Carnival begins on King's Day, Epiphany, the sixth of January. It starts slowly. King cakes appear in the bakeries, debutantes begin to be present= ed (isn't that an odd phenomenon in this modern era?), a ball or two is held= , and then it begins to build to the parades that begin three weeks or so before Mardi Gras and culminates in these four and a half days of crazine= ss from Friday evening until the police cars drive through the quarter announcing the beginning of Ash Wednesday at midnight. Although it has never been my idea of fun, it is unique and an experience never to be forgotten. It seems to me, though, that over the last ten years it has changed a great deal. There have always been masses of tourists, bizarre behavior and bizarre costumes, heavy drinking and a lowering of barriers = to weird conduct, but it was a party New Orleans threw essentially for itsel= f by itself. It has become more and more frenetic. Any change in it is assessed, not with concern for tradition, and the meaning of the change, but for the impact it will have on the tourists. It has become a stop on the spring break itinerary, and from the interviews I watched on televisi= on news the other day, many people do not get drunk as an adjunct to carniva= l, but come to carnival as an excuse to get drunk. They intend to miss the whole thing in their determination to stay inebriated the entire time. Wh= at a pity - and how essentially joyless. This grim determination to have fun= takes all the joy out of it. You can hardly find it during carnival at al= l.
It has become a consumer event.
During Lent, on the other hand.... Lent is a season of fasting, penitence= and self-denial. It commemorates Jesus' forty days fast in the wilderness= before he began his ministry, being tempted by the promise of worldly goo= ds and power, and choosing instead the service to which he was called. It is= celebrated by the Roman Catholic church and by many Protestant ones. It used to be common to hear people ask one another what they were giving up= for Lent. Admittedly, I associate primarily with Unitarian Universalists who pick and choose the feasts and fasts they wish to commemorate, not on= ly from the Christian calendar but from others, but those are not my only contacts, and I have not heard the question seriously asked or answered i= n a long time. Even the Unitarian Universalist Association, which used to p= ut out a book of meditations each February as an aid to reflection during Lent, is now delaying its publication to May in order to make a splash at= its bookstore display at General Assembly. And yet, for those who still take it seriously, I suspect there is more of the real thing, genuine joy= , to be found during Lent than during Carnival. Joy - true joy - comes as commitment to the life of the spirit rather than to the pleasures of the body. =
It is not that I am in any way opposed to such pleasures. On the contrary= , I believe in them as being good in themselves as long as they are not disconnected from the spirit. Perhaps the joylessness which I seem to see= in the enjoying crowds is because they aren't planning to go to confessio= n on Wednesday. It takes the point out of the pleasure, it seems to me. Aft= er all, the bash was supposed to give you something worth confessing before the fast. Now it's just a bash. It is the pleasures of the body alone. Spirituality is rather a strange term, it seems to me. Although I have preached from the beginning of my career about religion as the way to see= k and grow the life of the spirit, I don't think I ever heard the word spirituality until just a few years ago. I looked it up some time ago, an= d discovered that it was first used in the middle of the last century, but = it never became popular until recently. You could be or become spiritual, yo= u could nurture or perhaps destroy your spirit, but spirituality was seldom= if ever mentioned. Now we hear it all the time, often when someone wishes= to say what people are wanting from church, after which they say, "Whatev= er that means." I presume the people who say that they are looking for spirituality, or don't find it, or feel it, know what they mean by it. =
Actually, that's not fair. I think the word is being used to mean somethi= ng or anything that gives us a sense of the meaning of our lives, and we are= not quite sure what that may be. In this secular and affluent society I think some people find themselves with a diffuse dissatisfaction. It's ha= rd to put your finger on it exactly. People may me pleased with their mates,= satisfied with their jobs, fond of their children, and yet it still seems= as if there is something missing. There is no meaning seemingly attached = to it. You have all this, but what for? Eventually you will retire, your children will be grown, at last you will die, and what was it all about? Just keeping your personal life, however comfortable, and the human race going, seems hardly sufficient reason for all the effort. And so you go looking for spirituality - whatever that is. And you are absolutely right= =2E That is the place to look to fill the haunting emptiness that people are feeling. It is the rain in the desert, the spring among the rocks, the fount of joy. However, our way of thinking and talking about it, changing= spirit to spirituality, makes it, like carnival, something for consumers = - something provided for us rather than a part of ourselves. It's something= we can get rather than something we need to be, and there is in that litt= le joy and little of the spiritual to be found. The life the of spirit, the fullness of joy, comes not from getting but from giving, not from consumi= ng but from dedicating ourselves to something greater than we. There is a phenomenon in our faith called Unitarian Universalist Evangelism. It is about growing membership in our churches by providing what consumers of religion want. When I would listen to its proponents, a= ll I could think of was, "What for?" Other religious institutions can provid= e pot-luck suppers, 12-step programs, adult education classes, children's religious education, basketball teams, ping-pong. It's not that I wouldn'= t like us to do those things. Rather, it seems to me that doing them for th= e attraction of members rather than out of the intention of offering ways f= or people to grow their souls, to become more spiritual, to find the joyfulness and meaning in living through our particular way of being religious, was turning the whole thing on its head. It is true that we teach our citizens to remain consumers from the time they first begin to notice anything outside themselves. We teach ourselves and our children that we deserve a pain-free, thing-filled, pleasure laden existence, that= consumer goods will make us beautiful, healthy and popular, and it only makes sense that if everything else is available for the getting, somethi= ng to satisfy our inchoate yearning for meaning ought to be available in the= same way. Churches thus become the purveyors of spirituality.
