Joy, Laughter and Holiness

   What are three sounds the devil hates to hear?  We know, of course, that satan despises expressions of humility and the offering of sincere prayers—the Rosary and Hail Mary in particular—and he is obviously upset by words of genuine love, kindness and compassion, and dutiful and respectful obedience to superiors.  Are there other sounds, however, which cause him intense irritation and distress?

   Three such possibilities immediately come to mind:  the playing of innocent children, the joyful ringing of church bells, and good-natured laughter on the part of God’s people.

   Joyous, holy laughter is, in a sense, a celebration of God’s creation, and thus an effective, and enjoyable, means of resisting the adversary’s attacks.  As St. Francis de Sales notes, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy, because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity.  Therefore, he desires that everyone should be like himself.”  As a result, the devil is offended and repulsed by our happiness; according to St. Francis of Assisi, “When spiritual joy fills hearts, the serpent throws off his deadly poison in vain.  The devils cannot harm the servant of Christ when they see he is filled with holy joy.” 

   This was literally true for St. Rose of Lima.  The evil one frequently showed himself to her in a huge and fearsome appearance, threatening her and also beating her physically (though without being able to do her any lasting harm).  At first Rose was intimidated, but then, acting on the advice of her spiritual director, she overcame him by laughing at him.  As noted by the 19th century Irish writer Thomas Moore (not to be confused with the English martyr St. Thomas More), “The devil, the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.”  Stung with fury, satan tried to kill Rose but was prevented by God from doing so, so he slunk away in impotent rage, leaving the saint untroubled from then on.

   Few persons have such a dramatic, first-hand experience of the power of holy laughter and good humor over the adversary, but all of us can be strengthened in our own spiritual battles by holding onto a cheerful spirit.  Moreover, a joyful heart and progress in spiritual growth tend to go hand-in-hand.  St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “Happiness is the natural state of man,” and so, he says, “No one can live without delight, and that is why a man deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures.”  The Angelic Doctor’s contemporary St. Bonaventure adds, “A spiritual joy is the greatest sign of divine grace dwelling in a soul.”  For this reason, according to St. Philip Neri, “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”

   As a priest known for his great sense of humor, St. Philip Neri influenced and assisted many persons in 16th century Rome, helping them understand that holiness is intended for all members of the Church, and is easier to achieve (with the help of God’s grace, of course) when one is able to recognize and appreciate life’s lighter moments.  Father Philip enjoyed practical jokes, including those played out at his own expense; indeed, when people began taking his reputation for holiness a bit too seriously for his liking, he deliberately acted in humorous and embarrassing ways (such as pretending to be drunk and shaving off half his beard).  It’s said the two books St. Philip most valued were the New Testament and a volume of jokes and riddles.

   The great bishop and spiritual author St. Francis de Sales, noting that it’s easier to catch flies with a little bit of sugar than with a barrel of vinegar, often told humorous stories in his sermons as a way of making his points and keeping the attention of the congregation.  (One of his favorites was about a man whose argumentative wife drowned in a river, and who thereupon searched for her body upstream from the place where she fell in—for, as he explained, “She used to contradict me so much when she was alive that I’m sure even her dead body will show up opposite of what I’d expect.”)

   In the 4th century the abbot St. Apollo was not only known for his own cheerful expression; he also insisted his monks remain joyful while practicing penance—for, he said, joy is the fruit of charity and is necessary to preserve one’s own spiritual fervor.  Another 4th century monk, the great St. Anthony of Egypt—considered the founder of monasticism—was anything but sad and severe (even after living past the age of 100); according to his biographer St. Athanasius, “Strangers knew him [Anthony] from among his disciples by the joy on his face.”

   There’s a famous quote attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:  “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!”  This sentiment was very much in character for her, as she—despite many intense mystical experiences and profound spiritual writings—was very practical and down-to-earth.  Teresa was known for her sharp (though not unkind) wit and her ability to enjoy life.  Shortly before entering the Carmelite convent, Teresa attended a party, during which a young man admired her beautiful feet.  “Take a good look, sir,” the future saint told him; “you won’t be getting another chance.”

