neuroscientist, says that our brains are full of contradictory thoughts. They’re a little like the United Nations, where countries are in constant and vociferous arguments with each other. Sometimes these arguments are about petty things, but sometimes they entail the clash of world views. But our minds don’t just leave these thoughts in conflict. Our minds work to reconcile them, and it’s the very process of reconciling two discordant thoughts that causes us to laugh. Humor is the result of reconciliation.

You can see the parallel to Bourgeault. Essentially, she’s describing with theology the same process that Weems is describing with neuroscience. For the first time in my life, I find science and theology actively supporting each other, pointing to exactly the same thing and describing exactly the same process. I laughed when I realized this, and then realized that I had just experienced in my body the exact process that the books were talking about. Theology attempts to describe the unmanifested. Neuroscience describes the manifesting. I laugh because I realize that these two seemingly oppositional disciplines have been reconciled, and the trinity is fully manifested in my laughter.

Pretty good stuff, right? Being excited about this, I’ve begun to wonder how it might change the way I pray. Traditionally, Christian prayer starts with an invocation, often an invocation of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’m wondering what kind of trinitarian invocations we can use that invoke process, rather than persons. It seems to me that such an invocation would succeed best if it could actually trigger the process of affirming, denying, and reconciling in the people who are praying it. The art work and the poem I created to try to express this is just a first attempt, and I don’t think I really got it right. But I share it with you now, and will share other attempts as I continue to try to develop this practice.

A final thought about improv. At first I thought that Bourgeault might be contradicting one of the tenets of improv by claiming that denying is part of trinitarian process. In improv, denial is a real problem, and improv practitioners are taught to yes/and things, not deny them. But if Weems is right, I think that denial is baked-in to improv, although not in the way we usually think of it. Two actors take the stage. They both have things that they’re going to say, and ways that they’re going to react to each other. One gifts the scene with an opening statement, such as “tell our kids to be quiet.” This would be the “affirming” moment in Bourgeault’s scheme. The other then has to set aside whatever they were going to say, and whatever character they thought they might be playing. They are denying their own ideas in order to favor another person’s ideas. “Okay,” they say to themselves, “I’m not a lumberjack, I’m a parent. Or maybe I’m a great big lumberjack daddy!” They accept the gift the other actor has given them, and add to it, and this is the moment of reconciliation, which is why it’s funny. It’s also why it’s holy.

Communities of Discovery

Spirituality of Improv

“Isn’t improv hard?” My wife asked me at breakfast, after I’d been waxing poetic about the 2015 Young Adult retreat, where my friends Barbara Allen and Bill Sabo led us in exploring the spirituality of improvisation.

“Not really,” I said, and then I thought about it. “I suppose it is hard, but in the way that yoga is hard, or powerful prayer is hard. You start with really simple things and build on them, to the point that after an hour, or in the case of the improv retreat, six hours, you’re doing and feeling things that you couldn’t right at the beginning.” I sipped my coffee and thought about how skillfully Bill and Barbara had done this, how they’d patiently built from nothing to the point where, at the end, people who had been shy and felt awkward at first were doing wonderful two person scenes. And I realized that they’d gotten us there by inviting us to be vulnerable, and creating a community of safety and mutual regard. How had they done this?

Mark Twain famously said that a joke is like a frog. You can dissect it, but first you have to kill it. So it’s with some trepidation that I choose to describe Barbara and Bill’s method and speculate on its meaning for Christian community. A two person scene usually starts with the improvisers asking for a setting or a relationship, or for some other prompt that will give them a context. In good improv fashion, I should give you the context of the retreat. We were at the Procter Center, right before Christmas. The sets of relationships were varied, or one might say hybrid. The Young Adult retreat started as a kind of reunion for Procter camp counsellors, but in recent years has expanded to include intentional communities, campus ministries, and any young adult who finds the theme intriguing and chooses to join us. So when we gathered on Friday night there were a lot of hugs and old friendships resumed, and a few clumps of people who live in community together but were strangers to everyone else.

