Is Laughter really the best Medicine?

The great humanitarian, anti-apartheid campaigner, and spiritual leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently returned to the father’s house. One of the things that always impressed me about him was the irrepressible sense of joy that always seemed to emanate from him.  He had a wonderful sense of humour that could even be witnessed in his analysis of the history that led to the racist, apartheid regime under which he and his fellow black South Africans were forced to live. Describing its origins, he said; “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Unquestionably, Tutu had that sense of what we call in this part of the world – “divilment”.


For too long, being religious has often been associated with being serious, dour, curmudgeonly  and perhaps even grumpy. The church and its representative are often portrayed in popular culture as being killjoys, intent on stifling everybody’s fun. I beg to differ. For me humour and joy are outward signs of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Catholic apologist and humourist G.K. Chesterton, (often called the Apostle of Common Sense),  puts it very well when he says; “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly…. Seriousness is not a virtue….For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”


I was very taken in recent days by a video doing the rounds on social media. It’s an extract from an interview between pop singer Dua Lipa and American chat show host and comedian, Stephen Colbert. Colbert makes no secret of his devotion to his Catholic faith and is ever ready to profess it in a milieu that is often hostile to public expressions of faith. During the conversation Dua Lipa asks Colbert about the relationship between his faith and his work as a comedian. The comedian was quick to offer a witty response: “Ultimately, us all being mortal, the faith will win out in the end. But I certainly hope when I get to heaven, Jesus has a sense of humour.” But Colbert went on to elaborate on the core principles of his faith and the spiritual dimension humour can have. He said his faith is “connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related and giving yourself to other people” and that “death is not defeat.” He added: “So, if there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that no matter what happens, you are never defeated. You must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”


Joy is what we’ll experience when we are welcomed into heaven. We may even laugh for joy when we meet God. Joy, a characteristic of those close to God, is a sign of confidence in God. As the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  Humour is also an essential requirement of spirituality. Most of the saints, for example, had a terrific sense of humour and could easily laugh at themselves. I also like the approach of the American Evangelical theologian Reinhold Niebhur who said; “Humour is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”


Stephen Colbert’s hope that Jesus has a sense of humour may be well founded. Those who were first to hear the parables would most likely have been greatly amused at the topsy turvy, and sometimes absurd world that they presented. At the very least they would have smiled at the notion of putting a lamp under a bucket, or a father giving his child a stone when he asked for bread and perhaps they even laughed out loud at the image of a camel trying to navigate its way through the eye of a needle. Perhaps we don’t find them comic in the same way as the first audience because like an oft repeated joke we already know the punchline. It’s hard to imagine that the one who changed the water into wine did not laugh and dance with the guests who enjoyed the miraculous fruit of his labour.


A colleague of mine recently gave me the gift of a book by another well known practicing Catholic comedian Frank Skinner called A Comedian’s Prayer book. Skinner asks; “Is there a place for comedy in prayer? If there’s a place for comedy in life, there’s a place for comedy in prayer. God is a tough audience as far as audible response is concerned, but I love that I don’t have to explain the references.” With echoes of Chesterton he prays for humility, (a prayer that could well be said by those in the public eye); “Oh, universe-moulding, life-or-death-deciding, totally top-drawer almightyness, make me truly humble, but humble in a really fascinating way.”


Fr. Brendan Quinlivan, VF, Ceantar na Lochanna, resident in Tulla is Communications Officer for the Diocese of Killaloe


Clare Champion Article 18th of February 2022