A Difficult Virtue and a Difficult Resolution

A staff colleague forwarded this excerpt from Fr Jim Martin’s latest book.

At one point during my Jesuit training, I worked for two years in Nairobi, Kenya, helping East African refugees start small businesses to support themselves. At the end of my first year, I signed up for an eight-day retreat outside Nairobi. At a gathering on the last day of the retreat, it was announced that everyone would speak about their experience over the past week: What was it like? How had they experienced God?

“Uh-oh,” I thought. Even though I had worked in Kenya for a year, I was still living in an unfamiliar culture and worried I might say the wrong thing. As I uncomfortably shifted in my seat, one of the sisters urged me, “You first!”

I realized that, oddly, the other priests, brothers and laymen on retreat had already departed. I was the only man left. So I shyly stood up and saw 50 African sisters waiting for me to say something. And I blurted out, “I can’t believe that I’m the only man here.” From across the room an African sister called out, “And blessed are you among women!” Everyone laughed at this familiar line from the Gospel of Luke, and suddenly I felt right at home and could talk about my retreat with them. Laughter had welcomed me.

The tremendous advantage of face-to-face contact is that humor can work in context of the other layers of language. Even with cultural doubts and barriers. Try that quote from Elizabeth on internet men, and the friendly humor aspect might be missed by some. No doubt, a few clergy would treat it as an insult, especially if it originated from people not of their ideological stripe.

More from Fr Martin:

Laughter is often an unwelcome guest in contemporary religious circles. It’s sometimes seen as inappropriate: Children are often scolded for giggling in church. And offensive: Guffawing over a Bible story is tantamount to an insult. Or simply irrelevant: How many theological studies on laughter have you read?

Definitely unwelcome in the blogosphere. Without eye contact, physical courtesy, a smile, communication suffers a stunted and handicapped incarnation among us. I was noticing the attempt at a new leaf on PrayTell, channeling Jeff Mirus at CatholicCulture.org:

I’d like to recommend that we all strive to discuss the issues … with greater charity.

I am referring … to the deliberate and persistent cultivation of charity in our discussions with those who are not part of the (name your web site) family.

My friend Charles is a skeptic, and likely not without cause:

Regretfully, this plea with your endorsement comes a day late and a dollar short and rings hollow for many of us who’ve pleaded for editorial intervention that is just towards all in this forum. My fellow Californian above, Dr. Ford, issued a very “august” and eloquent call for civility and equanimity on this forum and elsewhere quite a few months ago, apparently to no avail as witnessed by the commentary over recent posts by Dcn. Bauerschmidt and Chris McConnell.

And perhaps there is something self-serving in a public resolution to good (or improved) behavior. I cannot say I will be joining those who are suggesting better behavior just because the clicker changed from a 1 to a 2, or December is rolled over into the month of the two-faced god. Maybe Janus is a caution for those of us who have less than pure intentions to our intentions.

What can I say for myself, then? This blog is mainly about the liturgy and other aspects of church ministry and theology that appeal to me. I don’t anticipate poking any less at what I see to be the foibles and failings of some bishops, many conservatives and others I think are misleading believers. I’m not going to start calling people names–I’ve been pretty careful over the years about applying labels to groups. Some still take it personally. I view that as their problem–not mine. I don’t plan to comment much politically. Frankly, I see it as a waste of time and energy. But, when things get stupid, I’ll poke.

Unlike some Catholic blogs, dissent from the party line is welcome and encouraged here. Thanks to the internet, the Church is in no danger of silencing objectors, be they disagreeable in tone or just content. But Fr Jim’s comment about laughter, especially self-directed, self-deprecating, is well-taken. Some bloggers are able to manage this, and I tend to go back to their sites because they have a strong whiff of honesty about them.

A generation ago, a young friend branded me with the nic, “Uncle Serious.” I haven’t changed much. I’ve always been serious, and seemingly, it’s an essential part of my life. My family of origin was quick to pounce on mistakes, pratfalls, and such, and dig out the laughter for a good dig. Even in my sixth decade of life, I still find myself on guard against it. But maybe … I could be on the lookout for the humorous, the funny, and the slip-ups. Only the hit-count is in play, right?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to A Difficult Virtue and a Difficult Resolution

  1. Liam says:

    The key to laughter is the preposition: with vs at. The first can be incredibly Christians. The second much more rarely.

  2. Great perspective, Todd.
    Appropriating Mirus’ worthy article at this particular time seems calculated, and obviously for me, artificial. And yes, in my case, skepticism over this timing is not without serious reason. I have plead my case to Anthony directly to which he’s chosen to ignore, which is a new tactic I’ve never experienced from him. And these pleas have nothing to do whatsoever about content that is discursive, it was about giving free reign to, as one gal quipped, “bullies who come and go and take their marbles with them when they leave.” There is so much to “prithee, tell” about behind the curtain doings. But, as Fritz points out, everyone has a different saturation point.
    I’ve used humor all my life to offset dispute and tension. I did so at PTB on a regular basis. But I don’t believe I ever employed humor as a derisive weapon as certain usual suspects routinely get away with there. And to try to mitigate one’s POV so as to stay on course without going ad hominem is tacitly approved for some there, and shouted down for others.
    I’m grateful to you and Liam for always helping me with perspective. I wish Anthony well, as I do for all priests who actually labor in Christian vineyards.

  3. crystal says:

    Uncle Serious :)

  4. Todd says:

    I was invited to the house for Thanksgiving dinner, and she made namecards for everybody. Her mom’s sister was “Aunt Kris” and I, of course, was “Uncle Serious.” Cute.

    I would have preferred “Sirius,” after the star. When I see it in the sky, I comment to the young miss, “Are you Sirius?” (That used to be her favorite exclamation.) There was also a very good astronomy book a few years back, “Sirius Matters.” It sure does.

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