   Someone once sent Sister Teresa a partridge for her meal, which she and her companions ate with great enjoyment.  When a visitor worried that people would be scandalized to learn a saint was taking such delight in food, Teresa responded, “Let them think what they please.  There is a time for penance, and a time for partridge.”

   As St. Teresa advanced in holiness, she related to the Lord on increasingly familiar terms.  An often-told story relates how she accidentally fell into a puddle of mud one day and complained about it to God.  Supposedly the Lord responded in an audible voice, saying, “Teresa, this is how I treat My friends”—to which the saint immediately retorted, “Then it’s no wonder You have so few of them.”

   It may be unlikely we’ll ever hear the Voice of God with our own ears, and we’d probably hesitate to speak so freely to our Creator—but we’d do well to imitate Teresa of Avila and many other saints in their willingness to see and enjoy the humorous events and encounters of life, even under difficult circumstances.

   The Mexican priest and martyr Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro was a high-spirited and mischievous child, so it was quite natural for him to enjoy donning disguises and outwitting the police while ministering in secret to persecuted Catholics in his homeland some 100 years ago.  (He once announced, “If I meet any long-faced saints in Heaven, I will cheer them up with a Mexican hat dance!”)

   Father Pro was executed by a firing squad in 1927 (while extending his arms and shouting “Long live Christ the King!”).  Another holy young man who died in Italy two years earlier, Blessed Pier-Giorgio Frassati, was also happy and popular for his outgoing nature and his love of parties and practical jokes.  His deep spirituality fueled his constant cheerfulness; as he once stated, “My life is monotonous, but each day I understand a little better the incomparable grace of being a Catholic.  Down, then, with all melancholy.  That should never find a place except in the heart which has lost faith.  I am joyful.  Sorrow is not gloom.  Gloom should be banished from the Christian soul.”

   This sentiment is echoed by the virgin and foundress St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, who asserted, “Virtue that is gloomy, morose, sour, hard is virtue only in name.  It is not inspired by God’s Spirit and it does not become a Christian soul.”  St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) was one who learned this lesson well.  He once wrote, in the midst of many sufferings, “I thank the Lord that despite the fact that . . . I suffer moments of real anguish, I am invariably cheerful. . . . I cast myself trustfully into the arms of Jesus, then let whatever He has decreed take place, and He must certainly come to my aid.”

   The holy Capuchin priest further stated, “Our divine Master assures us that ‘no one will take your joy from you’ [John 16:22].  What testimony could be more certain than this?  Pondering all this, one cannot fail to experience great gladness.  This is what leads people to face the most painful trials with a cheerful heart.”  St. Pio also asked, “What soul, to whom Jesus has given Himself as its inheritance, can be unhappy?  Is He not the same Jesus Who is the delight of the angels?”

   When we come to love and value ourselves for God’s sake, appreciating ourselves as a cherished and unique part of His creation, we find a self-esteem and inner peace not subject to the opinions of others, nor at the mercy of the large and small misfortunes of life.  As the saints discovered, being filled with such love also fills us with joy.  That’s why St. Francis of Assisi, speaking of his companions and fellow friars, could insist, “Let the brothers ever avoid appearing gloomy, sad, and clouded, like the hypocrites; but let us ever be found joyful in the Lord, gay, amiable, gracious, as is fitting.”  This idea is echoed by St. Leonard, who stated, “Leave sadness to those in the world.  We who work for God should be lighthearted.”

   This being the case, how do we find joy and hope—especially in spiritually perilous and uncertain times such as ours?  An important step, of course, is recognizing that a good sense of humor (as opposed to a cynical or malicious one) is an expression of trust in the saving power of Jesus.  Being able to laugh, even in unhappy or discouraging circumstances, testifies to one’s belief that God is still in charge and that there is no reason for hopelessness or despair.  As St. Faustina Kowalska was taught by Our Lord, our lives should express the prayer “Jesus, I trust in You”—and this goes hand-in-hand with a cheerful spirit.  This idea is echoed by St. Josemaria Escriva, who states, “Joy is a Christian possession which we will have as long as we keep fighting [against sin and temptation], for it is a consequence of peace.”

