"God has Given Me Cause to Laugh"
Toward a Theology of Humor
© 2001 by Paul Thigpen
[A lecture presented at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the spring of 2001.]
Thanks for the opportunity to be here. It's just nice to be somewhere with lots of fellow Catholics around. You know, right now I live out in the country near the little town of Ozark, Missouri. Is anyone here from the Ozarks? Well, if you know the area at all, you know that it's a bit backwards — you know, a little behind the times. I remember how, long ago when I was growing up in Georgia, there were some little country towns that were so backward, they hadn't yet gotten indoor plumbing or television. Well, the little town of Ozark is so far behind the times, they haven't yet gotten original sin.
There are some places so remote, so far back in the hills and hollers, that when you go to church there on Sunday mornings, even the Episcopalians handle snakes!
There aren't many Catholics in southwest Missouri, either (maybe that's why they haven't yet gotten original sin!). Former Archbishop John May of St. Louis used to tell about how one day a priest's car broke down on a back road in the Ozarks. When he went to a little trailer off the road to ask for help, a nice couple there invited him in. They commented that they'd never met anyone with a collar on backwards.
The priest said, "Oh, yeah? Well, how come you have a picture of the Pope on the wall?"
"Where?" they asked with horror. The priest pointed to an old photograph over the couch — it was a portrait of Pius XII.
"Who's that?" they asked.
"The Pope," said the priest.
"Great goodness!" the old man exclaimed. "They told us that was Harry Truman in his 33rd-degree Masonic outfit!"
Now I have a reason for beginning this humorous way — and it's not just because the Scripture tells us in Ecclesiastes that there is an appointed "time to laugh" (Ecc 3:4). The truth is that in ancient Catholic tradition, there was one particular appointed time to laugh, to engage in what was called the risus paschalis, or the "Easter laughter." Since it's Easter week, now is that time.
It was once customary for even the most dry and solemn of preachers to begin the Easter homily with a joke. Easter Monday especially was hailed as "God's Laughter Day" — a token of the Christian's scorn for the Devil, who had pretended to win victory over us through death. Easter, of course, proved that the joke was on him instead. In the words of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh, the resurrection of Jesus was truly "a laugh freed forever and ever." That laughter has ever since echoed down the centuries.
I remember how, many years ago, I was invited to sing at the funeral of the grandmother of one of my closest friends, a Pentecostal. She was a godly woman, and lived, like Job, to be "full of days." But even though her death lacked the bitterness of an unexpected or untimely loss, sadness hung like a heavy veil over the little wood-frame church where we gathered to say good-bye.
Fighting to hold back the tears, I struggled through my song and then sat down to hear the pastor's sermon. He began mournfully, reflecting the emotional landscape inside all of us. But suddenly his words took what seemed to me at the time to be an odd turn, in the direction of humor. He recalled a few comical anecdotes, and then joked that we could be glad our friend wasn't like the atheist whose tombstone read, "All dressed up and no place to go."
It took us awhile to move with him from grief to amusement, but soon we were smiling and even chuckling. The humor of the message finally reached its climax when he told of how a funeral should remind us that we who were still on earth should view ourselves and others with humility, for "dust thou art, and to dust returneth." "Can you imagine!" he finally shouted, with a comical facial expression of mock disdain. "Here we are: One speck of dust, looking down its nose at another speck of dust, and saying, 'I'm better than you are!'"
The congregation roared with laughter, and for a moment you'd have thought that we were anywhere but a funeral. Yet in that moment, the veil of sadness was torn, and the light of eternal life, the brilliance of the resurrection, shone into that little church. The "laugh" freed from the empty tomb was resounding there. Is it any wonder that the service ended with a magnificent season of solemn worship?
Now I'm not suggesting by comparison that the Mass outside the homily should be punctuated with jokes and laughter; unfortunately, I know a priest who tries to do that, and in his attempt to "lighten up," he robs the liturgy of its beautiful dignity and gravity, and he comes off more like a clown than a priest. Even in that Pentecostal funeral I attended, you see, the humor served the function of preparing a place for solemnity. In the Catholic tradition, such a preparation often takes place at the wake, where cleansing laughter makes room for the solemn rite of the funeral Mass that is to follow.
