On the Spirituality of Lightheartedness

By Helen Steere Horn. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 456), 2019. 26 pages. $7/pamphlet.

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I have always believed that faith was too serious a matter to always be taken in dead earnest. And, though I have been chastised by weighty Friends (and those who thought they were) who thought I had way too much humor and not near enough spiritual depth, I continue to maintain that “levity” should be one of the Quaker testimonies. That’s because if we forget to laugh (especially at ourselves and our own failings as individuals and the Religious Society of Friends), we begin to think we have arrived spiritually and mistake ourselves, or at least our local group of Quakers, for the center of the universe.

So I was delighted to hear about this pamphlet from the late Helen Steere Horn addressing a spirituality of lightheartedness. (Published after her death in April 2018, the text was adapted from the manuscript of a speech she wrote in the 1990s.) I also picked it up with a bit of trepidation. Too many pieces purporting to be about humor have turned out to be deadly dull and unfunny. As E.B. and Katharine S. White once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested. And the frog dies of it.”

I’m happy to say that no frog, or reader, will die from reading this helpful pamphlet.

One reason is that Horn writes about lightheartedness with lightheartedness. Hers is no heavy-handed prose that sucks the life out of the subject. Instead it is lilting and lovely and fits perfectly with her theme.

Another reason is that it is obvious that Horn, the daughter of Dorothy and Douglas Steere, not only knew about the spirituality of lightheartedness but practiced it throughout her life.

The pamphlet opens with an introduction of Horn by Rebecca Kratz Mays, a former editor of Pendle Hill pamphlets, that demonstrates that Horn’s lighthearted spirituality did not come from a frivolous spirit but rather a well-grounded one.

Throughout the pamphlet, Horn makes clear that she does not discount the trouble in this world: “The mystery of why living things suffer is too deep for us. . . . How can we find heartsease and laughter in a world full of pain?” Then she points us to George Fox’s letters from prison when he writes about “how lilies grow among the thorns, and on the hills the lambs skip and play.” We must, says Horn, know about “thick night of darkness” if we are to have a lighthearted spirituality that gives us hope and sustains us.

One step in growing into such a spirituality includes looking for concrete ways to respond to the world’s needs, even if the ways are small. Such steps are made lighter when we join with others in the work. Another way is to realize that earnestness is bedevilment. “I make bold to talk with you about lightheartedness in the struggle because I failed to cherish it for many years. I suspect it may be a common Quaker problem.”

A further step is to welcome the gifts that come with giving. When we engage with meeting needs, we are rewarded in ways big and small that feed our souls. Likewise, we need to accept our limits and love ourselves. “Does my Inner Light help me accept my limits or haunt me with guilt?” she offers as a query. “I have to love my deep Self. This is one part of lighthearted spirituality.”

Horn also urges us to be childlike, which means: “To assume that I am important and loved. To respond with all my senses to the wonders of the outdoors, to food, to music, to the urge to leap about, to hug.”

We also need to embrace paradox: to recognize “how incongruous we each are with our many contradictions, and how much common ground we all have that way.”

Toward the end of the pamphlet, she re-emphasizes that last point: “Lighthearted spirituality, at the core, seems to spring from this awareness that we are all in the same boat.” Hmmm, I seem to remember Jesus and his disciples—that disparate, often too earnest bunch—on a boat trip or two. Perhaps they learned from being in the same boat with each other and Jesus to be a bit more lighthearted. Even if they didn’t, it’s not too late for us to learn that lesson. Helen Steere Horn provides a useful guide—one that should be read by those, like me, who could use some affirmation that our humor does not denote lack of depth, and by those who think their earnestness and lack of levity proves theirs.

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