Maintaining Peace and Hope

Another way of maintaining our peace and hope is simply learning to recognize and appreciate life’s humorous moments.  As a priest, I’ve certainly found this to be so.  Aside from obvious exceptions (such as someone mourning the recent loss of a loved one), most people like to laugh, and are happy to do so even in a religious setting.  Moreover, the telling of a timely joke can put people at ease and make them receptive to one’s message—and so I will occasionally begin a homily with a humorous story.

   (To give one example:  After reading the Gospel passage about the wedding feast at Cana [Jn. 2:1-12], I stated, “During the days of prohibition, a water truck secretly filled with moonshine was pulled over by a suspicious county sheriff.  ‘What’s in the truck?’ he demanded, and the driver said, ‘Just water, Officer.’  Opening a valve, the lawman tasted a bit of the liquid himself, then shouted, ‘This isn’t water; it’s whisky!’  Thinking fast, the driver exclaimed, ‘Praise the Lord!  He’s done it again!’”)

   I’ve also found that by putting a joke or witticism at the end of each of my bulletin columns, people—especially children—will make a point of reading it, and possibly other items as well, when they otherwise might not have done so.  (In addition, if I have a short but important announcement that I want as many people to see as possible, I’ll put it right above the joke, where it’s more likely to be noticed.)

   As you might imagine, parish life has many humorous moments—especially when speaking with children.  My first assignment was to a parish in a wealthy neighborhood.  On one occasion I asked a First Communion class there, “When was the first time Jesus gave people His Body and Blood?”  One boy responded, “I think it was called the First Brunch.”

Humorous Moments

   During a dialogue homily years later at a Friday school Mass that happened to fall on the 13th day of the month, I asked, “Why do people consider thirteen to be an unlucky number?”  A nine-year-old girl (who had a sister four years older than her) raised her hand and answered, “Because that’s the age when you become a teenager.”

   After a 6th grade class during which I showed the students the liturgical vessels and vestments in the sacristy, I told them one of the questions on the test would be in regard to the different ways a priest wears his stole (around the shoulders) and a deacon wears his (across his chest).  Answering that particular question, one girl wrote, “A priest wears his stole around his shoulders, and a deacon wears his stole like Miss America.”

   I once asked a boy to name the seven sacraments, and he thought aloud, “Well, there’s Baptism, and Confirmation, and Eucharist, and—what’s that sacrament for people who are sick and suffering?  Oh, yeah, Matrimony.”

   When interviewing a 13-year-old Confirmation candidate, I inquired, “Who will be standing with you when the bishop confirms you?”  He couldn’t think of the word “sponsor,” so I said, “Here’s a hint:  it starts with the letter S.”  He responded hopefully, “My spouse?”

   Many humorous moments occur unexpectedly—and when a happy coincidence is involved, it’s easy to imagine hearing a chuckle from Heaven.  One Friday in May, years ago, an 8th grade boy named Paul promised the girls in his class, “If you win your sports tournament this weekend, I’ll shave my head.”  On Monday morning, the girls happily informed him, “We won!  We came in first place!,” so after school that day, Paul was true to his word and had his head completely shaven.  However, the girls had lied:  they came in second place.  Paul wasn’t too upset, though, as he normally had his head shaved anyhow to help him stay cooler in the summer; this particular year he was just a few weeks early.

   I had the school Mass the following week, on Friday of the 6th Week of Easter.  That day’s 1st Reading from the Acts of the Apostles ended with chapter 18, verse 18:  “At [the ancient city of] Cenchreae Paul shaved his head because of a vow he had taken.”  Upon hearing these words, all the 8th graders turned and stared in wonder at their (now temporarily bald) classmate.

   Amusing incidents sometimes occur in church, even during Mass itself—as any priest can tell you.  An organist told me that as he was playing a hymn up in the choir loft, a bee flew at him, bounced off his cheek, and fell to the floor.  Because he was deathly allergic to bees, as soon as he finished the hymn, the organist went over and crushed it with his shoe.  To this I remarked, “Oh, so you transposed it from a bee to a bee flat.”

