"For the despondent, every day brings trouble;
for the happy heart, life is a continual feast." Proverbs 15:15
"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 taught for 37 years. That picture is seventy years old, from Time magazine, in fact. The parson is outfitted in his finest swallow-tail coat, holding forth in front of the pipe organ, no pulpit in sight.
It has to be posed because I can't imagine that a professional photographer--some worldly guy from Time or Life--would have been allowed to wander up the aisle during Sunday worship to shoot umpteen photographs of the Dominie opening the Word of the Lord. Wouldn't have happened.
"I'd like to have a picture of you holding forth," some New York photographer must have said some weekday morning. The fiery young preacher must reached for that swallow-tail coat. Reluctantly? Maybe. Or maybe proudly. Who knows?
I didn't know the Reverend Haan when he was a young 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 sat up there back then. He was young, opinionated, and charismatic. Within a few years, he created a discipleship so wide that his followers determined to start a college out here in the middle of rural America. A goodly part of that following grew from his passionate work keeping a theater out of Sioux Center, Iowa--the story Time and Life were covering back then.
A couple of decades later, by the mid-60s, he was a genial old codger, capable of measured self-reflection, a fiery preacher who could--and did, famously and to the delight of his audiences--laugh at himself.
By the time he retired, he could actually "do" himself in self-parody that became legendary. He knew so well what the crowd expected of him that he could play himself--with style and grace. And success. B. J. was great at playing B. J.
Late in life, he told me that when he looked back through his year in ministry, he wished only that it hadn't taken him so long to learn that the way to find a place in the human heart is by way of a smile, a laugh, some sweet joy. He regretted not learning that lesson earlier. I keep that old picture of him around because I liked him, respected him, appreciated him; and because that old Time photograph helps me remember what he says it took so long for him to learn.
I don't know that the Rev. B. J. Haan suffered--or how, but I'm confident he did because all of us do. And I don't know anything about Mother Teresa's friend Gabriela' suffering either--how she might have grieved for the sick and dying there on the streets of Calcutta. I can't compare her suffering with his; but then trying to match my suffering up against yours or anyone else's is zero sum game. Suffering is suffering.
But I think Mother Teresa wasn't wrong about laughter. Not to smile is to suffer ceaselessly. There is something like grace in what she says here--"what's most important" is to suffer and to laugh.
Down at the bottom of that assessment is paradox: laughter without suffering is silliness; suffering without laughter is horror. Life is a high-wire act between the two.
"For the despondent, every day brings trouble; for the happy heart, life is a continual feast. You can't help but wonder today, the day the Roman Catholic Church will canonize Mother Teresa, whether that smile, her smile, isn't a part of the radiant glory with which Mother Teresa's and life's work has been crowned.
This departure from the series of meditations that appear every Sunday is occasioned by the canonization today of Mother Teresa. Back to Psalm 90 next week. "To Laugh" is #13 in my book of meditations on the life of the saint, Reading Mother Teresa.