"Sister Gabriela is here. She works beautifully for Jesus--the most important is that she knows how to suffer and at the same time, how to laugh. That is the most important--to suffer and to laugh."
Up beside my office desk there stands a picture of the Reverend Bernard J. Haan, founder and first president of the college where I've taught for the last 35 years. He's outfitted in his finest swallow-tail preacher's coat, and he seems to be holding forth in front of the up-front pipe organ, no pulpit in sight.
It's a posed photograph--it has to be. Decorum would not have allowed his wandering around on the front of the church that way, no pulpit before him. Even though I'm sure he may have been a screamer back then (late 40s), he wouldn't have come out from behind the pulpit. Nope.
That picture must be posed because I can't imagine that a professional photographer--surely one from Time or Life--would have been allowed to wander up the aisle during Sunday morning church and shoot, willy-nilly, umpteen photographs of the dominie opening the Word. Wouldn't have happened.
The good Reverend must have played along with the photographer. "I'd like to have a picture of you holding forth," the New Yorkeer would have said, and the fiery young preacher reached for that swallow-tail coat.
I didn't know him when he was a young buck preacher, but I've heard enough about him to be able to guess that he hammered that pulpit, beat out his strongest points on the massive Bible that certainly sat up there back then. He was young, robust, opinionated, and charismatic--within years, he had accumulated a following so wide that he'd had sufficient disciples with sufficient pocketbooks to start a college, part of that growing from a reputation he gained for keeping a theater out of Sioux Center--the reason Time and Life were in town back then.
I didn't know him when he was yearling, but a couple of decades later, by the mid-60s, he seemed to me to be warm and genial old codger, a man capable of measured self-reflection, a fiery preacher who could--and did--still laugh at himself. By the time he retired, he was one of few human beings I ever knew who could really "do" himself. He was capable of--and often accomplished--pure self-parody. He knew so well what the crowd expected of him, that he could play himself--with style and grace. And success.
Late in life, he told me when he looked back, he wished it hadn't taken him so long to learn that the way to the human heart is via a smile, a laugh, some sweet joy. He was a slow-learner, he said. He regretted being so hard-headed that he couldn't have learned that lesson earlier. In a way, I keep this old picture of him around because, knowing all of that, it's a riot--just as he was.
I don't know that the Rev. B. J. Haan suffered or how he might have, but I'm confident that all of us do at some time or another. And I don't know about Mother Teresa's friend Gabriela either--how she might have suffered there on the streets of Calcutta. I simply can't compare her suffering with his; but then, really, it's always impossible to match my suffering up against yours or anyone else's. Suffering is suffering.
I know this. Mother Teresa wasn't wrong about laughter. Down here, in this vale of tears, to lose the ability to laugh is to suffer ceaselessly. There is something like grace in what she says here--"the most important" is to suffer and to laugh.
Down at the bottom of that equation somewhere is a paradox: laughter without suffering is sheer silliness; suffering without laughter is sheer horror. Life is some kind of prickly dance between the two, some kind of balance.
I was young when B. J. told me about his regrets, young enough to remember what he said: