As a child, I created a notebook with color-coded pages on which I had done drawings of each outfit I owned to accompany my color-coded closet (and my closet is still color-coded). I lined my stuffed animals up in alphabetical order around my bed, and I have always had my books arranged alphabetically and by subject area. In junior high, friends would pass me inane notes scrawled in bubble letters during algebra, and I had each one unfolded, smoothed out, and filed in a binder by date. My class notes were almost verbatim accounts of what the teacher said, in small print and illuminated with related drawings that would help me to remember the lecture. I had a series of journals over the years written to my future husband, in which I laid out every quality he would need to possess and how he should behave.
I have been a serious, introspective person all of my life. I have always felt things deeply, and had a sensitivity to both ugliness and beauty. I have always wanted things to be ordered and efficient and lovely, and, unfortunately, I have always struggled with frustration when they fall short.
When I think back over the most memorable, formative moments in my life, they are what Sheldon Vanauken, in his book A Severe Mercy, calls “timeless moments” - moments in which one is so struck by beauty that it is painful; that momentary connection with beauty is a glimpse into the eternal for which we are longing. It is a connection with the ultimate Beauty that the beauty here only points to. My life is full of these amazing, agonizing, tear-filled encounters with beauty, and I am grateful.
But my heavens, it is difficult to be so serious. I am hyper-aware of each moment as a gift, of the incredible blessings that I have, but almost never in peaceful gratitude. I feel the imminent loss of them, the fleeting nature of this life, and even though I know God (and not I) is actually in control and my joy is in Him, I still weep at the thought of losing what I love here. I cry a lot.
In His great wisdom and His immaculate knowledge of me, God has seen to it that my life has the dose of levity I need to stay sane. Growing up, I recall laughing hysterically with my dad, not actually at his jokes, but at him laughing at his own jokes so hard that he was crying. This still happens, happily. One thing that multi-volume list of requirements for my future husband (not surprisingly) did not include, was a sense of humor; however, God knew better and gave me Marc, who actually meets every requirement of mine and is also hilarious. And of course, babies bring a unique and hypnotizing levity to all of us. Staring into the face of each of my children has encompassed many moments of joy untouched by my brooding nature, and my children continue to bring laughter and silliness into my life as they get older. I also find that dancing, which we try to do as often as possible, allows for living in the joy of the present moment, unworried about the past or the future.
In high school, one of my dear friends had a plaque hanging in his house that said “Joy is not the absence of suffering, but the presence of God.” I have thought about that plaque through every tragic circumstance I have faced. Joy is a quality of the saints, certainly desirable, with sort of elevated and ethereal connotations. But we also need the less lofty qualities of silliness, happiness, laughter and playfulness.
One of things we have learned about in the trainings we have done as adoptive parents is the importance of playfulness. As Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “Play disarms fear” and “builds connectedness.” Play happens only when a person feels safe. Play connects us on a physiological level; laughing and playing together actually release endorphins that help us to form positive bonds with people. That is how God created us to work. I don’t think it is an accident that in my idea of Heaven - my only truly safe place - God is laughing, Jesus is dancing, and I am running and playing like a little child.
For all that I lack in playfulness, my husband makes up. And not only did God give me a husband who is playful and funny, but he is actually a distant cousin of one of the funniest of saints, Philip Neri, whose feast day is coming up on May 26. St. Philip said, “The true way to advance in holy virtues, is to advance in holy cheerfulness.” As he strove for humility, he did things like shaving off half of his beard - it is hard to be prideful when you look ridiculous (and it does look really ridiculous. Marc has shaved off half of his beard for St. Philip Neri’s feast day multiple times). St. Philip also strove to help others grow in humility, and all of his humor was ordered in this direction. He hung a sign above his door that said “House of Christian Mirth,” played practical jokes on seminarians, and kept a book of jokes on his desk, all with holiness in mind. He worked tirelessly with the poor and sick, founded a prayer group for idle young men who were getting into trouble around Rome, and was trusted by Popes and Cardinals to give wise counsel, but he is remembered as “the Laughing Saint.”
As Christians, we are called to joy and happiness, to play and connection, to laughter and levity, not to frustration and perfectionism. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, to recognize that we will make mistakes, to ask forgiveness and move on. Taking things too seriously can be a symptom of pride and lack of trust. We are not in control, no matter how hard we try to be. In my difficult case, God knew I needed a husband who takes after St. Philip Neri and to have this "Laughing Saint" as a cousin.
St. Philip Neri, pray for us to laugh at ourselves, to become fools for Christ, and to trust ourselves wholly to the only One who has anything under control.