Except it doesn't work that way. You cannot consume spirituality. No matt= er how lovely or stirring the music it won't give you spirituality. No matte= r how well-wrought or idealistic the sermon, it won't give you spirituality= =2E No matter how beautiful or moving the readings, spirituality can't be conveyed by them. They may be - indeed they will be - spiritual, because they will be about those ideas that transcend the material world and give= it meaning, though they may sometimes not fulfill our particular notions about what seems spiritual to us, but they can't give anyone spirituality= =2E
The best they can do is provide one opportunity for an to focus on the li= fe of the spirit, perhaps to indicate a path to it, perhaps to support your journey, but the church, the religious institution, must be the opposite = of the consumer culture which puts the needs and desires of the individual a= t the center of life. For it the center is elsewhere. For the life of the spirit which is the single source for the fullness of joy, the center is not in what we want but in our dedication to what is greater and more important than we. =
Traditional churches have it comparatively easy when they talk about such= things as this. They can say that you are made in the image of God in ord= er to glorify and serve the holy, and that is the purpose and meaning of you= r existence. I can say that, too, but then I have to explain what I mean if= I do. Our little lives are not in themselves very important. Even the greatest of them are transitory, and few are remembered for more than a generation. In that awareness, we seek for some meaning in them, somethin= g that makes us more than consumers - even consumers of pleasure. I do not have the comfortable revelation of God's creation and will, but I have learned that there is meaning, and that meaning is found in our dedicatin= g ourselves to the highest that we can understand. It is in that dedication= that we find joy. Churches help not by giving us the spirituality we seek= but by calling us to that dedication and helping us to discover the natur= e of that to which we dedicate ourselves. We cannot get spirituality from them, but they can help us become more spiritual when we realize that it = is our own path and our own decision to live the life of the spirit. We only= get when we learn to give.
Last week's sermon was on the life of faith, of the courage and loyalty t= o our ideals that is meant by that, in the face of suffering and sorrow. It= is equally necessary in our pleasure if our lives are to transcend the consumerism to which we are bred and find the joy which can be a part of our lives of comfort or despair. Joy isn't the same as pleasure or happiness. It is not dependent on our surroundings or on contentment. It = is the gift of grace, and comes when we are made aware that our lives are mo= re than getting - even getting spirituality - that they are about giving ourselves to beauty and goodness in whatever ways we can.
I have often talked about the futility of the pursuit of happiness. To pursue it is to fail in the pursuing, because happiness is obtainable onl= y as a byproduct of the pursuit of other goals. The best you can manage is = a transient pleasure. Joy also seems to be a byproduct in that it is obtainable only through dedication to something other than itself, but unlike happiness, it can be a goal, because it will not recede as we foll= ow it. It is independent of our will or our deeds, but it is a sure reward. =
It is like grace in that it is a gift we cannot earn but can always receive = if we are open to it. We open ourselves to it by choosing the life of faith,= the life of the spirit. It can even be found during Mardi Gras if we remember Ash Wednesday. We can become mere consuming bodies, or we can remain aware of the beauties of kindness, of generosity, of honor, of integrity, of humor, of creativity, of fun. Those are the things which ma= ke us more than what we are, that connect us to a transcendent ideal of meaning. The pleasures of the body are great, but those of the soul bring= us joy.