Mirth and Reverence

June is Pagan Values Month and I want to spend some effort articulating how my vision is shaped by values that come from a Pagan perspective.

In the Charge of the Goddess, a text that influences many Goddess-oriented and modern witchcraft traditions,  Doreen Valiente wrote:

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

These two sentences articulate a clear, expansive, and complex vision of values. One might base an entire life’s practice attempting to embody these words. What I want to focus on in particular are the pairings of the second sentence. Each value pair may balance, deepen, or refine each other.

Starting from the last: mirth and reverence. These values feel antagonistic. In our public debates, religious communities seem to take increasingly hard-line stances against anything that appears critical or mocking of their faiths. Some traditions, overtly or covertly, frown upon any expression of joy or humor, suppressing the Holy Trickster and making it a demon, or agent of unholy chaos.

Meanwhile we have comedians, movies, TV shows, and everyday folks who insist on unfettered freedom to insult, ridicule, and offend whomever. Anyone who might criticize this comedy is often dismissed as humorless and needing to relax, unable to take a joke, or infringing on the person’s freedom of speech, often with a rigidity that reveals the own comedian’s tendency to take themselves too seriously.

When I notice polarization or extremes in a culture, I perceive each in reaction to the other. Each side has something of value to offer the wider conversation, and that value is often lost in the rigidity and tension that occurs as a result of polarization.

Reverence demonstrates deep and solemn respect. Reverence comes from my ability to set aside my ego and personality and consider something of great importance and deep mystery, something so profound and sacred that it is worthy of care and protection. This reverence is my connection to a larger sense of meaning in which I exist, in which I as a seeker can taste but never fully apprehend. Reverence is often articulated through a religious framework, but I have heard agnostics and atheists discuss their sense of wonder at nature, the universe, and science with a language of reverence. We do not need a God or Gods to be reverent, but many of us find we speak the truth of our experience when we speak of deities.

The worthiness of care and protection feels salient. From a wholly rational perspective, we may struggle to understand why some groups would suffer hardship or death to protect things that they consider sacred. We may ourselves fail to understand why we cannot simply throw away reminders of the past. The reasons are often irrational, which does not mean meaningless. Meaning arises from our reverence of these irrational impulses. We may preserve or restore the beauty of the natural world because its existence fills us with wonder, or we consider it the living body of the Goddess, or because we believe God calls us to be nature’s steward. Each view seems to share a perspective that nature has a right to exist for itself, because of some intrinsic quality, not because of what it does for us.

The humor I find least humorous and most offensive (particularly because it is the least humorous) often lacks any quality of reverence. In our culture, we use the word “irreverent” as a high compliment to artists and comedians, but irreverence only has meaning where reverence exists. So many racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist “jokes” have at their core an essential emptiness or hatred for the objects of the joke. I grew up as a White man often read as straight in a Midwestern state, and have heard many of these. The worst of these jokes are simply reiterations of tired stereotypes or not-so-veiled justifications of abuse, torture, and murder.

There are jokes, however, that cleverly skewer these stereotypes, or skewer the culture and structures of all the oppressive “isms.” There are jokes that are funny when told within the community, by someone who knows the community, but are not funny when someone outside the community tells them. I do not see this as hypocritical or hypersensitivity, since I see this in every group. (See the comments to any feminist blog posting that criticizes men or patriarchy, or any blog criticizing Whiteness and white supremacy, to see the sensitivity of White men.) The difference, I think, is one of reverence. If I know you see me as a human being and can joke with love, then I will feel more easy about laughing with you. If either of those things is already in question, then one is naturally going to be on defense.

Within our communities and traditions, however, we can find more freedom if we let a little more mirth into our lives. Some people seem to fear that any joke will shatter the fragile trappings of favor and fortune, and lose the joy in living. Mirth makes our worship vibrant, mirth gets the blood flowing in our lives, mirth makes an unbearable situation a source of unexpected delight. There’s no humor so redemptive as dark humor.

ETA: I think this post by Patton Oswalt is exemplary of the dialogue between mirth and reverence.