Epiphanies

The Brilliance of Foolishness

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Is laughter holy?

By Brian Doyle

April 11, 2014


 

Three times now I have been a visiting writer at Brigham Young University, and three times I have said silly and foolish things on stage, because I am a foolish man much of the time, and my tact filter slips off and gets stuck in the top buttons of my shirt, and things get said before I can get it back on properly. Things like, Why are Mormons so tall? And, Why do Mormons have such excellent teeth, is there something about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and incredible dental hygiene I should know? And did Joseph Smith really see galaxies in his hat? And how could Joseph Smith lose huge bronze tablets, wouldn’t you think things that weighed so much would be hard to misplace?

But then I remember that I am Catholic, and in my faith tradition people have soared into the sky never to appear again, and a man died and came back to life after three days (after which his first words, understandably, were, Have you anything to eat?), and a bolt of light told a nice Jewish girl that she was pregnant with the Creator in human form, and a burning bush spoke with the voice of the Creator, and the Madonna appeared to children and farmers many years after her death, and statues bleed and weep salty tears, and many other miraculous and amazing things. So who am I to grin at the astonishing tales of other faiths? Like Islam, in which the founding prophet rode to heaven on a horse named Lightning, or Anglicanism, which began because an Englishman cast covetous eyes at a woman not his wife, or Scientology, which began as an official religion in Camden, New Jersey.

For all that religion has been a bloody enterprise through history, and for all that religious people seem often the most almighty easy people to offend, and for all that there are many people in my faith tradition who think I am an idiot to grin over the most colorful of our traditions, I think we should grin over the more colorful parts of our faith traditions. For one thing, they are often funny—imagine the wine steward’s mixed feelings at Cana after the miracle, for example—and for another, it seems to me that real honest genuine spirituality is marked most clearly by humility and humor. The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Meher Baba, Flannery O’Connor, Sister Helen Prejean, Pope Francis—all liable to laughter, and not one of them huffy about his or her status and importance. Whereas all the famous slimy murderers of history—Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, bin Laden—what a humorless bunch, prim and grim and obsessed with being feared. Can you imagine any one of them laughing, except over some new form of murder? Think about it—could laughter be the truest sign of holiness?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.

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