There was a locust tree in the back yard of my parents’ house. Its spindly, feathery leaves and smooth, compact trunk seemed out of place among the rough, sprawling trunks and sturdy, angular leaves of Kansas’ cottonwoods. Moreover, something about the tree’s color scheme and lacy canopy reminded me of the traditional Chinese landscape paintings that I’d seen in a book or at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or maybe even while browsing the collection of paintings available for loan from our local public library.
The tree was decidedly exotic.
One morning, in an unusual moment of wakefulness, I watched the sun rise behind our exotic locust tree. The house and the earth lay silent and still, suspended between night and morning, slumber and rising. The sky danced a fiery pink ballet, trembling on the edge of a delicate peach that would eventually fade to a yellow that would eventually fade to the light of day. Against this backdrop of rich, jumbled colors, the decidedly exotic locust tree looked like a magical gateway to a distant time or at least a distant place. I was convinced, while enjoying the intricate beauty of that tree in that sunrise, that I was looking at a dawn-drenched tree in China.
That moment was only the beginning of my childhood China sightings. Having convinced myself that China was visible from my parents’ back yard, I saw glimpses of that remote and mysterious land everywhere I looked. The locust tree in my parents’ back yard was, of course, a tree in China. The spire of Anderson Hall on the campus of Kansas State University was the spire of a Chinese temple. And the towers of my childhood church, their green-tiled roofs jutting bravely above the treeline, were the towers of a pagoda in China. I loved catching glimpses of China all over Manhattan, Kansas.
And then one day, I realized what a fool I was for thinking that I could possibly see China from the middle of the United States. I spent years being slightly embarrassed by my absurd childhood conviction that I’d somehow made regular sightings of landmarks and landscapes in a country on the other side of the world. But today I find myself wondering why I was so embarrassed by these acts of absurdity and foolishness. After all, God’s own Fool – a man from Assisi named Francis – was not ashamed to do and believe and be the absurd.
Francis did all sorts of absurd things. He renounced a life of material ease. He embraced lepers, both physically and metaphorically. He regarded the sun and moon and all of creation as brothers and sisters. These acts were profoundly foolish in the eyes of the average Assisian. Indeed, these acts still seem foolish today, when separated from their spiritual context. How absurd to exchange comfort and stability for poverty, poor health, hunger, and uncertainty. How absurd to physically embrace a person with a terrible and socially stigmatized illness. How absurd to extend the respect of brotherhood/sisterhood to the creatures and objects of the natural world that we exploit for our own comfort or gain.
But what happens when we embed these foolish acts in the spiritual context within which Francis performed them? In this context, we understand that absurdity is an act not of foolishness, but of wisdom. We understand that absurdity is an act not of loss, but of gain. Absurdity separates us from the status quo, showing us different ways of knowing, being, and doing. Absurdity opens us to otherness and togetherness. The foolish wisdom of absurdity separates us from ego, showing us the beauty of humility. The foolish wisdom of absurdity opens us to grace, to love, to community, to service.
Long live the absurd; long live the fool!
May you all catch a glimpse of something wonderfully exotic and absurdly distant – perhaps a Chinese landscape or landmark – when you behold the world outside your window today.
– Lori Randall