On Laughter and Weeping

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Blessed are you who are weeping now, for you will laugh. . .
Woe to you who are now laughing, for you will mourn and weep.
Luke 6: 21, 25

This particular contrast of beatitude and woe can be, at first, particularly troubling for us. Is the gospel “joyless”? Why is laughing and weeping included among the “great reversals” of Luke’s gospel? This becomes a bit clearer when we understand the scriptural context of the Greek word that is translated here as laugh.

This word is used only this once in the entire New Testament, but its use in the Septuagint usually connotes “derision,” in the sense of “laughing at or over” someone. It is the attitude of the one who is at the center and mocks or derides one on the margins.

As we all know from experience, there is the heartfelt laugh of joy and humility at our own foibles and the unpredictability of life and that binds us together in our recognition of the limitedness and fallibility (and pretensions) of the human condition. But there is also, perhaps more often in day to day relationship, the laugh of superiority and derision of the other. Every group and community has its scapegoats, the ones at whom we laugh to inflate our own sense of superiority and to manifest that we are “in” at the cost of the one who is “out” . It is of the nature of those who occupy “the center” in any human society to laugh at those who are on the margins.

One of the most powerful experiences any of us remember from our early childhood formation is our fear of being “laughed at”. Whatever makes us different from “the norm” we fear will make us an object of derision and exclusion to those who constitute the society to which we long to conform and be accepted. And, as we well know, this is not confined to childhood. The fuel of competitive societies is the threat of exclusion and marginalization.

In this light we recognize the interrelationship of each of Luke’s beatitudes and woes. They promise that in the Kingdom of God those who are now at the center will be on the margins, and those now on the margins will be at the center. This makes the beatitudes such an enormous spiritual challenge for us. For, from our own beginnings, we long to be recognized and accepted as “normal,” even at the cost of pointing out how much “more” normal we are than others. Much of human culture, even religious culture, is built on establishing who is in and who is out, and to feel “in” requires that we make clear that we recognize who is “out.” To be aware of how far this way of living is from the Kingdom of God should make us weep for the pain and hurt that our “normal” mode of behavior causes.

So, the alternative to the social “fuel” of competition and derision is that of shared mourning and suffering. What truly binds us in community is our very fear and weakness. The Community of Jesus is a gathering of the misfits, but in our very weakness as individuals lies our strength as a community. And, unlike what we unconsciously believe, in the false strength that manifests in the derision of the weakness of others, there is only weakness.

The tenth step of humility is that [the monk] is not given to ready laughter, for it is written: “Only a fool raises his voice in laughter.”

Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 7

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