Taking ourselves lightly

Taking ourselves lightly

By Sister Michele Vincent Fisher C.S.F.N.

Whether it’s having fun during a service project, or taking time for play during a discernment retreat, humor and playfulness are a healthy part of the vocation discernment process. Photo by South_agency, iStock.

IF I COULD WRITE TWO WORDS on my tombstone, they would be, “She laughed.” I want to leave behind a legacy of joy, a smile for the world, and giggle of glee at the very mystery of life. I don’t know when my last breath will come, but I do know that in this moment, I want to breathe in the goodness of God and bask in the oil of gladness. I want to play as fervently as I pray and laugh as heartily as I take up my daily tasks. In this way, I know that the fullness of life is within my grasp and the kingdom of God is as close as my hand.

Let’s face it: life is serious. The realities facing our world today in this time of turmoil, violence, natural disaster, isolation, and sickness can steal our joy. In the midst of it, healthy humor, laughter, and play need a place on our community agenda if we are going to survive. As Pope Francis has repeatedly proclaimed, “The world doesn’t need any more Christian sourpusses!” All the more, people in discernment need to be in touch with the lighter side of life. Certainly the challenges that our next generation of men and women religious will face are daunting but not impossible. If people don’t witness our individual and communal spirit of joy, they may see priesthood and religious life as emotionally demanding, energy-sapping, and lonely. We have the creativity and enthusiasm to draw others into our way of life and help them to re-connect with a genuine joy in the Lord.

Play together, stay together

I recall a rather animated exchange with my college roommate’s Italian mother when she discovered that I was planning to become a sister. With tears in her eyes, she muttered, “But you like to have fun! How are you gonna make it in the convent?” I assured her that I’d seen the lighter side of life in the convent and that the sisters I knew were actually quite full of fun. One of my fondest memories was of the day my “sisters-to-be” took a three-hour drive to visit me while I was spending my summer as a Girl Scout camp counselor. That particular day, was “Backwards Day.” We were wearing our clothes backwards and eating our meals from dessert to salad. My visitors greeted me with smiles, admiring my backward attire and enjoying brownies as a first course. Later, they donned giant garbage bags when the skies opened up and poured rain on us. That was the day I knew that this was the community for me. After all, a community that plays together stays together.

Defuse tension, relax, and focus

Fast forward 33 years. When I was vocation director for my congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (C.S.F.N.), I had the privilege of helping discerners tap into that same wellspring of joy and find a key to the door to peace and freedom of heart. Discerners frequently come to the discernment process carrying burdens. Resistance from family and friends, feelings of insecurity, anxiety about finding the “right” community, diverse theological or spiritual perspectives, concerns about debt and finances—these are just a few factors that add to the seriousness of someone discerning a religious life vocation. Finding healthy ways to defuse the tension helps discerners to relax and redirect their energy to create new perspectives and broaden their horizons.
In keeping with this philosophy, the schedule for one of my community’s “Come and See” days or discernment weekends included (in addition to prayer, quiet time, and small group discussion about vows and community life) singing, games, cooking together, watching movies, artistic expression, and community service. Occasionally someone might ask why we would spend valuable time on seemingly “frivolous” things when the discerners are with us to learn about religious life. The benefits of these playful activities far outweigh the concern that the discerners will go away without receiving sufficient understanding of the ways of religious life. In fact, the opposite is true.

Discerners who are able to relax, laugh, use their creativity, and expend physical energy during a discernment experience are more willing to come back for a second look. If members of the religious community join with the discerners when possible, the positive effect doubles. Healthy, animated interaction and a spirited sense of humor among community members are attractive qualities for discerners to witness. They also increase the bonds of communion. Opportunities for informal conversation during times of play create an environment of trust and openness and often lead to the formation of deep and long-lasting relationships.

For the vocation director, seeing and experiencing someone “at play” provides valuable insights about the discerner that other assessments might overlook. Observing a discerner’s sense of humor and play opens a window into the personality. For example is the discerner’s sense of humor laced with sarcasm, cynicism, sexism, racism, or self-deprecating innuendos? Does the person use humor to avoid conflict or to mask feelings of inadequacy? Is the person’s humor appropriate to the situation? Does an overly-heightened sense of humor indicate anxiety? Does the discerner generally have a joyful, peaceful disposition? Is the discerner able to analyze situations and find humor in the sometimes topsy-turvy events of daily life? Is the discerner able to pick up social cues and understand when humor is inappropriate? Can the discerner appreciate and understand the humor of others? Does the discerner take offense at the humor of others (assuming that it is appropriate to the situation)? Does the discerner use humor to draw attention to him or herself rather than using it to engage others and stimulate conversation? Does the discerner react negatively to humor or find it “childish”? Is the discerner able to find humor and play in the context of sacred scripture? Does the discerner’s image of God point to a God of gladness and joy who delights in people and gently forgives their sins and shortcomings?

The answers to these questions provide insights about discerners’ basic dispositions, about their images of God and religious life, and about their approach to handling the situations that life brings.

Creative play unlocks the heart

Recreational and service experiences provide an opportunity to see how discerners interact socially and participate in community. Discerners often use these opportunities for healthy self-disclosure. I have learned more about a discerner as we weed a garden together, fly a kite, or discuss a movie than I sometime can in a more formal interview. Discerners with self-esteem issues, depression, or other social inadequacies often decline to participate in group play or work experiences and may appear distant or isolated from the rest of the group. With encouragement, some of these discerners are able to experience increased trust and willingness to take initiative when other discerners and community members lovingly draw them into the activity. Recreational and service opportunities provide common ground for a group of discerners and allow them to problem-solve, use their creative resources, test their communication skills, and share faith with one another. Through play and interaction, the vocation director can assess a discerner’s social strengths and community building capacities. These indicators are crucial at the beginning of a candidate’s journey in initial formation when he or she is striving to bond with the community and offer his or her gifts for the common good.

In a 2011 baccalaureate address given at the University of Pennsylvania, Father James Martin, S.J. reminded his listeners that “joy, humor, and laughter are under-appreciated values in the spiritual life and represent an essential element in one’s own relationship to God.” He goes on to state that humor is a tool for humility. When we can laugh at our own foibles and eccentricities, our ego is kept in check and we can be more open to transformation.

Humor can also speak truth to power. If we look at the Gospels with the lens of humor, we will see that Jesus used humor to ensure that his message would not go unnoticed. With a wink and a laugh, Jesus disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. Eating with sinners, washing feet, stopping a would-be stoning, calling men out of trees or telling them to walk away from their life’s labor are just a few examples of Jesus’ unique humor and perspective. It’s easier to change the world with an injection of laughter than with an infusion of force.
Joy is an important part of our relationship with God. God invites us to be friends, to be intimately known, loved and blessed. As we grow in genuine friendship with God, we fear less and trust more, and we discover the secret of adding lightheartedness to our spiritual life.

On a practical note, I have applied these notions in a concrete way in vocation ministry. One of my best discernment weekends ever took place October 30-November 1. Since the weekend encompassed both Halloween and All Saints Day, we took advantage of two fun ideas for our evening recreation.

In an activity designed to develop the concept of uncovering our true identity and owning our false self-images, participants were given a white face mask and were instructed to draw a line down the center of the mask, from forehead to chin. On the left side of the mask, they were asked to draw symbols and images of the false self that they desired to shed. On the right side of the mask, they were asked to draw symbols and images of the face of Christ that they desired to put on so as to grow in holiness and true knowledge of self. After time to work on masks, everyone came back together for group reflection. What followed was a deep, powerful sharing from the heart. