Joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated values in the spiritual life. This Catholic Update will look at why they are needed not only in our own personal spiritual lives, but also in the life of the Catholic Church, and in the life of anyone who works in the Church. The most joyful people are those closest to God. As the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Joy has a somewhat disreputable reputation in the Church, though. And that’s a tragedy not only because joy is necessary, but also because it has a distinguished history among the saints and spiritual masters as an essential element for spiritual health.
When you meet someone truly in touch with God, isn’t that person joyful? Think of the holy people in your life. Are they not full of the spirit of the Resurrection? Full of joy? Think of how often you would see pictures of Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II smiling. Think how easy it is to imagine people like St. Francis of Assisi smiling.
Now, I’m not advocating a mindless, idiotic happiness. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to weep and a time to mourn (Ecc 3:4). You would be a robot if you weren’t sad during times of misfortune or illness or death, or over some of the recent developments in the Church, such as
the sexual-abuse crisis. Those are things to mourn and to grieve.
But Ecclesiastes also says that there is a time to laugh. And some-times laughter—even in the midst of sadness—can be healthy.
A biblical case for humor
It’s not clear to what extent joy and laughter have been deemed as inappropriate throughout Catholic history. Still, I’m sure you’ve met Catholics who seem to think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time. But if you’re deadly serious, you’re seriously dead.
The undervaluing of humor is surprising when we look at the Gospels and find a Jesus who has a real sense of joy and even playfulness, which you can see in many of the parables. And Jesus himself embraces people with a sense of humor. You’ll remember the story of Nathanael (Jn 1:43-51), sitting under the fig tree when he is told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” This is a joke about how backward the city was. And it doesn’t bother Jesus one bit. In fact, it seems to delight him. “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him,” he says.
There are many signs of humor from the evangelists themselves—that is, from the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels. But we may be so familiar with these stories that we miss their original humor. The story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), the short man who climbs up into a tree to get a better look at Jesus, is a touching but also very playful story, as written by Luke.
Also, think of the story of Eutychus, in Acts 20, sitting on the window ledge of a room in which St. Paul is talking and talking around midnight. Eutychus finally falls asleep during the long speech by Paul, falls out the window, drops to the ground and is presumed dead, until Paul goes downstairs, finds out that he’s not dead, brings him back to the room, and then talks until dawn. It’s a funny way of talking about Paul’s long-windedness.
Reasons for good humor
The saints knew that there were some good reasons for humor, which can serve some serious purposes. So let’s look at 10 reasons for joy, humor and laughter in the Church.
. Humor evangelizes
Joy, humor and laughter show one’s joy in the Risen Christ and one’s faith in God. An essentially positive outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death and in the power of love over hatred. Don’t you think that after the Resurrection, the disciples were joyful?Joy reveals faith. Joy draws others to Christ. Joy is an imitation of Christ. As St. Teresa said, “Why hide it?”
Once, when I was a Jesuit novice, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, came to visit our novitiate. Most religious orders these days are concerned about declining numbers, so I asked him the best way to increase vocations. He said, “Live your own vocation joyfully!” That’s good advice for everyone: Joy attracts more people to Christ. Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people?
2. Humor is a tool for humility
We can tell jokes about ourselves to deflate our egos, which is a good thing—especially for anyone working in an official capacity in the Church, where it’s easy to get puffed up. That goes for cardinals who wear silk robes and have people kissing their rings. That goes for priests, brothers and sisters, who others think are holy just because they’re ordained or in a religious order. That goes for laypeople in parishes and schools and hospitals and chanceries who exercise some power over people’s spiritual lives. All these people can get puffed up, and humor is a good way for people to remind themselves of their essential humanity, their essential poverty of spirit.
Humor shocks listeners into recognizing reality
Humor can go right to the point. It puts things into perspective. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel. Use words when necessary.” That’s clever and even funny. But it’s also a profound truth. St. Anthony Avellino was a 17th-century canon lawyer who entered the Theatine Order. One day a pious priest asked him, “Father Avellino, how long should one stay at the bedside of a sick person?” Rather than offer a long explanation, Avellino said, “Always be brief. There are two advantages: If they like you, they’ll want you back. If you’re boring, their displeasure will be short.”
. Humor speaks truth to power
A witty remark is a time-honored way to challenge the pompous, the puffed-up or the powerful. Jesus deployed humor in this way, exposing and defusing the arrogance of religious authorities with clever parables. Humor is a weapon in the battle against the arrogance and pride that infects all
of us and that sometimes infects our Church.
A friend told me that her mother was once in the hospital at the same time that the local bishop was. After his operation, the pastor went around room to room visiting all the patients. When he visited my friend’s mother, who was recovering from a difficult surgery, he said, very unctuously, “Well, dear, I know exactly how you feel.” And she said, “Really? Did you have a hysterectomy, too?” Years later, the bishop used that story at her funeral, and poked fun at himself.
