Monday, October 17, 2005

You Shall Laugh

In the beatitudes found in Luke’s Gospel, the promise Jesus gives to those who are weeping is: You shall laugh. This doesn’t mean He’s about to tell them a good joke, nor is He speaking about some ephemeral or superficial happiness, but rather that a deep and lasting joy will be theirs if they continue to carry their crosses with patience and with trust in the Lord. The poor, the hungry, the persecuted and maltreated are all invited to rejoice—for their reward will be great in heaven. And that is the only reward that ultimately matters. But that doesn’t mean He wants us to be morose or lugubrious until we get to heaven.

The Lord’s promise of laughter to those who weep was once manifested to me in quite a striking and extraordinary way. It was a long time ago, maybe 20 years. I was here in the monastery; I think I may still have been a novice. I was going through a period of a rather tenacious depression. The fact that I had given my life to God and was still depressed was even more depressing! Anyway, a good friend of ours, a priest who lived about 100 miles away, came for a retreat. I had always liked and respected him, and I would eagerly listen to his accounts of how the Lord was working in his life and in those of his parishioners. He almost always had a miracle story when he came to visit.

So I asked him if we could talk, because I was hoping he could help me out of my depression. After a while he said he’d like to pray over me, so I said, “OK, it can’t hurt,” though I wasn’t really expecting much more than a few pious but useless words (when one is depressed, everything looks extremely bleak and hopeless, and one becomes proficient at pessimism). We were sitting outside the main house on a bench. He began to pray a more or less standard healing prayer, and I just sort of slouched and listened. After a minute or two, the strangest thing began to happen. The words of his prayer started sounding funny. Not funny-weird or funny-suspect, but ha-ha funny! I couldn’t suppress the grin that was rapidly spreading across my face, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening and why his prayer sounded so funny.

Suddenly, I just burst out laughing. Now he had seen a lot in his years as a priest, but I don’t think he ever saw that, because he got this startled look on his face. He was quite taken aback (and probably was trying to recall what he’d just said and why I would think it hilarious). But soon enough he realized that the Lord had in fact immediately answered his prayer. As for me, I couldn’t stop laughing! I thanked him for his prayer and walked away laughing, powerless to contain it. I went over to the shrine of Our Lady and sat on a bench and laughed—nonstop, for about 20 minutes. After that, my depression was gone. (By the way, it wasn’t a “manic” episode. I’ve never had that counterpart to depression, and I hadn’t had any such previous experience, nor have I ever had anything like it since.) The Lord was simply telling me in the midst of my inner darkness and depression: You shall laugh! And his word accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.

I recently read in the Acts of the Apostles: “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). This is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. Now there was nothing slapstick about the disciples’ joy: they had just been forcibly thrown out of Pisidian Antioch for preaching the Gospel there. But they had that joy of the beatitude: “Blessed are you when people…exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day, for your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22-23). Their joy came from the Holy Spirit. The disciples rejoiced because they expected their reward from God, and even because they were simply happy to serve Him—they loved Him so much and they knew his love for them. Jesus Himself “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21), so we know whence true joy comes.

So if you are sorrowful or depressed now, fear not, for you shall laugh. You shall overcome, by the Grace of Christ, all the death-dealing, downward-thrusting forces of the prince of darkness. Embrace the beatitudes, for they are a key to accepting the hardships of life with faith and hope—and even with joy. Believe me, if a depressed monk can burst into joy at the word of the Lord, so can you.