Monday, October 12, 2009

Laughter: Champagne for the Soul

© 2009 by Joyce Mason

Laughter is carbonated holiness. –Anne Lamott

I take spirituality seriously. That’s why I laugh a lot. As I’ve said many times, I feel we’re closest to God when we’re laughing. Laughter joins, heals, and connects us as human beings. To laugh is to take a huge gulp of Anne Lamott’s carbonated holiness and toast our divine interconnection. When we’re laughing, we realize that we are each other.

One of my favorite spiritual double entendres is “lighten Up.” Enlightenment shouldn’t come with long faces and a furrowed brow. It should come with peals of laughter that tingle all the way down to your toes and explode out the top of your head. In-between outbursts from a ticked funny bone, being highly spiritual or spirited should evoke plenty of smiles.

When did spirituality take a left turn into somber? I’m not sure I even want to research that travesty, but I do want to talk about the sometimes-limited view of it many of us developed in traditional religions, regardless of what they were. I’ll pick on my own. I grew up Catholic, and now the whole world knows about our history of hair shirts and self-flagellation, recently brought home to the entire world in the fictional Silas character in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. As a girl, I was taught to admire and consider as role models women who had been raped, tortured, or had their breasts cut off. I’m not kidding. Especially if they were martyred (yes, killed), they became saints, more or less on the spot. Being a Catholic kid in the 1950s, at least where I grew up, was a gruesome business. To say the least, I don’t think the focus on blood, guts, and gore sent the right message. (I’m still shuddering.)

Thank heaven, in the decades that have passed, many people—clergy and their flocks alike—have evolved away from this dim view of holiness. One of my favorite priests once told us at Mass, “The real church starts when you walk out of this building.” I believe that wholeheartedly. We talk of being a Christian, Muslim, or a Jew. To be is a verb, and spirituality is action, ergo the expression, “to walk the talk.” In the Christian tradition, it means helping others and acting to eradicate all forms of social injustice. Jews put perhaps even more emphasis on good works. Holiness means not just something sanctified, but something made whole. It has to do with seeing ourselves as part of all of creation and wanting all that lives to live to the fullest. This is stated so poignantly in this video by Peter Mayer, singing and playing his inspiring song, Holy Now.

“Holy Now” is an example of the sweet side of spirituality, the one where we are in awe of the beauty of life that’s ours to relish, if we only have the eyes to see it. Here’s my quote for this tender side of spirituality:

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. ~G.K. Chesterton

The love affair is with everything—people, places, plants, animals, and the spark of life, wherever it shines. It reminds me of the title of one of my favorite books, Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. While the subtitle is The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, the content is much more—a breath of fresh air that will keep you in that place of “holy now.” In "Everything Belongs," there are chapters entitled Vision of Enchantment and Return to the Sacred. You get the picture.

For now, back to laughter and evolution. Since so many of us had early religious experiences, often among misguided souls who taught us, religious humor becomes an outlet for both healing and reconnection to the “rightness within.” My favorite priest told me in confession when I was a teenager worried about going to second base, which felt good and not wrong, “Your conscience is the ultimate authority—more important than any religious teaching.” Wow! Isn’t it cool to realize that in a sea of misinformation, I stumbled upon an oasis, one wise soul bearing truth?

I have to admit, some of my favorite jokes involve a priest, a rabbi, and a minister. When Garrison Keillor has joke day on A Prairie Home Companion, I laugh hardest at these funnies about the various religious perspectives on life. As a Catholic who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, I relish the Jewish roots of Christianity and both religious perspectives. That said, I couldn’t resist telling my favorite joke:

In the inner city of a large metropolis, there was a great deal of urban renewal going on. The local temple was being demolished, and the congregation had no place to go until the new synagogue was finished. In an act of interfaith generosity, the neighboring monsignor contacted the rabbi and offered a solution. The temple could use the church in its off hours. They’d stagger services and meeting nights, accommodating both church members and temple goers until the new synagogue was ready. The rabbi was delighted with this offer, and both clergymen felt they were setting an example of tolerance and love.

The schedules were ready to go, the announcements ready to be made, but the rabbi scratched his beard and the monsignor scratched his head, both of them expressing the thought that something didn’t sit right. They’d have to call it something different in the meantime to help both congregations grasp this temporary ecumenical meeting ground. After a long period of drawing a blank on common denominators, they finally found it:

Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.

Jesus was arguably one of the greatest teacher of all time, if not the greatest of all. He taught in stories and allegories. I can’t help but believe he had a sense of humor, and I get a lot of mileage wondering what kind of jokes he told. I wonder why none of the gospel writers saw fit to pass them on. I guess they wanted the Word to be taken seriously. If they knew then what we know now about the physiology of laughter, as told in one of my favorite articles ever, How Laughter Works, we might have a very different bible. We might have had more laying on of laughs than the laying on of hands. I have always loved this depiction of Jesus Laughing.