As the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr summed it up: "Laughter is the beginning of prayer." Using the imagery of the ancient Jewish temple, he insisted that laughter should be found in the outer courts of the temple, but then, as we approach the Holy of Holies, "laughter is swallowed up in prayer."
This is the dynamic, then, I want to consider today: the way in which humor can become a prelude to wisdom and to worship, as a spiritual discipline of the virtue of hope.
The Nature of Humor
The pastor's jesting at the funeral that day gave us a clarity of perspective that allowed us to see the folly of taking ourselves and our present surroundings too seriously. But what exactly is it about humor that can clarify our vision so effectively? For centuries people have attempted to define the nature of the comic, from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to contemporary international conferences on the subject. Though many claim that to analyze humor is to kill it, I believe the effort is well worthwhile.
First I think we must recognize that humor is distinctively and universally human. The sense of humor, after all, is part of God's gift of reason; it takes a "rational animal," as the philosophers have called us, to be capable of laughing. G. K. Chesterton — whose wit has made me laugh more times than I can count — described it this way: "Alone among the animals, [man] is shaken with that beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself." Laughter is so much a part of who we are as human beings that to lose the sense of humor is as injurious as to lose one of the other, more physical, senses — sight or hearing or touch or taste or smell. Medical researchers, in fact, have noted that one symptom of severe mental disability — in particular, schizophrenia — is the inability to laugh.
Just now my mother is living with us, and she is an Alzheimer's patient. Those of you who are familiar with this difficult condition know well how many moments of grief and even agony there can be as the one who suffers slowly loses the gift of memory, and in doing so, inevitably loses a sense of personal identity. Some days I hardly recognize the soul of the woman I've loved so deeply for as long as I can remember.
And yet there are happy moments, too, shining moments, when just for an instant, Mom as we've always known her comes back to us. And I've noticed that those moments are almost always characterized by humor. The other day, for example, she actually found enough presence of mind to make a little play on words, and then she laughed so hard at her own joke that the tears came to her eyes — and to our eyes, too. We knew that somehow, that precious part of her soul had not yet slipped away.
Now even though we can describe the "humanness of humor" from everyday experience, trying to define humor is no small task. I'm reminded of the judge in a criminal pornography case some years back who, when he was challenged to define pornography, replied, "I can't define it legally — but I sure can recognize it when I see it."
I don't know that anyone has provided a satisfactorily comprehensive definition of humor, even though we can usually recognize it when we see it. In any case, many agree that the central feature of most humor is the element of incongruity, the seemingly inappropriate joining of things that are inconsistent or irreconcilable. This was the claim of Schopenhauer, for example, joined by Kierkegaard and certain other philosophers, who insisted that "laughter is the sudden perception of incongruity" between our ideals and the actualities that are before us.
A glance at most jokes or humorous situations provides ample evidence for this analysis. The earlier-noted Pentecostal preacher's "dust" remarks, for example, were comical because in them we recognize the inappropriateness of creatures acting proudly as if they were gods. His joke about the atheist's tombstone elicits laughter (even, I trust, from atheists) because of the incongruity of dressing up a body that is destined for nothing more than disintegration.
Humor in the Scripture
The humor inherent in certain biblical stories reveals itself through this analysis as well. In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, for example, we find Abraham engaging in the traditional Oriental style of haggling, so typical even now of the Middle Eastern marketplace. [Read Gn 18:20-33.]
Despite the very serious matter at hand, what makes this biblical scene comical, of course, is that Abraham, a mere mortal, dares to bargain in this way with Almighty God. (In fact, it reminds me in some ways of Bill Cosby's old "Noah" routine — how many of you have ever heard that one? Cosby has Noah try to bargain with God about building the ark, and every time Noah begins to try to back out, God asks him simply and bluntly, "Noah — how long can you tread water?")
When I read how old Abe slowly ups the ante, I find myself laughing — not only at him, but with him, because I catch myself at times trying to do the same thing, trying to play Advisor to God. We're like Cosby's Noah: When God says He plans to let it rain 400 days and 400 nights to flood the earth, Noah responds: "Why waste so much water? Just let it rain forty days and forty nights, and then wait till all the sewers back up."
The inappropriateness of bargaining with God and advising God is what makes us laugh at this situation. The vision of such incongruity then humbles us and reminds us of who we are. As my wife once pointed out to me: "There are only three Persons in the Holy Trinity, honey, and you're not one of them!"
Such an enlightening view of the world appears in other biblical stories as well, such as that comical episode in which the prophet Balaam receives a divine rebuke from his pack animal in Numbers chapter 22 [21-35]. In our minds, we've established sharply defined categories that separate heaven from earth, or the human from the beast. So when Balaam's ass speaks, or when Balaam himself acts assinine, the inappropriateness makes us laugh — and we see our condition more clearly.
In this way, then, godly humor can become a prelude to wisdom, as we see ourselves aright, and to worship, as we see our Creator aright.
Now as much as I admire Chesterton, and as much as his thought has influenced my own in countless ways, I must confess one tiny point at which I disagree with him. At the end of the brilliant little volume entitled Orthodoxy, he makes the observation — correctly, I think — that "the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear," and that "joy, which was the small publicity of the pagans, is the gigantic secret of the Christians." But then he goes on to speculate about why the Gospel writers never speak of Jesus smiling or laughing, and concludes that perhaps "the one thing that was too great for God to show us while He walked upon our earth … was His mirth." Chesterton thinks that Jesus had to hide it from us.
There's no doubt, I think, and Chesterton would heartily agree, that our Lord laughed and played. After all, laughter is a human universal, and if we're fully convinced that the Church teaches truly when she teaches that Christ was fully human, like us in all things except sin, then how could we doubt it? But unlike Chesterton, I think that we do see our Lord's mirth in some of His sayings, though it is no doubt a subtle humor, and that the Gospel writers simply had their own reasons for not speaking explicitly of His smiles and laughter.
In fact, the humor of our Lord Jesus provides the classic example, I think, of how laughter can uncover pretense or sham, thus cleansing our vision of the world and of ourselves. Most of His barbs were directed at Pharisees and other religious leaders who had deceived themselves into thinking that they had earned themselves a ticket to the throne of heaven. If any of them were ever able, by God's grace, to let Christ's humor have its intended effect, then I believe they discovered through His words how inverted their perceptions truly were.
Jesus' joking comments about the hypocrites of His day focus on the incongruity of their self-righteousness and their pride. The humor, I think, appears most sharply when we try to imagine such people literally taking part in the activities our Lord described. The image of a blind man leading another blind man, and both falling into a ditch (Lk 6:39), reminds me of bumbling episodes from slapstick TV comedies — the Three Stooges, for example, come to mind. Or a similar picture is evoked by His words about the hypocrites who blow trumpets to announce the jingling of their pennies in the collection plate (Mt 6:2-4).
Then there's Mk 21:4, where Jesus speaks of folks trying to hide their lamps under a bed. Now when you keep in mind that the lamps had open flames, and the beds were probably straw, then you get a comic scene in which a sleepy dullard wakes up to the smell of something burning, only to realize that it's his own pajamas!
Or how about our Lord's words in Mt 23:25-26, which evokes images of primly dressed diners eating from spotless dishes — which are filled with rotting garbage! I almost laugh aloud at the absurdity of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Mt 19:23-24), of an eye doctor busy using tweezers on a patient while a log is sticking out of his own eye (7:3-4), of a gnat-free Pharisee with a camel's hoof stuck between his teeth (23:24).
I laugh, but the laughter is redemptive only when I place myself alongside the Pharisees and see my own pretensions made the butt of the Lord's jokes. To be a corrective for vision and thus a spiritual discipline, humor must go beyond mere scorn of another person's shortcomings to a recognition of our common predicament. When it does, it prods us to re-examine ourselves, convicts us of our need for salvation, and allows us to seek God's rescue from ourselves, to cultivate hope that He can transform us and heal the incongruities.
When it doesn't do these things — when, instead, our humor is itself self-righteous, and leads us to mock or look down on others — then humor is no longer in the service of the virtue of hope. Rather it indulges the vice that opposes hope: I mean, of course, presumption.
The Gospel As Humor
Now these comical remarks of our Lord, though certainly significant in themselves, point beyond themselves, I think, to a more profound reality. In a sense, the entire Gospel is permeated with the liberating vision of humor.
The human dilemma is, after all, a paradox, an incongruity resulting from the Fall. As the psalmist says, we are mortals who flourish and fade like the grass (Ps 103:15), and yet, as the preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes says, we have a sense of eternity planted in our hearts that makes us hope for immortality (Ecc 3:11). As St. Paul told the Romans, we have the universal moral law written on our hearts (Rom 2:14-15), yet we all sin and fall short of even our own moral standards, not to say the glory of God (3:23). We crawl on earth but we hope for heaven. So how to we reconcile these terrible contradictions of our existence?
The resolution of the paradox comes in the Good News that God is God, and we are beloved dust. If we're willing to listen, then far above the mud in which we wallow, from beyond the skies for which we reach, we'll hear a cosmic tumult. And though it comes to shake the earth like thunder, it won't be thunder. It will be the sound of laughter.
From His throne, the Lord of the galaxies looks down at the earth — His "footstool," as he told the prophet Isaiah (66:1). There, He beholds the specks of dust claiming lordship of their lives and of the earth itself. Not surprisingly, the absurdity of our pretense breaks the divine Countenance into mirth, and as the psalmist tells us, "He who sits in the heavens laughs" (Ps 2:4). If we're willing to lay aside our pretenses, that heavenly laughter can cleanse us and awaken us to repentance. It will quake our faulty foundations, tumble us from lofty and dangerous places, and rip away our masks.
In His great faithfulness, our Lord follows His chastening with a promise of redemption. In the depths of our repentance, when we have at last realized that we cannot save ourselves, we hear again the sound of laughter. No blast like thunder comes this time, but rather the still, small voice of God comes gently laughing. And to our amazement, it's the crystal laughter of a Child.
A Child! Could it possibly be that God Himself should crawl upon His footstool and cry for the breast? Priests, we had expected, prophets, we had anticipated; but who would have thought that God Himself would come in the flesh? The deepest and broadest "joke" of history — the great Incongruity of all the ages — grips us in awesome wonder; and we can only laugh with delight and the utter unpredictability of God.
Yet the surprise of the Incarnation has much more humor in store, for it blossoms into a Gospel of scandalous inappropriateness. The joke has just begun! The King of Kings is born in a stable; the Holy One of Israel is befriended by prostitutes; the Lord of Lords is acclaimed as He rides on a dusty old donkey. He shocks the self-righteous people of His day with His startling behavior, proving what St. Paul would later observe: "Hasn't God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … For the foolishness of God is wiser than men" (1 Cor 1:20, 25).
Of course, the mighty and the proud may have scoffed at the scandal of the Gospel. But the joke was on them. For the Son of God has come to crash the world's pompous masquerade ball, and His prank won't be complete until He's stolen away every last one of our disguises.
The mischief of Jesus inverted the world's values and priorities, because it had to clarify again that God is God and we are beloved dust — beloved enough to be worth the life of His Son. In the eyes of many, those overturned tables in the Temple were simply chaos. But in the act of turning them over, Jesus was showing the incongruity of worshipping Mammon, and what he did actually restored divine order to the house of God.
The Humor of the Saints
If we need any more evidence that the life of Christ had its humor, we need only look at those who, down through the ages, have imitated His life most closely — I mean, of course, the saints. In their lives, we fill out the portrait, so to speak, of divine life. The kinds of things Jesus did that the four evangelists passed over in silence, we can find echoed in the more detailed accounts of the hagiographers.
Now we could take so many examples; I think first of St. Francis of Assisi, whom Chesterton has rightly called "the court fool of the King of Paradise"; whose entire adult life, it seems, was a startling comic elaboration of Christ's act of overturning the tables, smiling playfully as he did so, and pointing out the absurd incongruities of his contemporaries.
Or there is St. Teresa of Avila. What a quick wit shines through her writings and sparkles in the anecdotes of her biographers! Perhaps you've heard, for example, of how she was on her way one day to perform her administrative duties at one of the religious communities she supervised, when the donkey she was riding on stumbled as he forded a stream. She was thrown into the muddy water. As she picked herself up and wiped off the mud, she was heard to say with a sigh, "Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!"
I think, however, that humor as a spiritual discipline has probably found its greatest saintly brilliance in the life and work of St. Thomas More. Unfortunately, what most folks know about him has to do more with tragedy than comedy. For his faithfulness to the Church, of course, he languished for fifteen months in the Tower of London, in the shadow of the scaffold where he finally met his martyrdom. In those terrible days, he wrote some of his finest works, among them his treatise entitled Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.
What is startling about these works is the sense of freedom, even a kind of lightness, that characterizes them — the Dialogue, for example, is filled with what More called "foolish merry tales." Such lightness, though a recurrent theme throughout More's life, startled his contemporaries — as it does ours — when it appeared one last bright time as the saint joked with his executioners.
Weary and stumbling from long ill treatment, and with his hands tied behind his back, he feared that he might not be able to negotiate the shaky steps up to the scaffold to be beheaded. So he turned to the lieutenant beside him and quipped, "I pray you, see me safely up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." Once he had laid his head on the block, he asked the executioner to wait while he moved aside his beard, which had grown long and scraggly during his imprisonment. After all, he observed dryly, his beard had never committed any treason!
It was only the last of many jests from a man who from his early days had been a first-class joker. As a boy he once wrote a stand-up comedy routine to be recited as a welcome to the guests at a feast. His youthful Latin compositions play on the fact that his name in Greek, Moros, means fool (the root of our word "moron"), and they flash with wit: "If your feet were as light as your head," one noted, "you could outrun a hare!"
As an adult he became famous well beyond England for his practical jokes, such as "medicating" the food of distinguished guests at his table — with what kind of surprises he "medicated" them, we can only speculate with glee. (Perhaps hot pepper? Or maybe some kind of purgative?) Even More's formal treatises include a number of funny stories whose good humor can still draw laughter nearly five centuries later. And though he may have taught his children that, as he put it, "virtue and learning are meat" while "play is only the sauce," nevertheless the children well knew that he considered the spice of that sauce indispensable.
Is it any wonder that such a man's household included a live-in professional jester and a pet monkey?
Yet this same saint, at the height of his brilliant career, had his own tomb built and his epigraph engraved as a stark reminder of his own mortality. He wrote a book entitled The Sadness of Christ, and a number of essays about death, judgment and hell. How could he have been at the same time such a "merry saint"?
I think the answer is simple: St. Thomas More was a man of fervent hope, a man who continually looked forward to the next life, to the joy of beholding the face of God. He was able to soar merrily above the anxieties and even the horrors of the moment to behold the promise of glory that awaited him if only he could persevere to the end.
You see this trait in More's life at every turn. As Lord Chancellor of England, a wealthy businessman, a renowned Renaissance scholar, he had everything this world could offer: status, power, wealth, fame. But to save his soul in the midst of the temptations inevitable in such conditions, he persistently practiced a number of spiritual disciplines.
Underneath his ruffled shirts and gold chain, for example, More wore a hairshirt. Though he frequently invited crowds to feast in his home, he himself quietly passed over the dainty delicacies they enjoyed at his table. He continually gave alms; he slept with a log for a pillow; he led his family and servants each evening in prayers; he had Scripture read aloud and discussed at mealtimes; he devoted Fridays to prayer and study; he attended Mass regularly and refused to let even the summons of the King tear him away from the altar rail. He thought and wrote frequently of heaven.
In short, he was someone thoroughly in the world but not of it.
Now all these practices we readily recognize as spiritual disciplines, with the calculated effect of detaching one from the glories of this world and focusing attention on the glories of the next. More said repeatedly in his works that deeds which mortified the flesh were in fact a spiritual "medicine," as were thoughts of death, and of the fate that awaits us after death. If you would prepare for the next life, he insisted, take all these things with a deadly seriousness.
What I am proposing, however, is that for More — and for us — humor can itself be yet another spiritual discipline, a spiritual medicine, with a similar effect. As the book of Proverbs reminds us, "A merry heart is good medicine" (17:22). Far from viewing More's merriment as a contradiction to his mortification, I think instead we must recognize an internal consistency between More's ascetic life and his playful life, between his hairshirt and his humor.
More was a jokester precisely for the same reason that he was an ascetic: Through both means, he desired to expose continually the shadowy nature of this world, the incongruities of this life, by turning upon them the bright light of eternity. For More, the discipline of humor, like the discipline of the hairshirt, bore as its fruit the theological virtue of hope.
