On Laughter, Or Why Lent Is Really Worth It

"'A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed."

It’s a strange thing how infectious true laughter and joy can be. I can think of the nuns near my house where I grew up, who always were so happy. Something about their eyes, their faces, radiated a joy that we rarely see nowadays. To the modern world, this is paradoxical. These women have given up their lives to care for mentally handicapped women – why are they so happy? I’m not saying we don’t see people smile; but I do mean true, authentic joy.

What is mirth, or laughter? Where does it stem from? Why does it have such a ripple effect upon others?

Chesterton put it this way:

“Angels are able to fly because they take themselves lightly”. (and a pun! What joy!)

Tongue in cheek aside, we’re able to joyfully fly as we learn to take ourselves less seriously, to see ourselves the way we really are, which is beautiful yet fallen. We’re able to fly as we better understand and discover our relationship with Love.

Some thoughts from Pope Francis’ encyclical Evanglium Gaudi, otherwise known as The Joy of the Gospel:

"I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord."

That’s what this current season of Lent is for – it’s supposed to be a time of preparation, right? It’s a time when we withdraw, we reflect. A priest once put it this way – “Ask yourself this: at the end of this season of Lent, how will I become more like Jesus Christ?” Lent’s not this time to make us feel better about how much mortification we can give, how often we can deny ourselves. If it’s all about that, we’re missing the point that it’s to draw us into a closer and stronger relationship with Jesus Christ. It should remind us why life is so good, should remind us to taste the Cross so that we can live the joy of the Resurrection. No one is excluded from this, no, not even you! You too are called to take yourself lightly. More from Joy of the Gospel:

"How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew."

Within this season of Lent, we’re given a wonderful chance to jumpstart – it’s every reason to renew those resolutions we made back in January. And guess what! You don’t even have to promise yourself you’re going to do it for a whole year – just until Easter! (And not even on Sundays, if you like!) The joy of life, of living well, comes only if we’ve learned how to fast – only then can we properly feast.  

Learning how to fast in order to feast is something that enables us, as humans, to better enjoy life. We appreciate things more after being in the desert for a while. Being people who are able to retreat and restrain ourselves translates as well into our civic duties; think of the Ancient Romans, who conquered through their civic virtue. Justice, temperance, fortitude – yes, mercy was at times lacking, but we’re overlooking that for now. But the thing is, if we want our world to be better, to become more…well…happy?, it can only start with us. The attractiveness of a joyful soul in love cannot be understated. It’s an ember that catches fire to all that draw near it.

Laughter and learning how to cultivate true joy is something that is greatly needed today by an unhappy polus. But is this really the case – wouldn’t it be just as easy if we were dour and serious? On the contrary! Think of the soul that happily sets themselves to the task at hand – all the posters from the last 20th century depicting patriotic workers have them smiling. This doesn’t mean we can’t be serious; sometimes we need to be serious, and oftentimes we are working with grave things. Our civic lesson for today is that if we want to be joyful souls in an unhappy world that’s forgotten what true laughter and joy is, we need to start by using this time to take ourselves more lightly; and we can only do that if we take time to better learn to shape ourselves through time in the desert. Time to give thought to where we really are – maybe some silence for a weekend would do you good.

But I’m not talking about some weird, clowny humor where we walk around with a constant smile pasted on our faces; life is great, we say, as we struggle through serious difficulties. No! On the contrary – life can be very difficult. Life is hard! But the joy I look for is that of a soul in love; no matter what life throws at this soul, they endure because they have found their beloved. Nothing can take away this joy, for it becomes the light that shines in greatest darkness. It is, in some sense, like the Light of Galadriel given to Frodo to ward away the darkness; it brings a constant, unfailing light in the deepest of night. Cultivating this joy is not easy – but it is possible.

That great Shadow has indeed departed. Christ has conquered – let us remember that as we renew for this week, entering once more into the desert. In doing so, I wish you the following words a close friend shared with me once:

May you seek Christ. May you find Christ. May you fall in love with Christ.

And so joyfully live out the good news.

Originally Published on Nicholas' Blog "Passionately Loving the World"