Laughter – The Best Medicine?
A few years ago, a woman in the parish complained to me that she couldn’t say her prayers at mass because of the noises children were making. “If they’re not crying, they’re laughing’” she said, “how could anybody say their prayers?” She was a little disappointed that I was reluctant to harshly condemn the children or denounce the parents from the altar. On another occasion I was very saddened by a woman who wouldn’t bring her special needs child to church because his occasional outbursts would be greeted with looks of disapproval from other worshippers. I found myself recalling an adage of my uncle Pat, a priest for over 60 years in the U.S. – if the church ain’t crying, it’s dying. The crying and laughter of children in our churches are signs of life and hope.
We need to remind ourselves that we are a people born of laughter! We are all as Christians part of God’s holy people, in a covenant begun with Abraham and Sarah many years ago, when this elderly couple was granted an unexpected son. His name was Isaac, which means in Hebrew, laughter. They were, as C.S. Lewis might say, “surprised by joy!”
We are a people of joy. We are a people born of laughter. But sometimes you wouldn’t know it by the church, would you? I’ve been in some churches in which people look like they are attending a wake, or worse, a legal proceeding. Straight faces, downward mouths, rigid unmoving bodies, never a smile to be had. And if a child dares enter the sanctuary, or worse, cries or laughs, you’d think the world was coming to an end. Or there are no children, because either they’ve all fled that dismal place.
Jesus loved children. In fact, when his disciples tried to keep them quiet, and away from him during his preaching and teaching times, he said, what are you doing? Stop it! Let them come. Let them stay! These are of the kingdom of heaven! They could teach us adults a thing or two about joy and laughter. When a church is missing the sounds of children in worship, that’s a dying and gasping church. Jesus’ church was never meant to be a solemn and serious affair. Early gatherings were filled with praise, voices, people of all ages, prayer, joy, laughter.
The church is meant above all to be a place where joy abounds. When joy takes you off guard, when God’s love and miraculous gift of grace so overwhelms you, so surprises you, that you burst out in laughter. That is spontaneous joy. Christians are people distracted by joy. Worship is a time when we express our joy of the Lord, the joy of Jesus’ presence, His gift of salvation, His love, and His grace. Many of us in the church have a problem understanding that kind of joy that the scriptures tell about. In fact, the scriptures command us to be joyful! An almost uncountable number of times the word joy appears in the scriptures.
Laughter reminds us that the well of our heart is full and that life is beautiful. Laughter gives us energy, makes us strong. In fact, you might say that laughter keeps the fire of Christ burning in the church. A joyful heart is a delight to God. Laughter is a fountain of joy. But what does it mean, this command to be joyful!? How can God command us to be joyful? How can we in fact be joyful in the midst of a world with so much pain, so much conflict, so much depression and loss and confusion?
The command to be joyful does not suggest that we try to force ourselves to feel something we don’t. But it is an act. When we put our focus on Jesus, when we contemplate His awesome gifts in our lives, the blessings God has given us, when we gather together, we take part in “joy,” and we experience joy. Joy is contagious. Joy is something we give as a gift to God. We often believe that we are passive and “joy” happens to us. In fact, “joy” in the Hebrew understanding is something we do actively in response to God’s love and blessing. Our response to God, whether unexpected or unplanned, is joy.
Grieving, sorrow exist. They are valid emotions, part of the human experience. But for every follower of Jesus, that joy issues up from the heart like an uncontained fountain. Jesus’ commissioning is about a commitment to joy, an obedience to praise, a joy of Jesus’ presence that so fills us with love, and joy, and hope that we can’t help but to share that “good news” with others.
Fr. Brendan Quinlivan, based in Tulla is Vicar Forane of the Ceantar na Lochanna Group of Parishes