Avoid Laughter for Penance?

I was reading an article from the great St. Anthony Mary Claret’s autobiography and became somewhat confused. He said that laughing did not appeal to him and that Jesus Himself was never seen to laugh. He also practiced corporal penance and severe mortifications. I enjoy laughing. Should I suppress my laughter and do penance?

If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Laughter is a way of expressing emotion, particularly joy. We all know the goodness of having a good laugh at something that is genuinely funny. For instance, for this author, episodes of “I Love Lucy” are still a source of great amusement and laughter. Laughter helps a person overcome the burdens of life and have better well-being.

However, as we also know, laughter can also have other meanings: For instance, “to laugh at” someone or something denotes ridicule and derision. “To have the last laugh” expresses a kind of vindication. “To laugh up one’s sleeve” conveys a secret amusement or pleasure at the discomfort of another person. Something is considered “laughable” if it is unbelievable or deemed impossible. Unfortunately, laughter also has a negative dimension.

Sacred Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, gives attention to laughter. Laughter is recognized as being part of life: “A time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl 3:4).

Sadly, the Bible generally focuses on the negative side of laughter, perhaps as a warning to each of us of our human weakness and susceptibility to sin. For instance, Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12-15) laugh in disbelief when God tells them that He will fulfill the covenant promise and they will have a son despite their old age.

Several times, people laugh at others in ridicule: the Philistines laugh at the blinded Sampson (Jgs 16:25); men laugh at the affliction of Job (Job 30:1); Israel’s enemies laugh at the fall of Jerusalem (Lam 1:7); and the wicked Nicanor laughs at the priests and elders (1 Mc 7:34). In the Gospel, when Our Lord declares that the daughter of Jairus is not dead but asleep, “they laughed at Him”; then Our Lord performed the miracle raising her to life (Lk 8:53).

The secretive laughter at another’s expense is also condemned: “The conversation of the wicked is offensive; their laughter is wanton guilt” (Sir 27:13). In all, laughter is often associated with the “fool,” the man who does not conduct himself according to God’s truth and justice: “A fool raises his voice in laughter, but a prudent man at the most smiles gently” (Sir 21:20).

There is another dimension to laugher: In the Psalms, the laughter of God is mentioned, but in a righteous sense, indicating His superiority to those evildoers who would think themselves as powerful as God Himself: “He who is throned in Heaven laughs” at those kings and princes who “conspire together against the Lord and His anointed” (Ps 2:1-4); “But the Lord laughs [at the wicked man] for He sees that his day is coming” (Ps 37:13); and “You, O Lord, laugh at them; you deride all the nations” who are wicked (Ps 59:9). Here the psalmist used laughter to reflect the omnipotence and justice of God in the face of evil.

The same righteous sense of laughter is reflected in the lives of the faithful who face evildoers. In the Old Testament, Elijah ridiculed the false gods at Carmel (1 Kgs 18:27), and the Maccabean martyrs used sarcasm and ridicule against the wicked pagan king (2 Mc 7). In the Beatitudes recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus taught, “Blest are you who are weeping; you shall laugh” (Lk 6:21) and “Woe to you who laugh now; you shall weep in your grief” (Lk 6:25); here Our Lord promised the laughter of gladness and joy to the righteous, and mourning to those who laugh in the negative sense.

Given this understanding, did Jesus laugh? Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a specific citation of Jesus laughing. Of course, nowhere in the New Testament do we find a specific citation of anyone laughing, that is, in the positive sense of laughter. Nevertheless, Our Lord must have laughed. He must have laughed with our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph over a humorous story or situation, or while playing a game. He must have laughed with His apostles and others while He enjoyed their company: Even in the Gospel, He is maligned by His enemies “of being a glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19), indicating Our Lord must have shared some good times, albeit virtuously. To think that Our Lord never laughed or lacked a sense of humor would contradict His perfect human nature, who is one like us in all things but sin.

The great saints who in their lives reflected the life of the Lord knew the value of laughter and good humor. Only those inclined to a pessimistic spirituality would condemn laughter. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great mystics of our Church, once looked around the chapel and saw all of the serious looking sisters; she blurted out, “Lord, save me from these sullen-faced saints!” St. Teresa was also able to laugh at life and herself: once she commented about convent life, “Experience has taught me what a house full of women is like.”

Other saints too knew the value of laughter and joy: St. Ignatius of Loyola taught, “Laugh and grow strong.” St. John Bosco said, “I want no long-faced saints.” St. Francis de Sales said, “A sad saint is a sorry saint.” St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “Happiness is the natural life of man.” What would have inspired these saints to make such statements if not meditating on the life of Our Lord? Not to take away from the great example of St. Anthony Claret, but joyful love of the Lord and well-placed laughter has made more converts than harsh penances and sullen faces. Archbishop Fulton Sheen summed it up well: “The only time laughter is wicked is when it is turned against Him who gave it.”

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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