I Am Thy Merry Altar
(and Other Broad Hints From God)

by M. R. Ritley

“When Hungarians cry, you know they’re having a good time. But when they start to laugh, look out! It means that things are really bad.”

— Old Hungarian saying

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s really an old Hungarian saying or not. It might simply be another one of Aunt Szofi’s axioms. Whatever, I learned the truth of it very early. People in my neighborhood—men and women alike—adored a good cry. It was a sociable thing, a downright luxury, like Uncle Zoli wanting to sing “Gloomy Sunday” whenever he’d had a little too much wine, or the old ladies in the neighborhood loving a good funeral, as long as it wasn’t anyone too close to them. Even a real tearjerker of a movie would do in a pinch.

But laughter? Ah, that was what you summoned up when you couldn’t afford tears because they were too dangerous.

I don’t mean that we didn’t laugh at other times, too. But given the number of problems, crises, and sheer calamities that seemed to make up life in the immigrant neighborhood I grew up in, what I really remember the most is the amount of time my family spent laughing. And there, I suppose, is where I learned my first great lesson about humor: it is the ultimate defense against the worst that life can do, the heart’s headstrong and divinely mad assertion that tragedy cannot be allowed to have the final word.

I know sensible people who would call this whistling in the dark or mere denial. It does, however, beat the hell out of the grim solemnity that often masquerades as realism. Whatever else, Aunt Szofi had this one right: it works, which is why it persists in peasant humor. What was that great old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard? “I’ve given up searching for the truth. What I need now is a good fantasy.” Well, there are moments when, if we are to survive, we have to set the grim facts aside and settle for a belly laugh.

I saw this in an Episcopal priest I knew, dying of AIDS and lying in the hospital on Palm Sunday, with what appeared to be just a few hours to live. He looked up at the rector of his parish and beckoned him close, almost too weak to speak. Prepared for a dramatic deathbed moment, the rector leaned forward, only to hear the whispered words: “It’s okay. I know better than to die in Holy Week. If I did, you’d kill me.” He lived for several more years.

The story was told to me by another dear friend, a parish priest whom I loved and admired. When he himself died last Good Friday, there was a thread of laughter under my tears: he would have loved the joke. His parish would have its biggest attendance of the year on the Sunday after his death!

Defeated by Laughter

Most of us know in our bones that humor is a lifesaver at some of the worst moments of our lives. But most of us are also suspicious of and embarrassed by our spontaneous flashes of humor. We do, after all, use the expression “overcome with laughter,” as if giving in to the giggles were a defeat. Yes, well, laughter may be the defeat of something, but as often as it has made my name a hissing and a byword in polite company, I owe too much to the gift of humor to be anything but grateful, even when its appearance is decidedly inconvenient.

When I think of solemn funerals, for instance, my mind immediately leaps to the exquisite agony of mirth that shook the entire funeral party when something went wrong with the winch lowering my friend Rich’s casket into the grave, so that as the head of the coffin sank, the foot rose majestically until it was standing straight up in the air, the wreath of roses twined around it at a drunken angle. No one dared laugh, but one look at the faces at the graveside told the story: the handkerchiefs lifted to cover the mourners’ faces were in fact being stuffed into their mouths to keep them from whooping aloud. Afterwards, Rich’s brother said to me, “If I didn’t believe in an afterlife before, I’d have to now. Nobody but Rich could have dreamed that one up. He always tried to break me up in church when we were kids.” How very alive Rich’s spirit seemed at that moment!

Humor plays a huge role in every aspect of my life, so why should my spirituality be any different? I tend to think of the things we laugh at—or rather, the things we laugh with— as avenues to help us connect with others’ experiences, and thus helping us sense the universal in our own experiences. Also, humor is often noticing the unexpected, the break in the pattern—and this makes me think it’s a very effective way for God to communicate with us.”

— Mary Kidwell

In case you are still skeptical about the rightness of humor in the face of indigestible fact, let me point out that it has a long history in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim (at least Sufi) history. Read the dialogue over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrha (Genesis 18:20–33), as Abraham haggles with God as if he were making a hot deal in used camels. Better yet, read Jesus’ parables with attention. His hearers undoubtedly had a good chuckle over the unjust judge who was finally browbeaten into giving an honest verdict because a determined old woman was nagging him to death (Luke 18:1–8), or the slick-as-snake-oil steward who knows all about calling in markers (Luke 16:1–9). Over and over again, Jesus stands accepted wisdom on its head, subverts the narrow piety of conventional religion, and in the process breaks open the prison walls.

Subversion, in fact, is one of the most divine roles that humor plays, poking holes in our sacred balloons and liberating us into the freedom of laughter. This is something that most minorities learn thoroughly: it delivers us from the sense of helplessness in the face of irrational power. It helps us see that we are not as hopeless or as helpless as we are told we are, and that those who are trying to hold the upper hand over us are far more ridiculous than they imagine.

As a gay woman who came out some 40 years ago, I learned this lesson well. Camp humor may have begun as a defense, a way of removing the sting of feeling helpless and despised, but it can become a powerful source of self-definition, a weapon against the very people who hate or scorn us. The gay-as-your-Aunt-Nellie acolyte in a high church parish receives your compliment on his new surplice with a breezy, “Darling, this isn’t a surplice—it’s a statement.”

Straight folks—even some gay ones—may hear camp humor with distaste, but its over-the-top quality has kept some of us healthy in the face of hatred, and being able to laugh is halfway to being able to love. And our love makes us who we are.

