LET’S GET SERIOUS ABOUT LAUGHTER!
Since turning 60, I have suddenly become aware of the prejudice against seniors — I proudly tell people I’ve recently become a sexagenarian and people immediately give me these weird, disgusted looks and move away from me. It’s rather distressing.
Why do you think God created human beings with the strange gift of laughter? There is something uniquely human about laughter. It might make us wonder: are we, as Dante suggests, part of some divine comedy and virtually unaware that this is the case?
The Bible says “There is a time to weep and there is a time to laugh,” yet it seems to me that we often fail to observe that balance. Most of the time church is serious, dead serious you could say.
A husband and wife are sitting in church. The preacher notices that the husband has fallen asleep and says to the wife, “Wake your husband up!” The wife answers, “You’re the one who made him fall asleep, you wake him up!” It’s like we need to wake up to an entire dimension of our spiritual life. We need to take laughter seriously!
Much of the Christian story focuses on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus and executions are generally not funny stuff. But as John’s Gospel says, there were countless other things Jesus said and did that couldn’t be contained in any book, so you have to extrapolate, and read between the lines, and realize that there IS a time to laugh.
The tradition of Holy Humour Sunday has been in the repertoire of the Church for centuries, often observed in Easter season as sign of God’s jest on evil and death and predictable outcomes – a reminder and reassurance that God always has the last laugh. Our spiritual ancestors, the Jews, who have experienced more suffering than most people, have always had a great tradition of humour, which is probably why all the great comedians tend to be Jewish — Charlie Chaplin, for instance, who, after discovering they were holding a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, decided to enter secretly himself, and finished third. He must have got a huge laugh when it was pointed out that, according to the judges, two people looked more like Chaplin than he did! It was Chaplin who said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
Tessa Bielecki, a former Carmelite nun and abbess, speaks of a quality in the great saints and mystics that she calls “bounce,” a capacity for resilience “in the face of human frailty that enables us to face the suffering and the death around us and not be overcome” – and by this she is not talking about something quiet and subtle and dignified, but “an uproarious kind of hilarity that wells up out of the depths of our stillness” (now that’s a great description!)
Bielecki says: “The world needs jesters more than ever . . . and laughter becomes a sign of deep faith, hope and love – it can become an apostolate – a form of outreach – our highest manifestation of compassion.”
She reminds us of St Teresa of Avila, who said, “Lord, deliver me from sour-faced saints!” and apparently would not accept novices to her convents unless they had a sense of humour. Richard Rohr has said that “mystics are happy people. In fact, if they’re not happy, they’re not mystics.”
What is one of the sure signs that you are friends with someone? You can kid around with them. You can share a laugh. Yet church life is still typically associated with starchy formality and often very superficial ways of relating.
Julia Cameron writes about what she calls “VERY SPIRITUAL PEOPLE:” She says, “you can tell when you’ve met one of these officially spiritual types because they won’t laugh no matter what. To them, God is no laughing matter – although a lot of the stuff they do themselves is pretty funny, if you ask me.” This is from her book God Is No Laughing Matter, which is intended to reveal the very opposite.
One day the comedian Groucho Marx was getting off an elevator and he encountered a clergyman. The clergyman came up to him, put out his hand and said, ‘I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.’ Groucho shook hands and replied, ‘Thank you, Reverend. I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.’
Comedians generally are undervalued – usually they can’t make a living at it. Rodney Dangerfield (who didn’t get recognized until he was in his 50’s) used to say: “I don’t get no respect!” and yet I am certain that there are countless lawyers, accountants and politicians out there who were really called to be comedians, at least part of the time, and some of them, like Rob Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are comic figures anyway, without even knowing it!
Most of us clergy might like to think of ourselves as the noble Christ figure in any situation and not be aware we are actually much more like Inspector Clouseau – well-meaning but inadvertently comical:
Lying in a hospital bed, a dying man suddenly began to flail about and make motions as if he would like to speak. The priest, keeping watch at the side of his bed, leaned over and asked, “Do you have something you would like to say?” The man nodded eagerly in the affirmative, and the priest handed him a pad and pen.
“I know you can’t speak, but use this to write a note and I will give it to your wife. She’s waiting just outside.”
Gathering his last bit of strength, the man took them and scrawled his message upon the pad which he stuffed into the priest’s hands. Moments later, the man died.
After administering the last rites, the priest left to break the sad news to the wife. After consoling her a bit, the priest handed her the note. He said, “Here were his last words. Just before passing on, he wrote this message to you.”
The wife tearfully opened the note, which read: “GET OFF MY OXYGEN HOSE!!” (I’ve had hospital visits that have gone almost that badly!)
No less an institution than the Mayo Clinic has indicated the incredible benefits we derive from laughter, pointing to numerous psychological and physiological benefits of a steady diet of humour and laughter. In a word, laughter is healthy, and tears of laughter every bit as healing as tears of sorrow. In fact, the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” actually derives from the Bible.
Yet, from ancient times, those who have responded to God with exuberance and joy have tended to be ridiculed and marginalized. King David, ecstatic over the rescue of the Ark of the Covenant that had been stolen, stripped off most of his clothing and danced “like no one was watching,” yet his wife Michal, the arrogant daughter of the former King Saul, was so embarrassed that she felt compelled to ridicule and shame her husband David.