Take, for example, the practical joke he played on Anne, his daughter-in-law. She was quite attached to expensive jewelry, and she once begged him to buy her a string of pearls. I can just see the loving sparkle in More's eye when, as she later opened the jewelry box he presented her, expecting that her fondest wish had come true, she realized that inside was a necklace … made of white peas.
They all had a good laugh, and the point of the joke was made: In the end, when we leave all such things behind, pearls will be of no more value, and no more permanence, than peas. In that moment Anne recognized the vanity of costly trinkets, and she learned to long for other things instead, things infinitely more precious and lasting.
You see, Saint Thomas knew the intimate connection between humor and hope. He knew that just as God, in giving us humor, has shown us what we are now, so also, in giving us hope, He has shown us what we can one day become — and in both there is a sweet consolation. If laughter is, after all, our response to the gap between what is and what should be, then a finely tuned sense of humor is often the distinguishing mark of clear vision — the kind that sees this life sharply with all its incongruities, yet sees as well the possibilities and implications that lie hidden beneath the surface. It is in fact one aspect of the virtue of wisdom, and Thomas More, despite his name, was a wise man.
The key here, it seems to me, lies in the last two words of an exhortation that we find repeatedly in the personal letters of this saint. He never tires of urging his family, friends and acquaintances: "Be merry in God." For without God — without the hope of another world beyond this one, for which this one is longing — there could be no true merriment. There could be only the shallow giggle of flippancy, or the hollow mockery of the cynic.
To be truly merry, after all, is to live lightly in this world, to be unburdened with cares about things that are quickly passing away. In a sense, we might say that for those who take God and His will with appropriate seriousness, nothing else need be taken seriously. To be in the world but not of the world is, among other things, to laugh at the world.
And so Saint Thomas More, enduring the ordinary trials we all suffer, and a few more extraordinary ones beside, remained merry for a lifetime, and he called all those around him to merriment as well. Even in his last letter on the eve of his execution, the words ring like the crescendo of a musical refrain that has sounded through all his correspondence: "Be merry in God!" When you lose a loved one, be merry. When the barns burn, be merry. When your career is shattered, when your friends betray you, when you end up in prison, when death stares you in the face — "Be merry in God!" Today's tears, he reminds us all, can water the soil of our souls, and one day, as he so vividly put it, "we will have in heaven a merry, laughing harvest forever!"
Humor in the Next World
More's hopeful remark, and his frequent meditations on the last things, suggest a final question about humor: Does it survive our death? If the purpose of a godly humor is to make us see this world aright, what happens when we have left this world behind? We have spoken of the soteriological value of humor; what is the eschatological status of humor? (Sorry — I had to put those big words in there for the sake of the theologians in the audience.)
Think first of hell. Do the damned laugh?
Years ago I wrote my one and only novel, entitled Gehenna; it borrowed the moral geography and some of the themes from Dante's Inferno and placed them in a contemporary setting. (Well, actually, the setting was hell, but the first chapter was set in contemporary downtown Atlanta, which most of us folks from Georgia believe is next door to hell.)
I was an evangelical Protestant at the time, though my thought had already become increasingly Catholic, and when the evangelical magazine Christianity Today reviewed the book, I thought for sure they would criticize my Catholic tendencies. But oddly enough, what the review offered as its major criticism took me totally by surprise: They rebuked me because in some passages, the book was actually funny, and intentionally so. How dare he, the reviewer thundered, treat such a serious subject with humor? Dante would never have done such a thing!
Well, those of you who have read Dante will recognize the irony here: In places, the Inferno is actually quite funny, and it was from Dante, in fact, that I had taken my cue. From a literary point of view, my guess is that he recognized, as I did, the need for some comic relief in such an otherwise relentlessly sobering story. So we both used the demons as our comic characters.
Why would we portray humor in hell? Primarily for the same reason that Gary Larson's wonderful but — alas! — now retired Far Side comic strip so often was set in the netherworld: The existence of hell shows so sharply the incongruities of our fallenness; the damned are the most incongruous of all. If we laugh redemptively now, we might be saved from becoming the object of demonic laughter ourselves in the end.
But is this to say that in the real hell there will be humor? Laughter, perhaps, but not the kind of redemptive humor we've been talking about. I can imagine certain false attempts at humor there, but such devilish scoffing as there might be will not serve hope — for, as Dante reminded us, the gates of hell proclaim: "Abandon hope, all you who enter here."
