Monday, 14 October 2013


Who’d think that going topless could be a spiritual epiphany and a holy metaphor?
In early October, five women were at a lakeside retreat centre, some of us friends, others strangers. We luxuriated in the sprawling modern building filled with comfy furniture, attractive art pieces and golden autumn light from dozens of windows. The outdoor setting was golden too, as sunshine backlit yellow trees and warmed forest carpets of caramel oak leaves and pine-needle straw. Placid blue water was visible from the screened porch and our hosts served up the best of home cooking. Instead of a chockfull agenda, the retreat leader left us hours of empty space between sessions to loll on our beds, read or hike.
For two days we learned and practiced the theatre art of improvisation as it relates to spirituality. The goal was story telling, not Second City wisecracks. As a professional performer and spiritual director, our leader explained a structure of safety and acceptance, gradually easing any performance anxiety. She urged us to say “anything” and to be “dull” and “ordinary” as we played along with improv exercises. How those boring words freed us into wild creativity!
 We laughed ourselves silly when we pretended to move invisible canoes and to open imaginary boxes. One evening, without instructions or words, we found ourselves playing every recess game we could remember, even without skipping ropes or hopscotch chalk.
As we used some of the techniques to act out bible stories and give spontaneous homilies there was more laughter alongside deep truths. Picture one person simultaneously playing Lazarus’ corpse and Jesus arriving at the graveside! Her antics made us giggle but when two of us, as Martha and Mary, lamented loudly over our dead brother, tears sprang to my eyes. Where was Jesus when we needed him!
There were breathtaking worship times when we stood in a tight circle taking turns to speak one word each as we created a communal prayer or hymn. Dancing and running broke out. The familiarity and freedom of creative play moved us quickly into intimacy.

On our last morning, again without discussion, we cooperatively drew a strange picture on a white board. Each person took turns sketching one line in mindful randomness. We ended up with a peculiar water creature and a woman with huge bare breasts, a bow in her curly hair, and only one foot. We finished by jointly making up the story of the picture, “Once upon a time…”
 The retreat was ending and after lunch we would leave. During our last solitary reflection time I sat on a log looking at the water and remembered our funny drawing. I imagined taking my top off to become the bare-breasted woman by the lake, but of course decided not to shock passers-by. I am, after all, 64 years old and very round. Still, the idea percolated.
 At the buffet lunch where we five were the only guests, I caught the eye of the inn’s talented chef and signaled to her. In a private corner I told her that I was going to take my top off if she could warn the two male hosts to disappear for a minute. 
Just out of sight of my new playmates, I took off sweatshirt and bra, and then stepped into sight wearing only my jeans and shoes, calmly opening my arms to display my full, drooping breasts and bulging belly. The women screamed and bent over with laughter. Each one hugged me before I scurried to recover my clothes.
 What on earth? Never in all my years have I done such a thing! I felt fine…and then a little self-conscious. But it was good. Since then my moment of madness/wholeness is morphing into some spiritual insights.
What if we all felt so accepted and free that we could bare ourselves, even the imperfect parts? Our improv retreat leader 
had functioned as pastor, therapist, and coach in teaching us the boundaries and urging us to “be brave”. Gently and wisely she had eased us into mutual trust.
 What if there were so much playing in Parliaments and churches and classrooms that even strangers laughed themselves into friendship? The improv games we played built community fast.
 Another improvisation principle is that mistakes are expected. Whoever made the mistake takes a second to acknowledge their error but carries on as other players rally to redeem it. How could we not think of Christ's great redemption story?
 I like the improv ideas of “offering” and “accepting offers” so that the group’s story or game can continue. For example, if you offer another player an imaginary hat, she might accept your offer by pretending to put it on and saying it was her favourite colour. You could then tell her that when you had seen it at the store you’d thought of her. You offered; she accepted; you "endowed". In improv the concept of “endowment” doesn’t imply that you need a bigger bra but means adding to someone else’s offer so that the story is enriched.
 In God’s endless story we’re all invited to play a part and our daily lives are filled with offers both appealing and scary. We can resist life’s offers or say, “Yes! I’ll go along with that” and see how even the worst surprise can be accepted and endowed.
Without quite realizing it, in my topless moment I had manifested another improv feature, “reincorporation”, by impersonating the main character in our group’s drawing and subsequent story. As the bible says, “Remember, remember.” This was one adventure with God I'm sure I'll never forget.