Jane Gerdsen designed our opening worship, which involved candles and singing and prayers. Bill and Barbara said that it was the best introduction to an improv retreat they’d ever seen, so hooray for Jane! After we worshipped, Barbara and Bill began the work of knitting us together as a community by introducing us to the Zulu greeting, “I see you, you are here.” It was a call to recognizing one’s own presence in the room and inviting the other person to be fully present as well. Having planted this idea in our heads, Barbara introduced us to a game that, miraculously, got all forty of us to know each other’s names within the space of about twenty minutes. Then, in a huge circle, we played “Pass the Clap,” a famous improv game that consists of nothing but looking at the person next to you and trying to clap at exactly the same moment. The clap moved around the circle, all the others watching intently as each pair in turn tried to synchronize their clapping, looking into each other’s eyes, syncing themselves to each other. This, and a few other games, emphasized the deep need for attentiveness and awareness in improv work. Through these exercises, such work becomes contemplative, and participants are invited to live within the present moment without worrying about the past or planning for the future.

It was also an opportunity for Bill to teach us about discovery. There is an assumption that improv, and creative endeavor in general, is about invention – we prove how smart we are by inventing something new to do, think, or make. But improv posits that true creativity is based in discovery – finding out, through close attention, what the world is like, who another person is, what one’s own experience is all about. For Christians, who believe in God’s creation and gifts of grace, an attitude that’s open to discovery should be assumed. It isn’t, often, because our lives outside the church don’t reward it, and often our faith communities reflect the larger society’s emphasis on dominance and individualism. But what if we could assume that everything is a gift to us – each encounter, each observation, each emotion we feel, each environment we find ourselves in? Writing this at Christmas time, I can’t help but think of the nativity story, which is a narrative of discovery. No one says no to the miraculous truths that they’re discovering. Mary doesn’t say, “I can’t give birth to the savior of the world, because I didn’t think to do so all on my own,” the shepherds don’t say “angels can’t speak to us because we’re too unimportant,” the magi don’t say “a king can’t be hanging out in a stable.” All of them discover new truths about the world and God, and agree to that discovery.

We ended the evening by playing an amazing game called “three things.” The principle is simple. One person starts out as an object, animate or otherwise, a giraffe, for example. Another person gets up and says “I’m the giraffe’s keeper.” A third person gets up and says, “I’m the keeper’s secret desire to work with apes.” The audience then shouts out which of these three things should be kept to start the next scene with. “Keep the desire to work with apes!” That person stays while the other two sit down, and a new person gets up and says, “I’m a lonely ape who needs a friend,” and a third gets up and says “I’m a banana that’s hoping not to get eaten.” And so on. As we played this, we reached the point in the retreat when people really started laughing, when you could feel a sense of rising joy in the community. There was an understanding that any idea would do, that no one would be criticized for their choices, that supportive laughter was the norm.

The next morning, after Holy Communion, we returned to circle games, playing the scatologically named “Where Have My Fingers Been?” As we went around the circle, each person held up a finger as the person next to them did likewise, and initiated a brief scene based on a location prompt. Maybe someone would tell them “you’re in a zoo!” The first person would waggle a finger like it was a character and say, “I’m a giraffe.” The second would waggle a finger in response and say “I miss my zoo keeper.” The first person would complete the scene with one more line, “The apes have it lucky.” It seems easy on paper, but when the scene came around it was easy to freeze, trying to think of something clever or funny to say. In improv this is called “getting in your head.” It’s a response based in fear, in worry over acceptance, sometimes in a competitive desire to dominate others and prove yourself to be the best. Games like “Where Have My Fingers Been” are designed to get you out of your head, away from the worries over acceptance or criticism and purely invested in the moment you’re inhabiting. This is a very difficult thing to learn how to do, and the next exercises reenforced the lesson as we did more very brief scenes, initiating dialog and responding to the initiation.

In some ways, this process of remaining open to discovery even as we initiate ideas or respond to other people’s ideas is very like the concept of nepsis in the contemplative tradition. Nepsis can best be described as “the mind watching the mind.” It corresponds to Jesus’s statement in Mark 7:15 that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When I let my mind watch my mind, I become aware of all of the criticism, the competitiveness, the fears and anxieties that shape my thoughts on an almost moment to moment basis. It is those things that make it hard for me to be authentic in community, to open myself up and be truly vulnerable to others. One of the benefits of contemplative prayer is that it makes one aware of these thoughts, and then offers an invitation to let them go, to move beyond them and rest solely in God. Oddly, to me this is also one of the benefits of a game like “Where Have My Fingers Been?” It teaches us that moment to moment thoughts aren’t really that important, that they can be caught and released, and that there is always someone there to accept them without judgement.

