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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

One minus one is nun!

by Sister Rowan Clare CSF

What is the place of humour in the Religious Life? When asked, the sisters at Compton Durville, where I live, consistently replied: ‘essential survival mechanism’, or words to that effect. But why? After all, Brother Ramon’s book Franciscan Spirituality points out that Francis ‘would not allow shallow levity or empty laughter and gossip, for these are not evidences of spiritual joy, but of a superficial lifestyle and deterioration in community life.’ And devotees of The Name of the Rose will recall that one old monk murdered several people rather than let them read a book on comedy and laughter which he considered contrary to God’s will.

Yet The Principles of the First Order state clearly that ‘[the brothers and sisters] will delight in laughter and good fellowship’. And humour in community has much more to offer than shallow levity. Replies to our advert in recent issues of franciscan for people to work alongside us at Compton suggest that shared laughter is one of the greatest attractions we offer. For humour is a powerful badge of belonging; to laugh with those who laugh, as well as weeping with those who weep, evokes our common humanity and mutual commitment. Why else should ‘a good sense of humour’ have become such an essential selling point in lonely hearts columns that it has its own common acronym, GSOH? Humour allows us to communicate; we can express important truths about ourselves and enjoy it. When someone makes us laugh, they become more attractive and more human to us. An invitation to laugh with someone (rather than at them) is an invitation to respond directly to their personal view of the world; communion is established.

Humour is also intimately connected with vulnerability. Stand-up comedians talk of ‘dying’ if they cannot evoke that communion with their audience; and their use of that word is poignant, for it is not just their act, but their personhood, which is rejected if people fail to laugh with them. So too in community: we seek to live together as brothers and sisters with people of entirely different backgrounds and histories, and it is costly to open ourselves to others when each overture invites that same rejection. Humour in community can operate as a subtle way of protecting ourselves from the other’s power to reject us; we easily become self-deprecating, pretending with apparent lightness that what we are saying doesn’t really matter. Of course, self-protecting humour risks becoming so habitual that when we really do want to be taken seriously, nobody notices!

Communities, too, have more than their share of the ‘sad clowns’ whose constant humour disguises an inner darkness. The relationship between humour and pain is explored in more depth elsewhere in this issue. Yet perhaps those of us who live as the clowns of God, or fools for Christ, experience that link with particular intensity. Francis himself often found moments of exuberant celebration spilling over into tears. And our own life together, when it is done well, draws us to explore knowledge and acceptance of self and others at an unusually deep level. The emotional and spiritual demands of any community, at times, are such that only humour can make it bearable. Humour is cathartic; it permits the release of very deep, often painful emotions, and it enables us to live creatively with the consequences of prolonged self-exposure. Of course, humour can be used too as an effective mask for our true feelings – but it can offer sly peeks under the mask, while taking the edge off the intensity of giving so much away.
I think humour only remains funny – and appropriate in a Christian community – so long as it it remains essentially celebratory.

Each other’s funny little ways are a target for humour only so long as our laughter doesn’t turn vicious. Just as shared humour can be a badge of belonging, so too it can be a mark of exclusion which is death to true community. Community humour must affirm, rather than belittle; rejoice in our differences, rather than taunt or bully.

Yet the line between laughing at and laughing with is a fine one. It is Sister So-and-So’s little foibles which make her uniquely human and lovable, but they are all too easy to use as weapons against her when the reality of living alongside her begins to bite. The God who allows us to fail, again and again if necessary, makes it possible to believe that we can be liked and loved despite our mistakes; mistakes in chapel, particularly, provide a rich source of humour (often because they offer irresistible new theological insights, of the ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’ kind!) And one of the most valuable community living skills is an ability to laugh at ourselves; but the laughter of others cannot by itself force us to grow before we are ready.

In this way, the sensitive use of humour is a precious tool in learning the essential Franciscan trait of humility. Humour can take the sharp edge off criticism or reproof, and provide gentle ways into resolving conflict. Above all, perhaps, its value to community life is in bursting bubbles of pomposity and spiritual conceit. As Harry Williams puts it, in his courageous autobiography Some Day I’ll Find You, ‘The community [in his case the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield] is the last place where a person can get away with any spiritual pretensions. He is seen through at once and becomes a figure of fun. That abrasive atmosphere is one of our chief health-giving properties.’ And it was another brother of the same community who once remarked that the police would have a terrible time trying to solve a murder in any Religious house: ‘because absolutely everybody would have a motive!’

Like any close-knit group, Religious communities have in-jokes. And like any other close-knit group, you have to ‘speak the language’ to find them funny, or even comprehensible; often they are quite sophisticated comments on the charism or practices of a given community. During an ecumenical workshop on poverty, a Jesuit novice told me the following story:

Three priests from Religious communities are discussing what they do with the collection after services. The Franciscan says: ‘I draw a small circle on the ground, stand inside it, and throw the money in the air; what falls inside the circle is mine, and the rest is God’s’. The Dominican says: ‘I too stand inside the circle, but what falls inside is for God, and the rest is mine’. And the Jesuit says: ‘Well, I also draw a small circle, stand inside it, and throw the money in the air – and what God wants, he takes’.

Such jokes are usually based in affectionate teasing; the best satire comes out of a deep understanding and respect for the way things work. However, at least since Chaucer’s time, Religious Life has also been the subject of humour from outside. Sometimes affectionate, sometimes aggressive, sometimes merely obscene, many nun or monk jokes are based on preconceptions about our lifestyle which may bear little resemblance to reality.

As Harry Williams puts it: ‘[People] imagine that life in a monastery is one long cartoon, an un-ending series from morning to night of cracks in the cloister’. He adds: ‘Monks as jokes are a pleasant projection, and not all that wide of the mark’; after all, it’s easy to see a ridiculous side to a lifestyle so far from the modern norm without any special malicious intent. However, some jokes have a murkier subtext of profound unease with or hostility to our life. This is particularly true of the ‘sexy nun’ genre of jokes, which seem to spring from a distaste for women’s sexuality in general, and particularly for women who choose celibacy. From my recent involvement with secondary schools, it’s clear that nothing much has changed since I first heard them at about the age of nine. But not all such jokes are hostile: while some definitely do have a quality of gloating over perceived hypocrisies (like just about all Chaucer’s portrayals of religious figures), others seem to have more to do with an awareness that communities are made up of real human beings who aren’t immune from life’s mess and muddle. When I first appeared in their school playground, two very awkward 14-year-olds greeted me with the taunt: ‘What’s one minus one? NUN!’ Several weeks later, they still use the same joke whenever they see me, but it’s no longer an insult; it has become a shared password, not to keep me out but to let them in, to make contact with me when they could never ask for it directly.

I must admit that I enjoy subverting people’s preconceptions about Religious Life. One sister I know was once accosted by drunken football fans, asking (rather more succinctly) if she would sleep with them for money. When she told me this, I said: ‘You should have said No thanks, I’ve taken a vow of poverty!’ And if we show that we are not shocked or upset by the projections revealed by many nun and monk jokes, humour in community has great witness value.

The people who visit our houses, or who encounter us in churches and schools, trains and pubs, need to know that we are human after all; the discovery often delights them and shortens the route to understanding. And at the heart of our reality, as Franciscans, is the joy ‘which all may feel, if they may not know its source’. Humour and joy, of course, are not synonymous, yet both help us express a Franciscan delight in the world as it is made, complete with imperfections.

Laughter rooted in realism, a delight that things are as they are, burgeons into praise of the One who made them so. It is tempting to laugh at Francis, capering around playing his stick ‘violin’; his very lack of restraint and self-consciousness make for ridicule, because they are embarrassing in a grown man.

Yet if we learn to laugh with him, sharing his unashamed joy in his Lord, we share some of the attractiveness that drew people to him. I believe it is that Franciscan honesty, tempered with self-accepting humour, which makes it possible not to fear ourselves and our deepest emotions – and then to reach out to others.

So does God have a sense of humour? I think he must have; few of us can reflect on our journey into and through community without seeing divine banana-skins left for us to slip on. When I first read Mark’s gospel as a rebellious teenager, it seemed to me that Jesus positively enjoyed outwitting all those people who tried to trip him with their questions and missed the point every time.
Perhaps that’s largely my projection. But more seriously, as I get to know ‘the son of Man who came eating and drinking, who loved the birds and the flowers, who blessed little children’ (that last not being my own strongest point!) I see more fully the extent of Christian joy, and a warm affirming humour that delights in all creation.

On the wall near my bed is a modern Beatitude: ‘Blessèd are they who can laugh at themselves: for they will never cease to be amused.’ §


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