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The gift of laughter

· A conversation with Mother Ignazia Angelini, Abbess of the Benedictine Monastery of Viboldone ·

A Church capable of humour which follows Jesus learning from him how to smile and laugh and which isn’t afraid of being blamed or tamed by his most subtle irony is a beneficial balm for this sad and melancholic West, suffering from narcissism. Mother Ignazia Angelini, Abbess of the Benedictine monastery of Viboldone, writes on the importance of a sense of humour in her book Mentre vi guardo, “The most powerful weapon against resentment is humour, an indispensable and expert exercise”.

What do you mean by “resentment”?

Whereas the sentiment is the perception of myself as touched and visited by the other who calls me and looks at me, resentment is born when I withdraw into myself, concentrating on the perception of the other as a threat that disturbs and invades me. To avoid resentment it is necessary to call into question the self-referential “I”, to accept one’s own limitations, recognizing that the presence of another person calls that part of me that I don’t know. It is necessary to be willing to experience the adventure of discovering oneself as a person who is received, a person who goes out, whose original vocation is to exist as a response. This is a fundamental passage in cenobitic life: existing while being welcomed through others. It does not seem much but requires a lot of time. Humour is born from the perception of limitations, one’s own and those of others, and from the perception of oneself as a gift and a response. It is the ability to laugh at paradoxical situations in which one finds oneself sitting on the ground as a “statue in pieces”, to borrow the words of St Thérèse of Lisieux: irony, the risus – fundamentally always paschalis – is the ability to see one’s own limits and to bless them, because they find us bound to an infinite love that calls by name and regenerates. It is therefore something very different both from sarcastic irony, from cynical irony and from idle laughter that trivializes the human being.

You mean humour as an expression of decentralization from oneself, an antidote to narcissism as it is for spiritual pride, expresses the experience of knowing one is protected in the hands of a trustworthy God.

Exactly that. We are not the navel of the world, we are on a margin which, however, finds that it is a margin blessed and loved. Those who have nothing to defend since they know they are defended by and held in the dependable hands of the Lord are not worried about how they look, they do not seek confirmation of themselves in others: they are really able to laugh magnanimously. Saints are endowed with great humour, I am thinking for example of Philip Neri and Teresa of Avila. And I cannot forget Scholastica. Her meeting with Benedict was all under the banner of irony.

May we consider humour as an expression of the “Christian agility whose guarantor is the Spirit”, of which Cardinal Martini wrote? In this sense can one can say that humour is accompanied by the gifts of the Spirit?

Yes. I maintain that this agility is effectively portrayed in the young Mark who fled on the night of the Passion leaving the linen cloth, escaping from violence with the lightness of unarmed nakedness. Agility is the ability to relativize oneself, to accept oneself, always in movement, sure that in every experience, even the hardest and most challenging, there is always a beyond that beckons. Perceiving the boundaries of a situation makes it possible to cross them more swiftly. What makes man heavy is the search for himself and for his own salvation that prevents him from overcoming wounds of the ego and disappointments, leading to paralysis. One no longer succeeds in going ahead. Even excessive suffering can petrify but, however paradoxical it may seem, if it is lived in faith it is not in opposition to humour: pain does not harden to the point that one no longer glimpses any horizon. I think of Jesus at the most painful moment of his existence: I imagine a pleasant smile on his lips when he says “So could you not watch with me one hour?”. And a little later he adds: “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?”. This smile reveals that love is greater than the disciples’ limitations, he includes them and he redeems them. Peter’s denial is included in the gift of his own life which Jesus announced during the Last Supper. The Smiling Christ, a splendid wooden sculpture preserved in the Abbey of Lérins, is an eloquent sign of it. It therefore seems to me that one can affirm that humour – in the sense described so far – is a gift of the Spirit: we can include it in the wisdom which enables us to understand the savour of things, to see their limitations but also their symbolic significance, or in the pietas, which is the good meaning of belonging – expropriated from self – to the relationship with God and with others.