God’s Frozen People

Nowhere can God’s sense of humor be more visible than in church.There is an antic spirit that lurks at the heart of solemn church occasions, at least a good many that I have been part of. In my acolyte days, just when a solemn high mass was unfolding smoothly around the altar, I would stumble, drop-kicking the sanctus bells across the sanctuary. Liturgically speaking, “Oops!” is not a terrific option. You quickly learn that the only thing possible is to continue with extra grace and deliberation. With luck, at least some of the congregation will think it was intentional, since they find most church customs inexplicable anyway.

I learned this quite early on, at a Christmas Eve service in Los Angeles when the bishop was presiding. Communion had been served, the altar cleared, and the choir was humming “Silent Night” softly in the background, while the congregation’s hand-candles were glowing in the magical near-darkness. Unfortunately, an unwary worshiper leaned his candle too close to his neighbor’s hair, which began to singe. Just as the bishop raised his hand magisterially to bestow his blessing on us, shrieks erupted from the back of the church.

I am told that all of us in the sanctuary simply froze in a dignified poses, benign little smiles on our faces. The bishop paused gracefully, hand uplifted, his expression saying, “Ah, yes, that delightful old Anglican custom of rolling a flaming parishioner down the aisle.” An usher smothered the sparks, and the bishop simply continued making the sign of the cross without missing a beat.

I am not exaggerating. Most of us have seen something agonizingly funny at the precise moment when we know we shouldn’t laugh: an unwary priest walks slowly up the trailing stole of the person in front of him in the procession, a frustrated presider wrestles grimly with an unexpectedly tough communion loaf, a neighborhood cat suddenly peeks out from under the altar cloth and starts batting at its fringe. Personally, I have always suspected that the only one laughing uninhibitedly at those moments is God, who doesn’t have to impress anyone by being solemn. Or more likely, God has a mad hope that somehow we can be got to, that our facades can be cracked, that our armor will shiver and fall crashing to the floor, while we roll around in merriment, unable to stifle our guffaws. God’s frozen people may actually melt into human beings one day.

God can hope, of course. And in the meantime, God endows the human spirit with an irresistible penchant to snicker at the “wrong” times. What most of us have learned to deplore about our irrepressible laughter is not, in fact, a flaw, but a gift, right up there with altruism, love, and intuition.

That is what I have begun to understand, however late in the game. Humor is a calling, if you like—or perhaps, humor calls us, and God gives us the grace to answer.

I no longer struggle to suppress my humor on religious occasions. If something funny occurs to me during a sermon, I say it. I will admit that funny things occur to me with deplorable regularity. It is the risk you run when you have spent a lifetime trying to make your heart vulnerable to anything as painful and as glorious as God’s world: along with the depth of feeling comes the depth of what I have learned to call the laughter of God.

During St. Gregory’s Easter vigil, when a dozen or so people bestow spontaneous blessings on the celebrating congregation, I invariably use the blessing closest to my heart: “May the God of all fools and lovers fill your life with the laughter of God.”

Yes, I will tell stories about Hashad the Fool and make outrageous one-liners in Sunday sermons. I have no reason to think that God will be offended, and I know this full well: if you can make people laugh, you can reach their hearts and make them hear.

I had the privilege of meeting Desmond Tutu twice; what I will always recall most indelibly are his eyes, brimful of good humor, overflowing with life. A man who had seen so much suffering and whose eyes positively twinkled with laughter? “I know how it is,” he said. “You think, ‘All I can do is pray, and I am hating this like hell, but all right, God, I’ll pray even if I feel like a fool.’ And because you do this foolish thing, someone comes out of prison, even torture, without bitterness.”

Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Teresa of Avila: all people who have lived out God’s compassion in the world, and all of whom knew how to laugh. I don’t know if God made me a saint-in-training, but I do know this: God made me funny. As a gift, I’ll take it!

I Am Thy Merry Altar

All this brings me to one of life’s most delicious jokes, which I think has delighted both God and me. It is my name, which of course God did not give me; my parents did. Not knowing who I would grow up to be, they failed to name me M. R. when I was baptized, and saddled me with the almost embarrassingly biblical name of Mary Martha Ritley (M. R. is simply the initials of my first and last names).

But it gets better. Not long ago, in one of my free-form excursions on the Internet, I came across a website that created anagrams. Just for the hell of it, I typed in Mary Martha Ritley. And what anagram came back? Sheer gorgeous Godly humor: I Am Thy Merry Altar.

Dear God, I love it! I laughed until I had to lean my head on the keyboard, accidentally inserting a string of about 500 r’s in the search field, which flummoxed the anagram engine so thoroughly that I had to reboot.

What a name for a priest, I thought. What a perfect way of saying what God has been chuckling about for years. Yes, I am God’s merry altar, a place in which the sacrament of laughter has been celebrated at holy moments and ungodly hours; a life in which I have tried to lift up the laughter of God for people to see, to break open the bread of humor to nourish the heart. Like Sarah, “God has made me laugh.” And I do. And I will. Or rather, we will laugh together.

I am thy merry altar, God, and you are the laughter that is celebrated on it.

The Rev. Dr. M. R. Ritley is a writer, teacher, storyteller, Episcopal priest, and the author of many published works, including experimental textbooks in history and the social sciences, gay spirituality, and creativity. Her own journey has included being a chaplain to the mentally ill, a counselor to dropout youth, and an itinerant teacher of Sufi spirituality. She served at St. Gregory's for more than ten years and is currently associated with Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley.

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