PILGRIMAGE: Dieppe, France—Balancing by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Dieppe, France—Balancing by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

Sitting as she does at the water’s edge on the rugged Normandy coastline, Dieppe is constantly having her hair blown back by the winds that whip across the English Channel.  From my cliff-top vantage point I can see that her streets are laid out and the gates in her old town walls placed in such a way as to reduce the effect of the constant sea breeze.  At my feet, halfway down the cliff, a charming little castle, perched solidly atop a rocky knob, looks out across the Channel.

In the center of the scene a great grassy esplanade runs right along the water’s edge, separating the front row of the town’s buildings on the right from the beach on the left.  Ancient engravings show that this same broad field, several blocks long and a hundred yards wide, has changed very little over the passing centuries.  Despite the low clouds heavy with threatening rain, the green meadow is especially crowded today.  Tugging impatiently against their invisible strings, dozens of bright-colored kites are riding the steady wind.  The stiff breeze holds them motionless, their tails pointing straight inland toward the roofs and steeples of town.  There are box kites of red and white, cylinder kites of yellow and orange, a green kite that looks like a quilted saltine, and a couple that seem like big blue rubber rafts floating on an unseen sea.

The perpetual breeze makes the beachfront park a favorite spot for kite-fliers all year round, and this week Dieppe is the proud host of an international kite-fliers’ convention.  Her streets teem with folks from Asia, the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Europe who share a passion for building and flying kites, and her skies are alive with their colorful creations.  I have the good luck to get invited to the official reception for the participants at the hotel de ville, Dieppe’s modern town hall.  The speeches include many references to the beautiful harmony of nations among the participants engaged in such an innocent, childlike exercise of the spirit.  While the various foreign delegations are presenting their symbolic gifts to the mayor, a question keeps pushing to the front of my mind: are these people serious?  On the one hand, they are clearly in earnest, because this kind of kiting involves a real commitment of time, money, and energy.  On the other hand, these grown men and women spend hours standing in fields holding strings and watching their pretty-colored playthings slide and glide in the breeze.

Dieppe Kite Festival posterAs the ceremony continues, I realize that kite-flying is neither serious nor playful; it’s – spoudogeloios!

I came across this tongue-twisting adjective from the classical Greek many years ago, and we’ve been fast friends ever since.  It’s a combination of two words: spoudos, “serious, earnest,” and gelein, “to laugh.”  So spoudogeloios means something like “grave-merry” or “serious-playful.”  For the ancient Greeks, the ideal person is one who is poised between the earnest and the playful, who travels through life with the evenness of spirit that comes from balancing heaviness and lightness.  If you are spoudogeloios, you don’t take yourself too seriously, yet you appreciate the deep and eternal dimension of the human situation and strive to live accordingly.

It seems to me that this is a marvelous description of Christian holiness: the saint is one who manages to keep the serious and the playful in balance.

There is a light side to Christianity.  The very word “gospel” means “good news”; the victory has already been won.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”  Saint Irenaeus once spoke of the spiritual life as “a divine children’s game.”

However, our life of faith has a “heavy” side as well.  The scriptures are equally full of grave passages: “Keep sober and alert, because your enemy, the devil, is on the prowl.”  “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire for I was hungry and you never gave me food.”  “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the spirits of evil in the heavens.”

A Christian needs to balance the heavy and the light, like a kite that feels both the string tugging it to Earth and the wind lifting it off toward the stars.  Some of us, though, are so grim about our relationship with God that our religion becomes a deadly serious, white-knuckled, and humorless project, centered on sin and eternal damnation.  Such “heavy” believers just can’t lighten up; their kites are too heavy to fly.

Others, however, are too casual about their life in the Spirit.  They want a God who is like a kindly, generous old uncle who makes no real demands on them.  These believers avoid any talk of sin, self-discipline, or the need to deal with the potentially destructive forces at work in the inner self.  Their kites are not anchored in the sober truth of the gospel and its demands for constant conversion, but go flying away on the breeze, completely out of touch with reality.

Balancing the serious and the playful, the light and the heavy, is a skill that comes only with long practice.  It takes time to arrive at wisdom, to become spoudogeloios.  This is why, in the monastery or anywhere else, it is the elders, who have been at it for a long while, who usually give the best example of balance.  They’ve learned the hard way how to avoid the extremes of heaviness and lightness, and live suspended serenely between Heaven and Earth.

The ceremony ends with a typical French offering of champagne and hors d’oeuvres.  As I elbow my way among the Japanese, the Australians, and the Samoans, all talking (I presume) about their kites, I try not to spill my champagne.  I ask the Lord to give me a little of the delightful balance I see among these playful-serious people.  Or, even better, the gracefulness of a colorful kite as it floats easily in the happy tension between the unseen string and the invisible wind.


Lent is a time to look at some of the forces in your life that may need to be kept in better balance: controlling versus letting go, busyness versus leisure, tension versus relaxation, severity versus gentleness.  Choose one pair that seems most in need of attention.  How can Lent help you to find a healthier balance?  Make a decision to address the problem.

Is your approach to the keeping of Lent balanced between heavy and light?  If not, how might you correct the imbalance?


Sacred Scripture (Proverbs 2:1, 2, 9-12a)

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding, then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you; understanding will guard you; delivering you from the way of evil.


Wisdom of the Desert

Abbot Mark once said to Abbot Arsenius: “It is good, is it not, to have nothing in your cell that just gives you pleasure? For example, once I knew a brother who had a little wildflower that came up in his cell, and he pulled it out by the roots.” “Well,” said Abbot Arsenius, “that is all right. But each one should act according to his own spiritual way. And if one were not able to get along without the flower, he should plant it again.”

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