'It's dark because you are trying too hard'

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Johannes Vermeer

"My yoke is easy and my burden light" (Matthew 11:30).

My spiritual teacher Dr. Thomas Hora taught me, "Don't take anything seriously." I took him seriously and tried not to take anything seriously. Things got harder. Good thing is, life wore me down until the wisdom of his counsel was as clear as a window that has no glass, darkly or otherwise. Nothing is worth being taken seriously, not even expert advice.

To take something seriously is to clench our mind on it like a fist. It squeezes out joy and brings headaches. The antidote is to understand what Zen master Matsuo Basho knew: "Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself." We don't need to think or act, just see and be a light in the world. Jesus put it like this: "Behold the lilies of the field and see how they grow! They toil not, they spin not -- and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Luke 12:27). The opposite of seriousness is delight.

Seriousness swells the sense of self. Delight extinguishes it.

The Bible tells us that Martha of Bethany was serious about serving others and it was burdensome. Her sister Mary sat lightly at Jesus' feet. Martha was busy doing things. Mary just was. Jesus had said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). Mary treasured peace and love above all else. We can help others without effort only if we are interested first in authentic love, which is neither physical nor emotional but spiritual. "Spiritual love," Hora taught, "is the love of being loving, with no strings attached, just for the sake of being what God wants us to be."

I've been caretaker to my wife, Vickie, who has what doctors call Alzheimer's, for more than 10 years. I have been learning day by day that not taking it seriously and wanting what Love wants me to be moment by moment is the only thing that saves me from dwelling for the next 10 years on what our life will be like next year. I am discovering, despite my worst efforts, that spiritual love converts to humor, not anger, when Vickie puts my keys in a sudsy pot. It becomes kind eyes when she looks at me with confused eyes, a light heart when she has an embarrassing accident, and caressing fingers when she is afraid.

I am hardly that way all the time. Learning not to take things seriously helps me get closer. Moment by moment, I discover that the love of being loving makes the hardest yoke easy and the heaviest burden light. It is just meeting needs as they come to us on the spot where we're standing. Spiritual love is nonreflective. It brings lightness of being to lover and beloved.

We don't have to experience a life-changing event to lose our interest in solemnity and start living in the buoyancy of genuine love. Martha's spirits sank from taking her responsibilities seriously and planning them and wanting other people to perceive her as good. Mary's joy came from gratitude for the good of God who was right in front of her. I've been Martha for much of my life, but the older I get, I would rather be Mary or Basho.

Aldous Huxley writes about taking things seriously in his book Island: "It's dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you're feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them ... on tiptoes and without luggage, completely unencumbered." Our luggage, what weighs us down, is rumination over what life should be and how we can control it. Loving as God does -- spontaneously and without restraint -- sets us free.

Jesus asks us to delight in the birds of the air and to love being loving with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbor as our self (Matthew 22:37-38). The magnificent thing -- the thing we haven't gotten yet -- is that he doesn't ask us to take his request seriously.

[Michael Leach shepherds the Soul Seeing column for NCR and books for Orbis Books.]

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