January can be a tough time. The holidays have been and gone, the decorations are down, it’s cold and dark in the morning. And it’s back to work or back to school. The third Monday in January has even been named ‘Blue Monday,’ and is said to be the day in the year when we are most likely to be depressed. It was calculated as so by a psychologist who took into account various factors including the average time for New Year’s resolutions to fail, the weather, and post-Christmas debt. In the UK, the Samaritans used to be outside train stations giving out tea bags on Blue Monday, which this year falls on January 15th! The message is that it’s good to talk.
It can also help, I think, to laugh. I always feel better after a good laugh. And no wonder. A hearty laugh can relieve physical tension and stress and leave the muscles relaxed for up to forty-five minutes. It boosts the immune system, decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies. It also reduces blood pressure and releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers; the so-called ‘happy hormones.’ Laughter is possibly the best medicine there is! What’s more, laughter is a great way of bringing people together and reminded us of our common humanity. After all, the words humour and human come from the same Latin root, humus, meaning earth. When we laugh, we’re connected to the earth in a particular way.
Sadly, church and religion have often been seen as a terribly serious business, incompatible with laughter. One example to counter that view is a nice story about the well-known American monk and writer, Thomas Merton. It is said that the way to identify him in his Trappist monastery which in the 1960s had over 200 silent monks was that he was always laughing. And I love what happened when the British comedian John Cleese met the Dalai Lama. They didn’t say a word to one another but simply broke into spontaneous and prolonged laughter!
I have fond memories of one time of evening prayer in the L’Arche house where I was living in the early 90s. Myself and one or two others got the giggles. When we eventually got ourselves under control, a young Franciscan friar from Glasgow said rather earnestly and in his lovely, thick accent, “Dear Lord, thank you for laughter.” At which point we absolutely lost it! It was a wonderful moment and I could well imagine God having a good giggle with us.
I used to enjoy the writings of Rabbi Lionel Blue, and his short pieces often included a little joke, often the same joke. I don’t remember it now but the mere fact of him doing that continues to make me smile many years later.
At the end of his life, Rabbi Blue began referring to God as ‘he, she, they or it!’ If ever I need my spirits lifting, in January or at any time, I’ll try and remember to have a bit of a laugh. And I hope that God, whoever he, she, they or it may be, will be having a good chuckle with me.
And I’ll finish with a little joke, one found in a wonderful book by the American Jesuit, James Martin, entitled Between Heaven and Mirth. It concerns Mother Teresa and is from the time when John Paul II was pope and creating hundreds of new saints. A young sister came one day and asked Mother Teresa what she would need to do to achieve sainthood. Mother Teresa smiled and said, “Die now, this pope’s canonising everyone.”