Christianity is often viewed as a sombre, dour religion that takes itself very seriously. In fact, says Freya Kormoczy, many of our saints were a laugh a minute, and historians think Jesus had a great sense of humour.
Sitting in a cold church listening to a serious priest deliver a serious sermon about serious sins is a common stereotype of Christianity. In some religious communities (as we all know) it fits the bill but, on the other hand, many Catholics have a cracking sense of humour and love to laugh.
Why wouldn’t they if they have a relationship with God? What greater source of joy is there?
‘The closer one moves to God, the more one experiences a sense of deep joy,’ writes Father James Martin in his book Between Heaven and Mirth – Why Joy, Humour and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. ‘Joy is not a selfish thing to seek, but a selfless thing to find… Joy, humour and laughter should be part of everyone’s spiritual life. They are gifts from God and help us enjoy creation.’
We can look to the Bible for proof of this. ‘Worship the Lord with gladness,’ says Psalm 100:2. ‘The hills gird themselves with joy,’ says Psalm 65:12-13, ‘the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’
The Old Testament story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale would have been side-splitting to readers of the past, say historians.
Jesus himself is often depicted as serious, when in fact religious historians paint him as a happy chap, with a quick wit. Within the time he was preaching in, parables such the tale of the Prodigal Son would have been hilarious to crowds. Some translators have even interpreted The Beatitudes as: ‘Happy are the meek…Happy are the merciful…Happy are the peacemakers’ and so on.
Jesus was criticised for being a ‘glutton and drunkard’ by his contemporaries simply because he and his disciples were eating, drinking and enjoying themselves at a party.
Laughter, as we all know, is the best way to respond to a bully. Those in power don’t like humour, as was well demonstrated by Michael Palin’s Pilate in The Life of Brian. The crowd fails to respect him and rolls around in fits of laughter when he calls his soldiers to ‘Welease Woderick! Welease Woger! Welease Bwian!’
Perhaps some Church authorities dislike the truth that humour is instantly humbling, stripping all those who use it of their importance. But this is one of the greatest things about jokes… and one of the holiest. After all, the path to God (according to St Teresa of Avila) begins with humility.
‘I think the main reason we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously,’ wrote the late writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Perhaps of all the mistakes we humans have made (and continue to make), religious seriousness is one of the worst and one of the funniest. Giving up our self-importance, and recognising that it is only God who is powerful, is both a relief and a joy.
This can be attested by anyone who has met a truly holy person. In our world today, we can note that the Dalai Lama is often giggling, as Desmond Tutu did.
It is said that Merton found it hard to keep a straight face. One of his former novices reports that upon entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was unable to successfully identify Merton (who was then the most famous monk in the U.S.) out of the 200 brothers: ‘If you had asked me which one he was, he would have been the second to last one I picked… He was always laughing! And I had an idea that a monk should be very serious.’
Many saints (including St Francis of Assisi and St Ignatius of Loyola) were known for their jovial manner and sense of humour.
St Teresa of Avila was also known for her merry disposition and wry sense of humour. Upon meeting King Philip II of Spain during her reform travels, she said: ‘Sire, you are thinking, “I see before me this
Teresa wrote a lot about lightheartedness. She was concerned that the Catholic Church was a dour, grim-faced community and longed for more joking: ‘From sombre devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us,’ she said. ‘A sad nun is a bad nun. I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits… We should strive to be cheerful and unconstrained, for there are people who think it is all over with devotion if they relax.’
Science tells us that laughter stimulates the release of happy chemicals known as endorphins, which reduce stress and anxiety. Humour is healing! In the book The Secret, we are told of a woman with cancer and a man with a disease doctors said was incurable, who both completely cured themselves by watching funny DVDs.
Laughter, it seems, is so natural and so holy it can perform miracles! As well as God being loving and peaceful, let us all happily remember that the Divine is an endless ocean of joy. Let us never think that we must be serious in order to be close to God.
‘Besides lamenting to God and asking God for things,’ says James Martin, ‘there is another way of being with God – and that is joyfully.’
Laughter Came from Every Brick
A poem by St Teresa of Avila, taken from Love Poems From God
by Daniel Ladinsky
Just these two words
He spoke changed my life,
What a burden I thought
I was to carry –
a crucifix, as did He.
Love once said to me
‘I know a song,
would you like to hear it?’
And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore
in the sky.
After a night of prayer,
He changed my life when
In reply to a reporter who asked, ‘How many people work in the Vatican?’, Blessed Pope John XXIII said: ‘About half of them.’
Attributed to St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.’
St Teresa of Avila, upon being thrown from a donkey, addressed God:
‘If that is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!’
Children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. One of the nuns had put a note on the apple tray: ‘Take only ONE. God is watching.’ At the other end of the lunch line was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, ‘Take all you want. God is watching the apples.’
Between 1978 and 2005 Pope John Paul II canonized an unprecedented number of saints. During this time, one of Mother Teresa’s sisters asked how to become a saint. Although she expected to be told to help the poor, Mother Teresa laughed: ‘If you want to be a saint, die now – the pope is canonizing everyone!’