Irony and laughter are found in the pages of Scripture: can you remember some of them which you consider to be revealing?

I’m thinking for example of Sarah: laughter is the first feeling that wells up in her at the announcement of her motherhood. Sarah burst out laughing because the son she was about to receive and whom she had so long desired is a paradoxical gift. However, I am also thinking about the warrior women such as Deborah or the Caananite woman in front of Jesus. Humour through Scripture – often in minor figures – as an expression of the perception that the thread of history proceeds according to a paradoxical logic because it is led from on high, by Grace, and not by the strength of the powerful. The many situations that teach us to grasp our own limitations as symbolic limitations are significant, that do not crush us in narrowness but open us to transcendence, according to the logics of giving and faith, not according to those of heroism and self-referentiality. Spiritual worldliness, which Pope Francis stigmatizes, is self-referentiality marked by a seriousness and rigidity lacking in humour which, on the contrary, is the salt of sound and trustworthy relationships.

“We aren’t used to thinking of Jesus smiling, joyful”, Pope Francis said. Which of Jesus’ smiles do you find the most striking?

His smiles to children and little ones; and those for the embarrassed disciples, in whom he saw vulnerability and at the same time unswerving fidelity to the Father, and the impression of his transcendence. I am also struck by the affectionate and cutting irony he saved for stubborn disciples and for polemic people with whom he was conversing. I am thinking above all of Luke 10:20, which I consider a peak. When the disciples returned from the mission satisfied with the successes they had obtained he said with a smile “Do not rejoice in this... but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”. And then he exults with joy in the Holy Spirit addressing that magnificent praise to the Father which describes the Good News and the overturning of the world’s logics. Jesus laughs at the triumphs of those sent out and rejoices in their smallness.

God wants to be loved, but not immediately; he smiles and laughs and wants to do so with us. Does it ever happen to you to laugh or smile with God?

That was how I began, with a smile. Why was God seeking Adam in the cool of the day? Certainly not in order to discuss: he wanted to enjoy with him the marvel of the world he had created and had seen to be something beautiful and good. They would have exchanged looks and smiles of contentment, of happiness. Moreover I think that God enjoyed himself and smiled once again with pleasure when in leading Eve to him he saw Adam explode with happiness. In certain circumstances it can happen that one is before God and is laughing with him. It happens to me, for example, every time I perceive my limitation and understand that it is not fruitful because of my commitment or my sacrifices, but because God blesses it and bends down with delight over what is nothing.

“For a God who laughs like a child, so many twittering sparrows, so many dances in the boughs. A soul is made weightless, the meadows have such tenderness, such modesty revives in eyes, hands like leaves are enchanted in the air… Who fears more, who judges?” wrote Ungaretti.

In these verses that are dear to me one breathes the lightness of which I spoke, together with innocence. This smiling God ridicules the gravity of those who think they are adults because they judge and catalogue everything and everyone. The temptation to label, to pigeonhole people in well- defined categories always conceals the desire for domination. Instead the Biblical narrative moves from other parameters, it has no need to put things in boxes. It is intrinsically symbolic. The dynamics of the revelation are paradoxical, they are those of giving freely and of forgiveness. The small remainder initiates all things, where sin is abundant grace is superabundant.... The assumption of these dynamics permits a narration of the real that has no need of catalogues, but only of breath, that does not know from where it comes nor where it is going. The Spirit has a most subtle sense of humour.

Born in 1944, Mother Ignazia Angelini, from the Marche and Milanese by adoption, has been Abbess of the monastery of Viboldone in the Province of Milan since 1996. She has taught the history of spirituality at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy. Her publications include Mentre vi guardo (Einaudi, 2013), Nei paesaggi dell’anima (Vita e Pensiero, 2012), Donne in cerca di Dio (La Scuola, 2011), Un silenzio pieno di sguardo (Edizioni Dehoniane, 1999).

Cristina Uguccioni




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 18, 2020