And after practicing this a number of times, we found ourselves truly playing together, creating two person scenes of great joy and vitality. By Saturday afternoon, we had become a community, and the context had changed. We were no longer a reunion, or a conglomerate of different ministries and houses. We were a church. This became powerfully apparent at the very end of the retreat. Aaron Wright and Jane asked us to offer each other improv blessings. We broke into groups of three, and each person was blessed by the other two, prayed over, told what the others appreciated about them. I tear up just thinking about it. And I know, now, that true community comes into being when people let go of their internal editors, and even more importantly, their internal critics, when they don’t try to control the world but open themselves up to discovering it, when they find the freedom to play, and when they choose to bless the specificity of each other’s being. Community can’t be created, it can only be discovered.

Fully Alive! An Improv Retreat in Chicago

Spirituality of Improv

A line of people stood looking at a small table.  It was empty, but they’d been told that there was a television on it, and asked to describe that television.  “Use the phrase, ’it is,’ at the start of your description,” John Poole told them.  Hesitantly, people offered their phrases.  “It is black.  It is old.  It is a tube television.”  John then asked them to describe the television with the phrase ‘you are.’  “You are too far away from the couch.  You are heavy.  You smell like cigarettes.”  That last phrase stopped John in his tracks, it was so evocative of childhood, of grandmothers who set their ash trays on the top of warm TVs so that the stale smell of cigarettes rose like incense.  Finally, he asked them to describe the television with the phrase ‘thou art.’  “Thou art laughter when I’m feeling lonely.  Thou art conversations with my friends.  Thou art rest when I’m tired.”

We were in Chicago for the Fully Alive! retreat, practicing improv in the sanctuary of Grace Place church.  The retreat was the brainchild of myself and my colleagues Jonathan Melton and Stacy Alan.  Jonathan and I are both fans of Sam Wells’s book “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.”  My own fascination with this book led me to Second City over the past summer, where I enrolled in a week long intensive course.  So Stacy’s suggestion that we shape this year’s Provincial Gathering around the theme of improv seemed like the continuation of a great and important pilgrimage.  At the same time, we knew that it would take some work to connect improv with Christian theology, while allowing retreat participants a chance to experience the joys of actual improv acting.  What Sam Wells needed a book to accomplish, we vaingloriously hoped to do in two days.

We were deeply fortunate to have John Poole there to teach and lead.  John has been an improv actor for years, and he chose exercises that illuminated the life of faith.  To call an object “thou art” is to invest it with meaning and power, and this leads to a sense of the sacredness of all things, even televisions and toasters.  More, it helps us to understand our relationship to the material world, and this deep awareness of objects and things is essential to Christian spirituality.  As Simone Weil said, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

John was a wildly inventive retreat leader.  He made up two important games on the spot.  One was a sermonizing improv game.  A handful of people stood in a line.  He asked the audience for a random suggestion, and someone shouted out “poodles!”  He turned to the line of people and told them that they would now preach a sermon about poodles.  Pointing at people in turn, he had them each add a word or phrase to the sermon, playing off of what the person who went before them had said.  He used the same method for a game in which participants pretended to be parents trying to argue their children out of becoming Christians.  Many arguments against Christianity were raised, many of which showed the shallowness of our culture and ended up making Christianity look quite good.  We were sharing Grace Place with the homeless community, who were eating breakfast downstairs.  One of the improvisers said, “If you become a Christian, you’ll have to hang out with the homeless, and might even get to know their names.”

We found, as the day went on, that we simply didn’t have enough time to do everything we’d hope to do.  We would have benefited from more time set aside for theological reflection.  The material was so rich that we needed a week of improv, not a weekend.  And we also needed time for relaxation and community building.

We got some of that on Saturday night, when we split up into groups and went off to dinner, and then to an Improv Olympics (IO) show.  We had gathered a diverse group of students and young adults together.  There were international students from India and China, music students from Wisconsin and Ohio, theology students and environmental studies majors from Illinois and Michigan.  We had artists and engineers, medical students and poets.  And we came from a diversity of religious backgrounds: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Buddhists, and Hindus, as well as those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.  The IO show was almost guaranteed to surprise and challenge assumptions.  For some, moments of crudity in the improv we saw was liberating, for others it was simply offensive.  When the improv troupe asked for a suggestion from the audience, someone from our group shouted out “eucharist!”  We were treated to a thirty minute show of improvisation around the theme of eucharist, and for me this became almost anthropological – I was fascinated by the way that the actors picked up the theme and changed it, exhibiting a variety of understandings of the eucharist, most of which were radically different from my own.  If you want to understand how the church is perceived by secular society, shout out “eucharist” at an improv show.

