Spirit rejoices

Thursday 31 May 2018 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary 

One thing I’ve noticed about Pope Francis, dear readers, is that he tends to laugh a lot. Media reports are full of images of His Holiness smiling and laughing. I think the pope is on to something.

When the Blessed Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, she sang, “My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior” but I have never seen a single image of a joyful saint. The Bible reports that Jesus wept but nowhere does it say Jesus laughed. Is this an oversight or is it that piety and devotion have somehow been equated with a stern countenance?

I recall a dark and dreary picture in my elementary school textbook. It showed the Pilgrims trudging along on their way to worship at the Plymouth Meeting House. Even as a very young Catholic, that was as far as one could get from my own experience of the faith. 

We are Catholic, therefore we celebrate. “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” as Hilaire Belloc put it.

Everybody seems to acknowledge that joy and laughter are essential human attributes, but among many Christians, joy is often frowned upon. Didn’t your mother teach you not to laugh in church? I rest my case.

“Deliver me, O Lord, from sour-faced saints!” prayed St. Teresa of Avila. “Laugh and grow strong,” advised St. Ignatius of Loyola. “I want no long-faced saints,” St. John Bosco warned. St. Francis de Sales observed, “A sad saint makes a sorry saint.” St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “Happiness is the natural life of man.” The Angelic doctor referred to the uniquely human ability to laugh as “risibility.” Seems these saints were also on to something.

“Don’t get stuck in the trap of telling a joke at the beginning of every sermon,” warned my seminary professor. This has proven to be wise advice. A sermon is not a comedy routine nor is worship an entertainment. Still, you do want to get people’s attention. 

Sometimes I begin a sermon with a joke, but the joke falls flat. Nobody laughs. They just don’t get it. Sometimes I begin the homily on a serious note, but everybody laughs uproariously. I don’t get it. One can’t plan these things in advance. Joy happens in the moment. That’s why people say, “Well, I guess you would have had to have been there.”

Laughter, unfortunately, can be used in a sinful way. Sometimes people laugh openly at others in ridicule or contempt. Others laugh “behind their backs” or “up their sleeve.” “Having the last laugh” can be vindictive. Some may laugh in disbelief at what others hold to be Sacred. This is the most hateful form of laughter.

Holy humor, on the other hand, is an expression of a joyful heart. Joy lightens whatever burdens you happen to be carrying. The best way to deal with hard times is with faith and humor. Laughter is how we manage to survive the pain of the moment. “Humor is pain, given time,” observed Carol Burnett. Mark Twain commented that the source of humor is sorrow.

The best target of humor, it seems to me, is ourselves. Laughing at ourselves is an infallible sign of humility. It’s an indication that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. How, after all, can a pompous person stand in prayer before the throne of Almighty God without laughing at the ridiculousness of his or her own pretensions? 

Sometimes people tell me I don’t smile enough. There’s actually a reason for this. During adolescence, I developed the habit of hiding a dental defect by covering my mouth. Decades after cosmetic dentistry, I still tend to maintain a poker face. Old habits die hard.

Others have told me I laugh too loudly. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to be more reserved?” a brother priest once asked. “Laughing out loud is unbecoming of a priest. Just smile politely.” You know me, dear readers. I laughed off the comment. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Ever watch some of these “feel good” television preachers? Notice that they smile constantly. Well, that’s the other extreme. Some television evangelists may be making money hand over fist, but their smiles are patently plastic. 

A joyful spirit does not necessarily result in a perpetually beaming countenance. Holy humor is not a mood but a worldview. It’s a way of looking at ourselves and at the world in which we live. 

Sometimes, if you want to make people laugh, your face must remain serious. Look at the classic stage presence of Jack Benny during his 42 years of comedic performances. I have seen similar body language used by Hal Roach, the late Irish comedian. He is in the “Guinness Book of Records” for spending 26 years on stage at one venue — Jury’s Hotel in Dublin. Straight-faced humor worked well for both of them. 

“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly. Satan fell by the force of gravity,” G.K. Chesterton wryly quipped. 

Amen to that.

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts