Joyful Contemplation (No Fooling!)

Joyful Contemplation (No Fooling!) April 1, 2015
Why are all these pious people laughing? (Cover art from Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin, artist: Anita Kunz).
Why are all these pious people laughing? (Cover art from Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin, artist: Anita Kunz).

If you are engaged in a serious and sustained practice of silent prayer and contemplative spirituality, then you need to be a very somber, sober, and serious person, for the mystical life is no laughing matter. . . . April Fool!

I was inspired to write about this topic not only because today is April 1, but also because of what is arguably the single most problematic topic in the Rule of Saint Benedict — laughter. Consider these tidbits:

Do not say foolish things or things that are intended to cause laughter. Do not take pleasure in excessive or unrestrained laughter. (from Chapter 4)

We condemn jokes and idle gossip and anything said to make others laugh, and we ban such things from all places: the disciple is not allowed to open his mouth to say things of this kind. (from Chapter 6)

Avoid being easily provoked to laughter, for it says in Scripture that ‘the person who raises his voice in laughter is a fool’ (Sir. 21:20)… Speak gently and without laughter, but with humility and seriousness, saying only a few, reasonable words, and not speaking in a loud voice, for as it is written, ‘The wise man is recognized by his few words.’ (from Chapter 7)

What a sourpuss!

Fortunately, nobody thinks that the Rule is inerrant, and so the most honest thing to say, is that here’s a place where Saint Benedict gets it wrong.

One way to interpret these verses is to speculate that Saint Benedict wanted to prohibit the kind of laughter that laughs at another — the laughter of derision. Which is different from the laughter of delight, which is never at another’s expense but is purely an expression of joy. Granted, this is an act of re-interpretation: Saint Benedict himself probably really was opposed to all types of laughter, good and bad. But I think it is a practical approach.

Thankfully, Saint Benedict notes that “This rule is only a start on the path to justice” (chapter 73) and freely invites the reader to change or adapt his schedule for praying the psalms (chapter 18), both of which suggest to me that Benedict was humble enough to understand that his ideas were hardly the last word on things. So we can re-interpret Benedict’s understanding of laughter without having to chuck the Rule in its entirety.

So my purpose in writing today is to reflect on what a healthy relationship between contemplation and laughter really can be. I’m writing especially for Benedictine oblates and Lay Cistercians and others who are not monks or nuns but who turn to Saint Benedict for spiritual guidance — although I think anyone interested in a spirituality grounded in silence and contemplation might want to reflect on this issue. What does it look like to be a joyful contemplative?

And I’ve already mentioned the important first clue: the importance of recognizing the difference between derision and delight. Contemplation is grounded in compassion, so I think it’s intuitive for contemplatives to recoil from laughter that comes at another person’s expense. Which is not to say we don’t sometimes do it. I’ll confess to have made a joke at the expense of a politician or pundit with whom I disagree. It’s an easy laugh — but it’s not an edifying one. And so I thank Saint Benedict for giving me pause to consider that laughter or playfulness comes in different forms, and not all are icons of the love of God.

But the more I discern the need to let go of the laughter that puts someone else down, the more convinced I am that a truly contemplative spirituality is nevertheless filled with healthy joy and laughter and happiness — only it’s the laughter of a smiling baby, the joy of a person in love, the happiness that emerges from an in-your-bones ability to radically trust the Love of God.

Sometimes when I am sitting in silent prayer, I break out in a big spontaneous smile. Nothing in particular causes it — it’s just a joy that wells up from deep within. It’s happiness at being alive, it’s serotonin set aflame by the presence of God, even if I don’t consciously feel such presence.

I’ve recently come across two books that I find encouraging for my conviction that contemplation is a fundamentally happy endeavor. The first, by the wonderful Jesuit author James Martin, is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. The title really says it all; Martin weaves together his gentle writing style with plenty of stories drawn from his own life and the lives of the saints — and he is clear in showing how the root of all the goofiness and happiness is joy, which after all is one of the Fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22).

Here's a book about Pope Francis that I haven't read yet, but I love the cover.
Here’s a book about Pope Francis that I haven’t read yet, but I love the cover. He knows how to smile!

This takes me to the second book that has inspired me: Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel. The Pope, who himself is quite a smiler, emphasizes that joy is an integral characteristic of the Christian message, and that all the activities of the life of faith — from prayer to liturgy to missional activity and evangelization — need to be grounded in joy in order to be truly consistent with the Gospel. In other words, joy is not some sort of religious add-on; it’s central to the message that God loves us and wants what’s best for us. So if we get into sourpuss-land (or, for that matter, derision-ville), then something is out of joint. We need to re-calibrate our faith by the radiance of delight.

So Happy April Fool’s Day — and don’t let the sourpuss saints fool you. Be silly (I love how the word “silly” in its Germanic root is related to selig which also means “blessed”!) and fearlessly be a fool for Christ’s sake (I Corinthians 4:10). Be joyful in your faith, in your prayer, in your contemplative living. Silence is a gateway to splendor and felicity. Let the joy flow!

Is there something special you do to nurture happiness and joy in your faith journey? I’d love to hear about it — please leave a comment below.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Whew! When I had read Benedict’s rule I’ll admit I did cringe at the no laughter part… thanks for clearing that up for me! Seriously, I love the balanced approach you offered as well as the exegesis of the word silly!

  • What a lovely message! I have to add that joy is a universal spiritual message, common to every faith I know. Deep spirituality takes us to a place of awe, wonder and profound gratitude. How can we not, in the intimacy of connection with others, with our own inner self, with the universe, find a place for laughter? Laughter is, after all, a way of forming and embracing community and connection. Look at the Dalai Lama as another example: he smiles and laughs like a schoolboy! Spiritual practice – including, of course, prayer – should take us to a place of surrendering our egos and our own baggage, and opening to connection with others, such that joy and laughter become ever more natural.

    • Carl McColman

      Well said, and you’re right on about the universality of joy. May we all walk its path.

  • Ann

    In my limited experience of those nuns and religious who have been faithful to their tradition, there is often an element of laughter. This is in no way frivolous, but is a sense of ‘lightness’ and freedom of spirit which is very attractive.

  • Hi there Carl!

    Lots of great points here, beautifully stated as always. … I’m curious, though, what you think about satire. As a tool of social justice, gently calling attention to great wrongs and giving voice to people who have none, it has a long and distinguished history. It can often break through barriers of prejudice and willful ignorance, getting the point across when a simple statement of fact cannot. So it seems to me that a joke “at the expense of a politician or a pundit” — “punching up”, as they say, rather than down — is “not edifying”. What do you think?

    • Carl McColman

      What a great question, Jeff, and one with quite a Celtic pedigree. 🙂

      I think Saint Benedict would have seen satire as dangerous to good order, but Benedict is operating under the assumption that everyone in a monastic community is subject to the higher authority of Christ. The Rule really doesn’t speak to broader contexts. So speaking only for myself, I think satire as a tool for justice very much has a place in social contexts particularly where dynamics of oppression or injustice are at play. I think you could even make the argument that some of Jesus’ statements about the pharisees are satirical (“For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:15).

      Obviously, I wrote my post to make the argument that laughter has a place in a contemplative life, but since such a life by definition embodies compassion, so too our laughter ought to as well. In light of that, I would suggest that satire probably is something best done out of careful discernment. Am I truly seeking to foster justice and healthier social dynamics, or am I just trying to pull down the high and mighty because I can? That’s a question each satirist would need to answer for him/herself.