A Week in a Second City Improv Intensive

Spirituality of Improv

I stood in Piper’s Alley, in the hallway of the Second City Training Center in Chicago, and looked at a photo of Stephen Colbert.  It was taken twenty years ago, when he was a student there.  He looked very young.  His hair was in a messy part, and there was something unruly about his jacket and tie.  His grin was manic but his eyes were shy, the same expression that he often wears now that he’s very, very famous.  I was staring at his photo because I admire him and what he represents.  For a segment of the population, he is America’s most public Christian.  And he’s very different from other media Christians, because he combines deep faith with a sense of play.

I enrolled in a week long intensive at Second City because I wanted to learn how to live this combination.  I thought that I was bringing the faith with me, and wanted to learn the play.  Kevin Reome, our instructor, didn’t talk about faith, and I don’t know if he has any religious belief at all.  But he taught us an ethic that compliments and amplifies the ethics that the church has taught me, a social ethic based on mysterious and interpersonal graces.  “Improv is love,” he told us.  Its tenants work best when its practitioners love each other.

I had read Sam Wells book, “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics,” and was already familiar with many of these tenants.  I’d been trying to live them for more than a year, but without a spiritual practice to sustain me.  Could actually doing improv be that practice?  Sam Wells had taught me not to block, to accept other people’s ideas without automatically thinking that they wouldn’t work or, more usually, that they’d take too much of my time and energy.  This has been immensely helpful in my church work, which is all about trying new things and not worrying about the possibility of failure.  But I still find myself slipping into the negative mode, automatically rejecting other people’s ideas or pitting my own ideas against them in a kind of interpersonal contest.  I wanted to learn how to let this go, how to accept the gifts that other people offer through their passions and their hopes.

I was worried that we’d be asked to explain our reasons for being there, and that when I told my classmates, who were mostly improv-loving college students, that I was a priest, they would either start censoring themselves or try to shock me.  But Kevin didn’t have us do any traditional kind of introduction – he got us up and moving around and learning the techniques right away.  The trust and intimacy that we developed throughout the week emerged from the practices of improv.  “Be the person who everyone want to play with,” he told us, meaning that the people who would do best were the people who were most able to set their egos and their need for attention aside, and give gifts in a scene.  He cautioned that this didn’t mean editing away our ideas or being shy about contributing, but instead meant bringing whatever we had and sharing it without fear, letting someone else take it and play with it and change it.  This was a grace-filled process.  “Don’t try to be funny,” he told us.  “Trust that the funny will come.”  Funny, in other words, is a free gift of improv practice, and grace is like it, something that we can’t work for, but which appears anyway in the midst of Christian practice.

The class ended on Friday, and that evening I went with my family to a Taize service at Fourth Presbyterian church in downtown Chicago.  There was time built into the service for personal meditation, and there were icons set-up in a corner of the room.  One of them was the icon of Christ Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.  It’s the oldest known icon of Christ.  The two sides of the face are painted differently – the left side has a drooping eye that looks away from the viewer, and a shadowed cheek; the right side stares straight ahead and the cheeks are clear of shadow.  I’ve always been more attracted to the drooping, shadowed left side.  I used to joke that I wanted to belong to the Church of Eternal Lent.  I appreciated the sorrowful, mourning part of the church.  I trusted it because it fit my nature.  But looking into the right eye of Christ, I realized how much I’d changed, how ten years of serving the church had taught me joy and a spirit of play.

Which brings me back to Stephen Colbert.  He uses his improv training every night on The Colbert Report.  Sometimes his guests are trained in improv and know how to accept his gifts and say yes to his suggestions, lifting his interviews with them into the realm of absurd, joyful abandon.  But often his guests refuse the game.  They block ideas and remain self-serious.  Faced with this, Colbert doesn’t give up the practice of improv – he continues to offer gifts, to accept the other person’s ideas and spin them out into hilarious, delirious webs of humor.  I believe that by doing so he isn’t just practicing improv, but also practicing his Christianity.  A Christianity that plays, that waits for grace, and that constantly invites others to join in the game.