Sunday, 3 July 2011

That wasn't a joke?

My tendency to the wry and ironic has two 'side effects' for those who are not ones for either. Some of my best jokes lead to others thinking I'm distressed (though, believe me, were I truly distressed, I'd either disappear or, were I caught, leave one with no doubt! Then again, lots of people so love sad stories that they manufacture them nearly as often as I lapse into jester mode. Last week, I was saying an Office in a church, and someone, unknown to me, thought I was ill because I had my head down slightly - to read the psalms - and was moving my mouth a bit, because, though I never read aloud to myself otherwise, I learnt years ago to say prayers aloud even if in a tiny whisper - probably back when one had to say lots of prayers aloud to gain the indulgences. Head bowed - ahem! - someone assumed to be talking to herself out loud - which I only do at home - yes, that's good ammunition for the psycho-babble brigade.) I often forget, as well, that religious humour, which usually appeals in particular to those with huge faith, can be taken as irreverent (which it normally is, and by design) and offensive (never!) by those who are delicate or who came to the faith in full-blown 'late have I loved thee' mode.

How well I remember, after 30 years, when I was scrubbing a parish kitchen floor (..."Francis, go and repair my church" ... believe me, everyone takes us up on that one...), and my friend Jane, for my edification and entertainment, was telling me of a 'shocking' incident she'd observed when she and Sadie attended some sort of healing service (conducted by Franciscans, so things mustn't have been all that spit and polish.) Jane was relatively young, but always had an air of someone who'd seen 100 years of suffering which she'd enjoyed immensely. Sadie was as holy as they get, and a bit fey - she saw an image of the Sacred Heart appear on the screen when she watched one Brook Shields film, and asked if it was a religious picture. Sadie was of a shy nature, and was immensely devoted to her husband, who leaned towards being insensitive and was excessively fond of his glass. Sadie and Jane actually had a number of characteristics in common, but one huge difference was that Sadie was inclined to kiss nearly everyone in greeting, where I doubt Jane's kids had ever even seen their mother kiss their father.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Sadie kissed this priest! (Scornful look) This little, short priest. Right on the lips! Now, who would even think of kissing a priest, but Sadie went and kissed him - little short man he was, didn't look like much, but she went and kissed him! (Pause) She mustn't be too happy at home."

Jane couldn't be understanding why that last line sent me into gales of laughter. (Well, had I said it, I would have most definitely intended to be funny!) "Ah, Elizabeth, you laugh at nothing! Sadie really kissed a priest! Right on the lips!"

The mental picture of the timid, extremely pious Sadie in the role of wicked woman was so hilarious that I wish I'd been there...

Of course, there are other times when I (often with others) have unintentionally troubled someone because we mistook a flub for a joke. I'm thinking of when I assisted with a retreat for girls aged thirteen or so, who were school-mates. The retreat was held at a building which was inhabited by a few nuns, who still wore the long habit, old-style veil and coif, and who all happened to be of well below average height. (That will figure later.) Retreats for teens, despite all the 'heavy stuff' and their weeping (partly resulting from adolescent emotionalism, partly hormones with no place to take them, and largely from seeing clichés as fresh insights - believe me, you don't want to be over-exposed to the petitions and offertory processions, the latter of which include bringing up lipsticks and school books...), need to have some fun time. The kids decided, during the 'drink soda and giggle' period, that they'd like to put on a little show, and asked permission to wear some of the nuns' summer habits, which they'd seen hanging in an adjacent store room.

The girls adjoined to their 'dressing room,' and dressed in the nuns' habits - without removing their own blue jeans, running shoes, and athletic socks. Since the nuns were so tiny, the normally floor-length habits reached to slightly below the girls' knees (with ample portions of jeans, socks, and running shoes visible...), the coifs looked like white Grim Reaper masks, headbands and veils were as off-balance as the worst of adolescent emotions, and the effect when they appeared 'on stage' was enough to give us misguided souls in the audience the mistaken impression that they'd worked out a comedy sketch.

The girls began singing "The Sound of Music," horribly off-key, and one of them did (what we thought was) a 'take' on the descant which Liesl sings in the play so terribly that we naturally thought this combination of sights and sounds was the opening to something to top Monty Python. Yes, we roared. I defy nearly anyone to think this was not intended to be funny... but, if I thought we had to contend with weeping at the Eucharist, the amount that resulted from their reaction to our laughter would have been a challenge to Noah.

Then there is my cherished friend Madeline, who has been enormously considerate and generous to me. I'd be first to institute her canonisation proceedings for many reasons, but (and this is the best illustration of my dad's "you've got the book learning, but not the ways of the world" theory on record) I still forget that Madeline not only never catches jokes but never intentionally said anything funny in her life. Madeline and I have known each other for decades, and I know well that, whenever she sees anyone, her greeting invariably is, "You know who died?" (Actually, that is inaccurate - on the rare day when she can't find even a remotely familiar name in the obituaries, there may be such variations as a report of who has a terminal illness or was victim of a disaster. At least 75% of the time, I've never even heard of the deceased.)

Madeline, who sadly moved from her life-long neighbourhood a few years ago, was telling me that one old friend, who'd remained till recently, now had moved as well. "It's a shame I don't hear from Billy (note to readers - about the old neighbourhood) now. He'd tell me who's dead, who isn't..."

Would you believe that I actually thought Madeline was laughing at herself? ... I was mistaken... I hope I didn't wound the pride of one who's been so good to me. Then again, when I (looking for some topic to discuss with Madeline) casually mentioned I'd had a good time doing Cleopatra with my Shakespeare group, when she added, "You know, she died," for a moment I thought it was a joke. (After all, few scenes in Shakespeare are as well-known as that with Cleopatra and the asp...) I finally caught on that Madeline was referring to Elizabeth Taylor.

I was surprised when a theologian whom I know and respect, when he was present as noted here - as a snobbish soul expressed her disgusted fear that she'd be in the company of Neanderthal man at the resurrection and, unlike yours truly, didn't have to choke behind a handkerchief...)

So, on cliché buster patrol - it isn't always correct to assume 'laugh and the world laughs with you.' I still will caution anyone (above the age of fourteen) - especially those who have an interest in church involvement and/or the Internet - if you must cry, be sure to do it alone! Crying in the company of church people is always a mistake. Cry on the Internet (or even be mistaken for crying when you are laughing...), and you'll hear from 5,000 amateur shrinks... and no one, not even myself, has enough energy to laugh at that many people in a day.

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