The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible says there is a time to weep, a time to mourn, and a time to laugh. Sometimes laughter can be healthy in the midst of sadness - as a way of lightening a heavy heart.
Here is a cute story from a book I have been reading that illustrates this point. A few years ago the regional superior of the Jesuits in New York City was visiting the infirmary, where the sick and elderly priests and elders live. The superior was talking about how the Jesuits in the area were getting older and older. "We have so many aging Jesuits", said the superior, "that there really isn't any place to put them. There isn't even room for anyone else here in the infirmary." To which an elderly Jesuit shouted out, "Father, we're dying as fast as we can!"
Silly humor, as in this example, can sometimes help lighten sad situations. But it can deepen a person's spiritual life in a variety of other equally important ways. Over the next month I will look at 11 1/2 reasons for humor in the spiritual life.
1. Humor evangelizes
Joy, humor, and laughter show one's faith in God. Joy draws others to God. To paraphrase Saint Teresa, why hide it?
Many years ago, I asked a dear friend and committed Christian named Derek Liebenberg what he thought was the best way to get people to come to faith. His answer surprised and inspired me. He said, "Live your own life joyfully."
Isn't that good advice. Joy attracts people to God. Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people? A better way of expressing this came from Timothy M. Dalan, after his appointment to archbishop of New York in 2009. A New York Times reporter asked him about the declining number of vocations to the Catholic priesthood and wondered about his approach to the problem. Archbishop Dolan's answer: "Happiness attracts."
2. Humor is a tool for humility
We can tell jokes about ourselves to deflate our egos. This is important for those working in an official capacity in a religious institutions, where it's easy to get puffed up. It goes for those in silk robes who are called "Your eminence." It goes for priests, brothers, and sisters whom others think are holy because they are ordained or are in a religious order. It goes for preachers or rabbis whom others revere because they can recall verses of Scripture effortlessly. It goes for lay people in parishes, schools, and hospitals, who exercise a great deal of power over people's spiritual lives. Frankly, it goes for everyone.
Anyone can get puffed up, and humor is a good way for people to remind themselves of their basic humanity, their essential poverty of spirit. It brings us back down to earth and reminds us of our place in God's universe. "Angels can fly," write G.K. Chesteron, "because they can take themselves lightly."
An overriding theme in the book The Wit of Martin Luther is how Luther used humor to remind himself of the limitations of human knowledge where it comes to God. "Humor was for Luther," writes the Luther scholar Eric Gritsch, "the guard to prevent him from crossing the frontier to speculations about God and human life beyond its earthly existence." Humor served as a reminder of his own humanity and humility.