The Promise of Paradox

If you read my blog two weeks ago entitled “Olympic Spirit“, you know how much I love the Olympics. Now that the Olympics are over, I have to admit that I am in mourning. I felt sad this past Monday night that I could not turn on the television to be inspired by the grace of the athletes and the perseverance of their spirits. Last Sunday, I teared up watching the gold medal winning U.S. women’s basketball team sing along to the national anthem. I know it is cheesy, but I sang along, too. While not normally the most enthusiastic patriot, in that moment, I felt very connected to the people in my country. I felt overwhelmed by the sacrifices that people have made to protect the freedom we enjoy and so often take for granted. I felt very thankful for the best of our heritage: that we have been a bastion for those with no place to go, that we have been a place of welcome and help for those who have no one. In comparison, Monday night, with the Olympics off the airwaves for another four years, I felt lonely and a little flat, no longer thriving on a connection to something bigger than myself.

Yet even in my sadness, I was able to get quite a bit done that post-Olympic Monday. I was back in ordinary time and resumed my regular evening routine of exercise, dinner, cleaning up the house, responding to e-mail, reading, praying, and bed. With no reason to stay up until the late coverage to see how the men’s water polo turned out, I went to bed at a respectably early 10:30 pm and woke up the next morning refreshed. I was surprised to discover that alongside my sorrow I also felt a bit of relief that life was returning to normal, that I was no longer beholden to the behemoth Olympic spirit that had kidnapped and captivated me for two weeks.

So do I enjoy Olympic time or regular time more? The answer is both. One cannot function without the other. If Olympic time was all the time, if you did not have to wait four years between games, the festivity of it all would not seem special. There would not be such a heightened sense of importance, and the same level of dedication would not be required by athletes. Conversely, if regular time was all the time, the monotony of everyday life would be too much. Olympic time and regular time are both important parts of my life; it is in the balance of them that I am most happy.

This idea of balancing competing times or ideas is called a paradox. In a paradox, we affirm that two things that seem incompatible are actually both true. To use my Olympics example, it may seem strange to say that both the excitement of the Olympics and the routine of everyday life make me happy. But really it is in the balancing of these two things that I can enjoy both of them to the fullest.

I think a similar thing happens in our church calendar with the balancing of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter seasons with Ordinary Time. Who doesn’t love the pageantry of Advent and Christmas? The lighting of the Advent wreath, the smell of incense, the display of the manager scene? It is hard not to feel excited as the choir sings Alleluia at Easter, after six weeks without hearing it. But this would lose its specialness if we celebrated it all year long. Similarly, the nice part about Ordinary Time is that we can fall into the rhythm of Mass as it stays consistent Sunday to Sunday. But this repetitiveness could get boring if it was never punctuated with feasts and seasons of celebration. Again, the goodness is in the balance, between Ordinary Time and seasons of celebration.

All too often we are encouraged to think in either/or ways. We may think,” I have to make this decision with my head OR my heart. I have to take care of my soul OR my body.” But either/or thinking focuses on the separations and on what makes things different from each other.

The beauty of paradoxical thinking is that it is the sort of thinking that holds things together, that sees the unity and connections in the world first rather than what divides and separates. We make our best decisions with our heads and hearts working together. We are the healthiest when we attend to our spiritual and bodily needs. One of the gifts of the church calendar is that it invites us into a pattern of living that proclaims the connections between things: between Ordinary time and the liturgical seasons of celebration, between the agony of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection. Each part of the church year really depends on the other parts to make sense.

Really this sort of paradoxical thinking is at the heart of our faith. It is the sort of thinking that allows us to believe that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. It is the sort of thinking that allows us to believe that God is One and also Three. It is the kind of thinking that promotes unity and reconciliation, which our world so desperately needs.


Photo courtesy of -Tico- via Creative Commons License

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