. Humor shows Christian courage
As I mentioned, St. Lawrence showed his courage to his torturers during his martyrdom, saying, “I’m done on this side.” It’s both a pointed challenge to his executioners and a bold profession of faith. In that same vein, St. Thomas More, in the 16th century, stepped up to the chopping block and, as he climbed the steps to his beheading, said to his executioner, “I pray you, help me on the way up, and I will take care of myself on the way down.” That kind of comment says, “I do not fear death.” It’s a kind of prophetic humor.
6. Humor deepens our relationship with God
One of the best ways of thinking about prayer is as a personal relationship. Like any relationship, our relationship with God often starts with infatuation, it goes through exciting and sometimes dry periods, it requires time, it requires listening, it requires some moments of silence, and it requires honesty. All the things that you say about friendship you can say, by analogy, about prayer.
Any healthy relationship can use some humor. Likewise, our relationship with God can also use some lightheartedness. It’s O.K. to be playful with God in your prayer and accept that God might want to be playful with you.
Once, when she was traveling to one of her convents, St. Teresa of Avila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. “Lord, you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?” And the response in prayer that she heard was, “That is how I treat my friends.” To which Teresa said, “And that is why you have so few of them!” That’s a playful way of addressing God and assumes God’s own playfulness.
Can you allow God to give you things that delight you and give you joy? Can you allow yourself to think that the wonderful or funny or unexpected things that surprise you just might be signs of God being playful with you?
. Humor welcomes
Hospitality is an important virtue in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, the act of welcoming Jesus into one’s home was a sign of one’s acceptance of Jesus. If a town didn’t welcome the disciples, Jesus told them to wipe the dust of that town off their feet. Jesus himself welcomed those who were outsiders into the community, by healing them and by casting out demons. He was showing the Father’s hospitality. In a sense, he was God’s hospitality.
In the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah were rewarded for their hospitality to strangers with the gift of a son (Gn 17:16-22). Sarah laughs of course when she’s told she’ll give birth, and then God says, “You laughed.” She says, “No, I didn’t.” God says, “Yes, you did.” When she gives birth they name their son Isaac, or Yitzakh, which means, “He laughs.”
Humor is one way of showing hospitality. Perhaps the easiest way to get someone to feel at home is to make him or her laugh.
A few years ago, I worked in Nairobi, Kenya, with refugees. At the end of my first year I signed up for an eight-day retreat at the local Jesuit retreat house. On the last day of the retreat, there was a big celebratory dinner, and everyone was supposed to speak about their retreat. When I looked around I realized that the other few men—the priests and brothers on retreat—had left. It was just me and about 50 African sisters. When I stood up to speak, I was worried that I would say the wrong thing. And I blurted out, “I guess I’m the only man here.” From across the room an African sister called out, “And blessed are you among women!” Everyone laughed and I felt right at home and could talk about my retreat with them.
Laughter had welcomed me.
. Humor heals
Physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists believe that humor helps the healing process in the physical body. And if we take seriously the Pauline image of the Body of Christ, we might consider that the same holds true for the Christian community. In the midst of some bad times in the Church—with the sexual-abuse crisis, and declining vocations, and parishes closing—the People of God could use, from time to time, some laughter. That’s not to say that one laughs about the pain or what Pope Benedict XVI called “sin inside the church.” Rather, humor can give us a much-needed break and can help us to heal.
. Humor fosters good relations and helps with our work
This is important for anyone who works in any setting in the Church. Humor helps grease the wheels. Once, before the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII picked up a preparatory document, took one look at all the people that the document condemned and found it too harsh. Rather than arguing with the men who wrote it, or discussing the theological objections he had to these condemnations, and so on, he simply picked up a ruler, measured the document and said, “Look, there are 30 centimeters of condemnations here!”
. Humor opens our minds
Neuroscience tells us that when we laugh we release endorphins and we can relax. Psychologists say that when we relax, and feel less threatened, we are more able to listen and learn. Thus, laughter helps to get your message across. Likewise, laughter can signal a sudden spiritual insight. Often, in spiritual direction, when people finally realize how foolish or sinful or selfish they have been acting, they laugh. They laugh at themselves and how foolish they have been to turn from God. Why? It’s funny to think of how human we are, and it’s joyful to know that we have been freed by God. Laughter both deepens and reveals understanding.
. Humor is fun
Here’s an 11th reason: it’s fun. There may be no better reason for humor than that. Fun—a word you don’t hear in Church much— is a foretaste of heaven. The saints understood this, and I would bet that Jesus, the man whose first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding feast, understood the need to have some fun in life.
Those are some of the reasons that joy, humor and laughter should be part of everyone’s spiritual lives. They are gifts from God to help us enjoy creation and build up the Kingdom. They are also neglected gifts that need to be recovered for the health of the Body of Christ.
Joy, humor and laughter are a wonderful part of the vocation of being Christian.