   This same organist was playing a verse from the Responsorial Psalm one Sunday morning when he suddenly stopped in mid-word; the congregation and I were puzzled as there was complete silence in church for about fifteen seconds.  Then the organist announced, “Please excuse the interruption, but as I was playing and singing a fly flew in my mouth.”  The ironic thing is that the Responsorial Psalm that day was from Psalm 34:  “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

   God has a sense of humor, and life abounds with amusing events and coincidences.  If we aren’t very good at recognizing and appreciating them, there’s nothing wrong with asking the Lord to help us improve in this regard.  Surely Heaven is ringing with joyful laughter—so developing our own ability to laugh and be of good cheer can rightly be considered a form of training or preparation for the life to come (while carrying the added bonus of irritating and frustrating the devil).

   Laughter is also a great aid to physical and emotional health while we’re here on earth, as many medical and scientific studies have demonstrated.  An ecumenical organization that has long promoted this truth is the Fellowship of Merry Christians, located in southwest Michigan.  It publishes a bimonthly newsletter called The Joyful Noiseletter, containing jokes, cartoons, whimsical reflections, inspiring quotations, and helpful articles on physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  (For information, go to www.JoyfulNoiseletter.com.)

Christian Joyfulness- Power to Attract for the Gospel

   Christian joyfulness often has the power to attract others to the Gospel.  That’s why satan tries to distract us with worldly concerns and feelings of discouragement—for he knows that these things will hinder us from fulfilling our mission in life, and perhaps even neglect the One Who is the only Source of happiness.  As St. Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “O Lord!  All our ills come from not fixing our eyes on You.  If we looked at nothing else but the way, we should soon arrive [in the sense of making great spiritual progress], but we fall a thousand times and stumble and go astray because we do not keep our eyes fixed on the true Way.”

   God is the cause of our joy, and so we must guard against anything that lessens our love for Him or weakens our response to His call.  In this regard, St. Clare of Assisi warns, “Melancholy is the poison of devotion.  When one is in tribulation, it is necessary to be more happy and joyful because one is nearer to God.”  In other words, the difficulties we suffer can be a sign of our closeness to God, and thus a reason for gratitude; indeed, we read in Scripture that after the apostles had been flogged by order of the religious authorities, they rejoiced that they had been found worthy to suffer in the Name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

Worry and Gloominess are not of God

   Christ’s Name is powerful and life-giving; St. Bernard of Clairvaux advises us, “Do you feel sad?  Let the name of Jesus come into your heart.  From there let it spring to your mouth, so that shining like the dawn it may dispel all darkness and make a cloudless sky.  Does someone fall into sin?  Does his despair even urge him to suicide?  Let him but cry out this life-giving Name and his will to live will at once be renewed.”

   Worry and gloominess are from the devil—and so we must freely reject these temptations and instead choose to live in a spirit of trust and joy.  Doing so can indeed be an act of faith and a renunciation of the evil one—a lesson demonstrated by the following story.

   Blessed Jordan of Saxony served as the second master general of the Dominican Order in the 13th century, succeeding St. Dominic himself.  Once during Compline (Night Prayer for monastic communities), a young novice experienced a giggling fit.  As one might expect, this quickly proved contagious, and soon all the novices were giggling or laughing.  A scandalized brother tried to threaten them into silence, but Jordan rebuked him, saying, “Who made you the novice master?,” and then told the young men, “Laugh on!  You may well laugh, for you have escaped from the devil who formerly held you in bondage.  Laugh away, dear sons!”

   Most of the time, of course, it’s preferable that we not laugh aloud in church (though there are occasions when it’s appropriate)—but smiles and a joyful countenance are rarely out of place.  St. Margaret Mary Alacoque advises us, “Above all, I beg you to always be gay, joyful, and happy, for this is the true mark of the Spirit of God, Who wishes that we would serve Him in peace and contentment; do not be uneasy or anxious, but do all things with liberty of mind and in the presence of God.”

   Those who have a mission or purpose in life are far less likely to experience prolonged sadness or depression—and we have been given the mission of being salt for the earth and light for the world (Mt. 5:13-16).  It is through the Holy Spirit that we are able to fulfill our roles in God’s plan, and as St. Paul tells us, the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, peace, and joy (Gal. 5:22).  By following the guidance of the Spirit, we will one day arrive at that glorious kingdom where every tear is wiped away (Rev. 21:4), there to rejoice forever.

Signs & Wonders for Our Times