a spirituality of bingo
September 20, 2016
It’s 10:07 AM on a balmy Friday morning in Southern California. The air in the colorless multi-purpose room is tense, yet sedentary...and a little bit stinky.
faces begin to scrunch up, necks begin to pivot frantically, eyes race up and down the fatefully-laminated columns on the narrow dining table,
A moment of dish-shuffling, chip-clicking, and frustrated groans.
“Is this straight bingo or cover-all?” asks the pleasant little lady from North Dakota.
“Cover-all,” answers the lanky young man in a sweat-dampened Franciscan habit.
“Well, then I guess I have bingo,” replies the shy grandmother, as she visibly holds back her excitement.
The skinny woman with a prominent facial bandage to her right offers the innocent old lady an unrepentant “death stare”.
Meanwhile across the table, a hunched veteran of the Rhodesian conflict observes the scene. He unsubtly looks toward the friar, smiles, and compresses the left half of his face (...perhaps this is a wink?). The friar returns the gesture.
What you have just read is indeed a true story. In fact, this vignette I have narrated for you is not so unlike every Friday morning at 10:07 AM in the Personal Care Unit.
My ministry outside of the novitiate is spending time with the elderly. Every week, one hour and a half of that ministry is devoted to calling bingo numbers.
I love it.
“How can anyone find something as mind-numbingly boring as Friday morning bingo to be even remotely ‘loveable’”?
Allow me to explain.
In so many ways, bingo is a metaphor for our spiritual lives.
The first principle of bingo is that there is no strategy to winning. In fact, in most bingo games there is no prize or incentive at all awaiting the winner. What, then, distinguishes a good bingo player from a bad bingo player? If the player has no influence in picking their card or drawing their numbers, what skill is involved? Our society is obsessed with success (monetary, social, intellectual, and otherwise) and the people that can produce it. Thus, we need even our games to be competitive battles of wit & strength. When measured against this yardstick of typical American values, bingo fails to prove itself as a worthy endeavor. And thus we have grasped the genius of bingo.
Bingo is not about drawing the right numbers: it’s about receiving whatever numbers that are drawn with grace. In my story, there was a woman who humbly asked with great anticipation, “is this straight bingo or cover-all?”. She was good at bingo. Then, there was a woman who fumed in anger over her neighbor’s success. She was a bad bingo player. Finally, there was the man who took an objective look at the whole scenario and was overcome with joy. He was the best bingo player.
So too with life. We can never pick our cards, and very rarely do we get to draw our own numbers. The vast majority of our decisions are not pure actions, but they are responses to circumstances. This reality is in contradiction to the commonly-held illusion that we are in total control of our destiny.
I can especially see this dynamic at work in the lives of the elderly people gathered around the bingo people. When they were younger, they were everything from workers to managers, dancers to artists, soldiers to captains. Just like us, they had people to please and goals to achieve. Now, all of this has been made nought. They have lost their old abilities. They have been taken away from their homes. Through the lens of power & competition, they have become irrelevant. Most tragically, some of them have been abandoned in the nursing home, neglected by their very own children.
From this experience, I have gained a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).
In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as an extraordinary being. He is constantly healing people, casting out demons, and feeding the multitudes. His ministry is characterized by decisive actions: “Jesus began to proclaim” (Matthew 4:17), “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit” (Luke 9:42), “Jesus came down from the mountain” (Matthew 8:1), and perhaps most prominently “Jesus healed” (Luke 14:4).
But then everything stops. There is a moment when all of these great, dramatic actions cease. Jesus is betrayed. He enters into his passion (John 18). Suddenly, the active voice begin to disappear from the Gospel. No longer “Jesus takes”, “Jesus goes”, or “Jesus asks”. Christ is now referenced as a passive actor. “Jesus is taken”, then “Jesus is sentenced”, and finally “Jesus receives the wine”. He is given the chalice to drink from, and he is killed.
The very word passion is derived from the Latin root of passive. We honor people like Albert Einstein, Usain Bolt, and Mark Zuckerberg for the things that they have had the ability to do. But Jesus didn’t attain the will of God by the things that he did or the people that he impressed. Rather, he brought us salvation through his humble acceptance of what was done to him. Jesus didn’t redeem by his activity, but by his passion.
Likewise, our redemption isn’t found in doing, but in what is done to us.
So, let us all play this great game of bingo. Let us listen attentively to the numbers. In our uniquely human way, let us rejoice over our neighbor’s “bingo” and have a good laugh over our own–often crappy–cards.
I leave you now with this beautiful writing of Blessed Charles de Foucald. It is called the “Prayer of Abandonment”:
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.