Hope, after all, has two opposite vices: presumption and despair. And just as the false humor of this world, the kind that merely scorns others, only indulges our presumption and corrodes rather than cleanses us, the jests of hell will only feed despair. If the damned do in fact laugh, it is no doubt with the meaningless, empty laughter of the maniac, the twisted shrieks of a soul that is unraveling into chaos.
What, then, about purgatory? St. Catherine of Genoa glimpsed the poor souls there, and though she spoke of terrible suffering, she insisted that "the overwhelming love of God" and their assurance that in the end, they will reach heaven, gives to them "a joy beyond words." If there is joy, might there not also be laughter? And if the hope of heaven is so close to fulfillment there, might there not also be that discipline of hope, humor?
If the godly purpose of humor, after all, is to cleanse us, and the purgatorial process is precisely a cleansing process, it's only reasonable that laughter might serve as at least part of the cleansing. St. Catherine also noted that in purgatory, God shows us our weaknesses so that we can know what needs to be burned away. With that in mind, sometimes I think of purgatory as a great mirror, full-length, unclouded, without distortion, brilliantly reflecting the soul to be cleansed in the burning light of God's purifying fire. In it, God shows us ourselves as He sees us; and is it too far-fetched to speculate that we would laugh, as the psalmist says He does, at the absurdity of the sight?
Not a scoffing laugh, of course, but an abrasive one, nonetheless, laughter that would scrub away the corrosion of sin. We would laugh so hard that we would, quite literally, laugh until it hurts, and it would hurt, of course, as nothing else had ever hurt before. But it would still be truly humorous laughter, full of joy and hope despite the pain, because of the assurance that when the joke was over at last, we would be fit to know God fully, even as we had been fully known.
And what, then, of heaven? St. Thomas More's remark tells us that he expects heaven to be filled with eternal laughter; and even his adversarial contemporary, Martin Luther, once said with characteristic brashness, "If we're not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there."
On the other hand, the moral theologians tell us that, unlike charity, the theological virtues of faith and hope involve a certain essential imperfection — an obscurity of light and an absence of possession — and for that reason, they will cease after this life. That is to say, faith and hope will no longer be necessary in heaven, because they will give way to the perfection of the Beatific vision. If hope thus finds its conclusion in heaven, would there still a place for humor, or even laughter?
It's true that in heaven the incongruities of our present existence will be at last only a memory; praise God, the redeemed will at last be free of them, and become whole as they were meant to be. And yet I wonder whether, precisely as a memory, perhaps the follies of our past might not still present themselves as the occasion, as the subject matter, for a kind of heavenly humor, a holy laughter.
I can just hear it now. "Hey, Scott, remember that time you were so proud of making that eloquent speech at the apologetics conference, with an audience of thousands from around the world — until you got back to your hotel room and found out that the whole night your zipper was down?"
And Scott says, "Oh, yeah! And remember, Paul, how on Judgment Day the Lord asked you what you had to show for your time on earth, and you said, 'Well, Lord, I've written twenty-two books — doesn't that count for anything?" And the Lord answered, 'Well, son, I don't know, I've never read any of 'em!'"
If that is indeed the case, or something like it, then humor will continue for eternity — but instead of being a spiritual discipline of the now-completed virtue of hope, it will become an overflowing expression of gratitude to God in worship; that is, a tiny part of that everlasting virtue, charity. It will become the occasion for looking deep into the eyes of the Father, and saying with a heart transfixed by Love Himself, "Thank You. Thank You! For saving me from my absurdity, for healing all my disordered incongruities, for loving this little speck of dust enough to become a Speck of dust Yourself, I will never cease thanking You."
On that day we will be like Sarah, who was Abraham's wife. Remember her story? (Gn 21:1-6) After so many long days of barrenness, grief and shame, after a lifetime of clinging desperately to hope, she finally gave birth to the promise of God.
And what did she call him? She called him "Isaac," which means, not surprisingly, "laughter."
May the Lord grant each of us an Isaac, the fulfillment of our hope, so that we too will be able to declare through endless ages what Sarah once declared: "God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me" (Genesis 21:6).
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