Can you see yourself kidding around with Jesus? Not likely, and it’s probably because “Jesus” has been presented to you in such a way that suggests he would frown on anything joyful or amusing, so we unintentionally turn Jesus into a Pharisee rather than the radical bearer of good news and new life.
The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said “My Lord told me a joke. And seeing Him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read.”
The image on the cover of our leaflet today, of Jesus laughing, is called “Christ the Liberator,” created by the Canadian artist Willis Wheatley in 1973. Why is the fact that he is laughing connected to liberation? – Laughing connects with liberation because laughing is release, it is letting go of control and how we appear to others; laughter causes us to become open to those around us and to embrace and appreciate the absurdity in things.
In the first reading today we hear of the prophet Jeremiah concerned about becoming a laughingstock. Most of us want to be taken seriously (at least some of the time) and we don’t want to be laughed AT. I think of the occasion when Saint Ignatius was confronted by two young guys who were laughing at his hair, which was cut in monk fashion. His initial instinct was to kill them (and those two guys had no idea how lucky they were, because Ignatius had been a ferocious warrior) but instead he decided they were right, he did look rather ridiculous, and joined them in a good laugh.
As Shakespeare knew and St. Paul as well, sometimes the Fool is the wisest person in the room, perhaps especially when he/she manages to get the pompous and powerful to laugh at themselves. St Paul was quite comfortable with being perceived as a fool, and with not being taken seriously according to the conventional modes of thought and behavior of the day.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.” Jesus was accused by the “serious religious people” of being a partier, uncouth, a drunk, even demonic, and he lived in constant tension and contrast with people like scribes and Pharisees with their solemn, proper and rigid approach to life.
Biblical scholar William Webber: “Of course, Jesus laughed. Every normal person laughs. To suggest that Jesus never laughed implies that he suffered from deep psychological problems . . . Jesus was a joyful person, continually urging his followers to be joyful. In John 15:11 he explains to his disciples, ‘I have told you all this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ Jesus was all for happiness.”
The witness of Pentecost is that the presence of the Spirit made the disciples ecstatic – they were so full of exuberance that people assumed they were drunk, yet apparently they were very much aligned with the Spirit of Jesus their Mentor. I have seen plenty of the somber Jesus; I have seen plenty of the suffering Jesus, but where is the Jesus who animated the wedding feast? Where is the Jesus who partied with all the wrong people? Where is the Jesus who, with a word, could bring life to the deadest of people? Let’s make sure we invite THAT Jesus into our midst more often!
St Paul said: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” And as Bielecki says, “Mystics are those who have gone mad enough to cut the rope and break free.”
Laughter is a sign of the presence of the Spirit, as surely as qualities like love and joy and peace are. Sharing a laugh with a friend is one thing – but when we are collapsing with laughter in the presence of total strangers, we have to know that something powerful is happening.
Laughter shared is a gift, an important dimension of community, an escape or respite from our chronic, anxious need to have everything predictable and controlled, a liberation from the perfunctory, an experience of lightness of being that enables us to experience the whimsical and creative aspect of God that we call the Holy Spirit. I am sure the apostles at Pentecost laughed their heads off, by which I mean the Spirit enabled them to by-pass their “heads” and to embrace their hearts
Because the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3) says “there is a time to laugh,” it seems that religious people have permission to see the wisdom, the beauty, the value, the divine significance, of laughter. Should you laugh all the time? Should you laugh at everything? Of course not, people will assume you’re insane, but some of the time, certainly!
While we were in Calgary, we went to a favourite Italian store to pick up some things for lunch. Unfortunately, while we were there, some nut was rolling around on the floor, creating a bit of a disturbance for people. It was a hazelnut, as it turned out, and I remembered that St Julian of Norwich had once found a hazel nut and in looking at it suddenly saw the whole of God’s creation in microcosm. It was a reminder to me about how much you can see in a little thing, in a moment, if you choose. And I laughed.
I pray that you will allow yourselves to be open to those moments in life when holy hilarity breaks in, often in the most unexpected moments, bringing the gift of amusement and laughter and frivolity and connection to the sometimes dull and dreary and lonely routines of life.
God of holy fools, and wise jesters and smiling saints: At times when we have become too serious and self-important, make us weak in the knees and strong in the belly and light at heart with the holy gift of laughter – that we may experience the playfulness of the Holy Spirit and the freedom of the saints, and the joy of the risen Lord.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Kathleen Norris’s poem, “Luke 14: A Commentary,”
He is there, like Clouseau,
at the odd moment,
just right: when he climbs
out of the fish pond
into which he has spectacularly
fallen, and says condescendingly
to his hosts, the owners
of the estate: “I fail
where others succeed.” You know
this is truth. You know
he’ll solve the mystery,
as he is, the last
of the great detectives.
He’ll blend again into the scenery, and
more than once, be taken
for the gardener. “Come
now,” he says, taking us
for all we’re worth: “sit
in the low place.”
Why not? We ask, so easy
to fall for a man
who makes us laugh. “Invite those
you do not know, people
you’d hardly notice.” He puts
us on, we put him on; another
of his jokes. “There’s
room,” he says. The meal is
salty, but delicious. Charlie
Chaplin put it this way: “I want to play
the role of Jesus. I look the part.
I’m a Jew.
And I’m a comedian.”