01 April 2012

Laughter and the Lord

According to secular calendars, today is April First, a time when it is acceptable to play pranks, hoaxes, practical jokes and other good natured humor.  The origins of April Fools Day can be traced to the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392) when Chaucer described as “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two” (meaning March 32, or April 1), but there may be some roots  in the Roman festival of Hilaria (March 25th) as a feria stavia when masquerades and amusements were allowed.   But some might question whether comedy is suitable to commingle with spirituality.

In Umberto Eco's "Il nome della rosa" (The Name of the Rose, 1980), the Italian academic spins a medieval murder mystery that a palimpsest of the plot was made into a major Hollywood film (1986).  The premise of the  novel involved a Franciscan friar William of Baskerville along with his novice  sojourning to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy in order to investigate a theological disputation as to whether Christ laughed.

There were hidden power that be in the monastery who wanted to conceal a lost volume of Aristotle's Poetics about comedy, as that threatened their weltanschauung that laughter is diabolical thus not belonging in the spiritual life.  Admittedly, there are strong currents in the monastic tradition (Pachomius, Anthony, Augustine and Benedict) which  frowns up laughter in the spiritual life.

However, there are many instances in the Old Testament  in which humor unlock the hidden meanings of seemingly contradictory truths in scriptural wordplay.  When the Lord told Abraham that he would have a child, his wife laughed as Sarah was ninety years old.  Since anything is possible with the Lord and Sarah gave birth to a son, he was named Isaac (Yitshaq meaning “He will laugh”).  Some other gems are lost in translation from the Hebrew.  For example, during the first creation story in Genesis, God fashioned man (adham in Hebrew) from clay (adham?), and the woman created from one of his ribs was to be called woman (ishsh?) because she was produced from man (ish).

In his recent book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Humor and Joy Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (2011) , Fr. James Martin, SJ takes on the gloomy, pessimistic approach to spirituality.  Fr. Martin argues that having a "Frozen Chosen" approach to theology is both antithetical to the teachings of Christ, but is harmful to evangelization.

If hearing that humor is healthy for a spiritual life sounds jesuitical (sic.), then consider the series of “Bad Catholic” Guides written by John Zmirak which take a loving look at the lighter side of faith.

While there certainly should be a place for Laughter with the Lord, as the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven.  Levity is less appropriate this week as most persuasions of Christendom are celebrating the Messiah’s Passion and sacrificial death on Mount Calvary. Holy Week is not the proper time to persiverate on Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the Life of Brian (1979). But after the solemnity of the Triduum, believers revel in the joy of the Resurrection.

Celebrating this joie de vie for theology is not limited to the “wrong” side of the Tiber.  As Presbyterian seminarians blew off steam before taking their ordination exams, a video went viral which lauded and laughed about things within his tradition.  This epitomized the great Quaker scholar  D. Elwood  Trueblood’s quote about “Never trust a seminarian without a sense of humor".

Such examples of  joy filled, self effacing examples of faith stand in stark contrast to dour doctrinarians or smarmy and snide secular humanists.  This joyful approaches to  teleological things could set the set hearts on fire, even without candles.

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