Foolish Mysteries

I think there is some serendipity in Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday, for those not of English extraction) falling on April Fool’s Day. Actually, the Maronites and the Syriac Orthodox call the day before Good Friday the “Thursday of Mysteries” which is my favorite name yet for this pinnacle of the Eucharistic life.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul proudly proclaimed that we are “fools for Christ’s sake” (I Corinthians 4:10); earlier in that same epistle he notes that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (I Corinthians 1:27). Now granted, there are plenty of other places in the New Testament where foolishness is derided. But I’m rather fond of the idea of being a holy fool. Following George Burns, I’m convinced that any God who created the duck-billed platypus and who made avocado seeds so ridiculously large simply has to have a sense of humor. And both Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis rightly noted that the best way to dispel evil is, well, to make fun of it. If there’s anything our ego cannot stand, it is to be the object of derision. But deeper than the grasping self is our truest identity, bellowing with laughter like the Buddha on whippits.

So today we mark the tense and intense night of the Last Supper, when, just hours before he was arrested, Jesus washed his disciples feet, told them to love and another and to abide in him, and then broke bread and shared wine with them, speaking the words that we have been repeating in our Communion liturgies ever since. Can we imagine that there was laughter at the Lord’s Supper? Even with the reality that Jesus would be dead in less than a day’s time? Of course, no one but perhaps Judas would have known at that point just how imminent would be the unraveling of Jesus’ ministry. Presumably the others would have simply been sharing a passover meal with their rabbi — solemn, perhaps; reverent, of course; but no need to avoid chuckling over the little moments of humor that life is continually tossing our way.

It bothers me that St. Benedict was sour on laughter. In the chapter on the degrees of humility, Benedict notes that a truly humble monk “is not given to ready laughter” (RB 7:59); and in the chapter on restraint of speech, Benedict condemns all “talk leading to laughter” (RB 6:8). But that, perhaps, is a clue to where Benedict was coming from. There is laughter born of joy, and laughter born of scorn. Perhaps rather than draw distinctions between the two, Benedict realized that scorn could undermine community, and thus simply needed to be banned; as for joyful laughter, Benedict felt that the life of a monk should be a continual lent, and so probably felt that amusements did not need to be sought out. However, even if a humble person is not given to ready laughter, I think we can parse that out to suggest that even the holiest of person will still find amusement when it naturally comes their way.

So while I would agree with Benedict that we should be mindful about how we laugh, I also think we need to remember Paul’s advice to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4), and if laughter isn’t linked to rejoicing, then I don’t know what is. So rejoice on this Feast of Fools, and take particular joy in the most “foolish” feast of all, wherein bread becomes the body and wine the precious blood. In our joy the greatest of sourpusses cannot remove the twinkling of our eyes or the songs in our hearts — light and laughter that can see us through whatever darkness the world might throw at us, even the darkness of a cross.

P.S. If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, there’s a movie to watch for today, filled with quiet humor and a powerfully Eucharistic story. Enjoy!

Pentecost and Ecstasy
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • The Pollinatrix

    “like the Buddha on whippits” – giggle. I will remember that one!

  • brazenbird

    In all the reading and searching and thinking I’ve been doing, I have sometimes gotten overwhelmed and on the verge of depressed. I forgot to keep light in order to keep the Light. A good break from the studies in order to laugh and smile is the best medicine indeed. And remembering to not be so serious while in the midst of the studies is also a good thing.