If you’re serious about spirituality, I hope you laugh a lot—and if you don’t, do some heavenly homework and begin watching how much our human foibles, depicted in humor, bring us all together—and deserve our giggles, belly laughs, and guffaws as we see ourselves “illuminated.” Seeing our absurdities lit up is just another form of enlightenment. Share in the Comments anything interesting you observe in his new holy/wholely comedy perspective.

This past weekend, I saw the play Late Nite Catechism: ‘Til Death Do Us Part in Sacramento. What a hoot. It clearly threw light on certain elements of Catholic practices and perspectives in the past were—for lack of a better term—downright insane. The laughter as “Sister” quoted the old party line with deadpan delivery was infectious. Nonie Newton-Breen, who played Sister, is an improv graduate of Second City in Chicago. (I recognized her kindred accent immediately.) The funniest questions were from those in “class” not raised Catholic about limbo, purgatory, and the rhythm method of birth control. (“It didn’t work too well,” Sister admitted. “You wanted 3 and got 13.”) The game show, Compatibility, had two couples facing off who couldn’t have been more different—a staunchly Catholic pair to this day after 39 years together, and a much more free-spirited couple, together 10 years who had yet to marry. (“What are you waiting for?” Sister was nothing if not blunt.) She even had a list of names from the ticket purchases, so if people did not volunteer, they could be called upon. Scary! No ruler whacks, though, “Because nowadays parents have lawyers.” We had a fabulous time, and as one who always took religion way too seriously as a kid, it was a relief to sit back, relax, laugh, and separate the best of my core beliefs from the BS. Our minds provide us a filtration system, just like a conscience.

Since I’m most familiar with the Judeo-Christian perspective (I’d welcome knowing how other paths regard humor), I’ll end with two quotes that suggest that laughter was always there in our religious roots, just underemphasized:

To everything, there is a season …A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.

The one whose throne is in heaven sits laughing. Psalm 2:4.

If we are made in the divine image and all have that spark of divinity within, it’s high time take that last quote seriously.


Photo credit:

Need more laughs? Read Ten Laugh Stops Online, especially Swami Beyondananda.


Debra Stokes said...

Thanks for opening a bottle of bubbly here in cyberspace! Yours is a wonderful view of the treasure that laughter holds for each of us. I love the notion of Jesus laughing - he must have had a strong, deep, infectious laugh.

We often hear the phrase "don't take yourself too seriously", but mostly, people do. The way I manage to escape that blight is to watch and listen to my grandbabies - they keep me ever so grounded!!!

Thank you, Joyce, for spreading the love and the laughter.

Joyce Mason said...

Debra, thanks for stopping by for a spiritual cocktail! And for reminding us that a child always leads the way. Here's to carbonated holiness and the hope that it's completely contagious!

Eileen Williams said...

My dear thought-provoking friend,

Whenever I'm in search of inspiration, I come here and you never disappoint. This post rings especially true for me. I was brought up Protestant and took my religion very seriously as a child. So seriously, in fact, I made a vow to myself that I would stop smiling on Sundays. (Yes, I guess I was a bit weird, too!)
At any rate I have "lightened up" quite a bit since those days. I think laughter is not only a spiritual release, it's the best bridge between human beings there is--no one can hate when you're doubled over in laughter.
Maybe the UN should replace the Security Council with a "Laugh Council." How much better off, safer, more generous, and, yes, more spiritual the world would be. And that's no laughing matter!

Joyce Mason said...

Eileen, your UN Laughter Council is in incredible idea--seriously! I think you should pitch it. (The worst that could happen is that the powers-that-be might pitch the idea in another way, LOL!) If you want help in sending some letters to key leaders on why we should do something like this, I'd be happy to team it with you. You just identified another hidden value in humor. Sometimes in jest we find wise and amazing truths and solutions, the "light" in lighten up!

PS - I have a hard time imagining a somber Eileen, as your wide smile is one of your most endearing personal signatures. And it always widens my smile to hear you find so much inspiration here.

Michelle said...

A friend of mine sent me a small card of the Jesus Laughed print. :-) I carry it in my purse.

I can't remember... do you know about Blogblast for Peace day? It's Nov 5th and last year we had hundreds of bloggers participating. I hope you'll be joining us and adding your name to the list. :-)

Joyce Mason said...

Good to hear from you, Michelle! I used to have a large picture of Jesus Laughing, but I would have loved a wallet size. I can just imagine having a difficult day and taking it out for a look, laugh, and balance. I don't know about Blogblast for Peace Day, but it sounds "right up my alley." I'll check it out!