A friend once told me the following story. While on vacation she attended Sunday services in a local church. Arriving early, she waited in silence as the local people arrived. As is the custom, all entered with respectful silence. At one moment a young couple walked in with a small child, their son. They went to the front of the church and sat down. As everyone waited, the child turned around, looked at everyone, waved and smiled. My friend smiled and waved back, but most people ignored the child. After a few minutes the child repeated the gesture. At the third attempt the mother noticed her offspring’s actions. She grabbed him, pushed him back into the seat and said sternly, “Stop that silly grinning! Don’t you know that you are in God’s house!”
This story reflects a common teaching that God is a serious God and does not tolerate unserious actions, like smiling, in church. Sounds silly but is true. We were taught that God loves us and wants the best for us. Yet, we worship to another God, one who will condemn us if we are not found pleasing. Fr. Frank Jones, an Australian associate priest with whom I worked in Chile, used to say jokingly, “We have a God of love, and he hates you!” He was highlighting this double talk we do about God. Our descriptive words of God don’t match our deep inner beliefs about God’s nature.
When I was a seminarian, a priest once scolded me for giggling during prayer. During a parish luncheon the parish priest convoked a blessing over the meal. Suddenly, without intent, a funny thought entered my head. It produced a small giggle. The priest heard this, stopped the prayer and shouted to me, “What’s the laugh! What’s so funny!” I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to respond especially since it was not my intention to giggle. Fortunately, another priest wisely intervened, “Come now, not all prayer is serious.” After, I began to wonder. What is this prayer that is not serious? What is that like? Years later I was to discover the profoundness of the unserious prayer.
In 2008, I was in Boston, Massachusetts, attending the Center for Religious Development’s program on Spiritual Direction. During the course of study we experimented various forms of prayer and accompanied others who sought to deepen their spiritual life. At one point, I entered a spiritual dryness. Nothing was happening. I was praying to God, but felt no response from God. Eventually, I found it hard to even seek God.
This is a common experience in the spiritual life—entering the desert— and it was not my first time. However, I was becoming very frustrated. After all, if I was to be a spiritual director, I should know how to talk to God and God should respond. Should I not always feel God’s presence?
One day, I decided this has to end. I was going to leave the desert, the spiritual dryness. Therefore, at night I prepared my prayer space in my room. I had an icon of Jesus, the Bible, rosary and a candle. I had a psalm ready for meditation. I lit the candle, shut off the electric lights and sat down in a lotus position in front of the Bible and icon. I was going to get this right! This was serious business! So I thought.
I tried to still my body and calm my inner spirit, in preparation to approach this evading, serious God. Suddenly, from within my body, I felt an inner biological rumbling. My stomach was turning. I realized that I was about to pass gas. “Not now!” I said to myself. “I am entering a sacred moment and this was no time to give into biological needs!” Yet, the force was strong. Suddenly a loud, long blast was released. I was stupefied, stunned. My sacred moment was rudely interrupted by a crude biological function. How can this be? The serious mood was broken.
Slowly, another feeling was beginning to emerge. I felt a deep inner giggle building. My body shook as I began to laugh uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop! It was than the evading God of my dryness appeared, the image of Jesus rolling on the ground laughing with me! It was hilarious. It was unexpected. It was the most intimate moment I ever shared with God. We laughed together.
I felt God saying to me, “Don’t be so serious. Don’t take yourself so seriously. I want you to be you with all your idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. I created you this way. Laugh with me.” If God created a body that can pass gas, smile, giggle and laugh, why must they be something “to avoid?” Can there be a way to know God more intimately? God does laugh, smile, and apparently has a good sense humor. Can we not encounter this God?
The seriousness was gone, but the sacredness was not. With that, I got up, closed my Bible and relaxed with this laughing, unserious God. My spiritual dryness ended but not in the way I expected. I had resolved to make it a serious, hard journey. God turned it into an enjoyable, funny road trip.
So I ask this question to all: when was the last time you laughed in prayer, giggled, or, did something funny that led you to this laughing, rolling-on-the-ground God? Try an unserious prayer. God needs a good laugh, too.