The Sense of Laughter
A talk given to introduce an exhibition of Andreas Rainer’s photographs at Mount Saint Bernard on 14 September 2015.
In Scripture, laughter first erupts by the oaks of Mamre. It happens in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, which tells of Abraham’s encounter with three angelic visitors. Abraham was nearly a hundred years old at the time. His wife was not much younger. Still, the guests declared that Sarah would bear him a son. Sarah, eavesdropping, ‘laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”’ The Lord asked why she was laughing. ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ Sarah tried to pull out, saying, ‘I did not laugh’. But to no purpose. She knew she had laughed. Laughter was her spontaneous response to apparent absurdity. It was an assertive response, at once amused and mocking, not devoid of bitterness. For decades Sarah had pined to have children. She had wearily resigned herself to barrenness. Her laughter was hollow with pent-up grief. The Lord, nonetheless, stood by his promise. Sarah conceived, bore a son, and called him Isaac, that is, ‘he will laugh’, for ‘God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me’. Cynical laughter gives way to laughter triumphant. Sarah’s son is named to proclaim this comeuppance. That is a heavy legacy to bear. It may account, in part, for the sullenness of Isaac, that most retiring of patriarchs.
The incident is instructive. It accounts for biblical strictures on laughter, amply developed in Christian spirituality. Laughter is subsequently linked to an absence of reflection or a falling short of faith. We see the fickleness of laughter in the Gospel account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Jairus fetched Jesus home in an audacious act of trust, but on arrival it seemed there was nothing to be done. The little girl had died. The house was filled with wailing. This tumult of grief took a turn when Jesus claimed that the twelve year-old was merely sleeping. At once, ‘they laughed at him’. Visceral grief gave way to an equally visceral scorn. Its voice was the laughter of hopelessness. Proclaiming that darkness quenches light, it pointed eerily forward to Christ’s crucifixion. For on Calvary, again, the crowds laughed, wagged their heads, and said, ‘Save yourself, come down from the cross!’ We human beings tend to laugh, it seems, when we refuse to look beyond the horizon, when we enclose ourselves in ourselves. We laugh, too, to isolate others. Anyone who has been laughed at, really laughed at, knows how shatteringly lonely the experience is.
Yet there is a different kind of laughter, a rarer, purer kind. We find that also hinted at in Scripture, with approval, by the writer of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus ben Sirach, beloved by monks throughout the ages for his wisdom. ‘A man is known’, says Sirach, ‘by his appearance, and a sensible man is known by his face, when you meet him. A man’s attire and open-mouthed laughter, and a man’s manner of walking, show what he is.’ For Sirach, laughter is spontaneous self-expression. True, it may compromise a man; but it may also recommend him. Laughter may turn out to be the natural voice of goodness and unselfconscious happiness. It is laughter of this kind we meet in Andreas Reiner’s remarkable portraits. They are so arresting precisely because they convey the truth of people’s lives. No one could look at the nuns in these photographs and think, ‘They’re putting it on!’ No, we see them laughing and feel, as Sirach said we would, that we know them. In a world conditioned by a great deal of dissimulation, who is not drawn to such expressions of integrity?
A venerable Catholic tradition would see consecrated women as images of the Church. It is a perspective not highly favoured these days, but I think it may help us, indirectly, as we contemplate these images. Is it not true that, until not long ago, the Church’s laughter was often enough the laughter of Sarah? The Church saw herself as ‘militant’. In faith, she was ‘triumphant’. She trod enemies under her feet. She sometimes borrowed the attributes of the Roman goddess Victory. Such self-representation seems a far cry from present realities. For the Church in Europe, the past decades have been a time of humiliation and sadness. Not only have we seen the Church relegated from the centre to the margins of society. Not only do we see people drifting away from her in droves. We have learnt of acts committed in the Church that fill us with anguish. In such circumstances, who would laugh? The Sisters of Untermarchtal show us another way. Their laughter is the laughter, not of conquerors, but of poor people, who, because they are poor, know how to be grateful. It is the laughter of people for whom great things have been done. Their laughter speaks of surprised delight, of that forward-looking confidence, so rare in our times, which we call Hope. Their laughter is gratuitous, that is, it is caught up with grace. Thereby it carries a message we need to hear – urgently.
The community of Mount Saint Bernard are delighted to welcome this exhibition to England. We trust it will spread joy, and release peals of laughter, here as it has done in Germany and Rome. We are grateful for the tremendous good-will that has made this event possible.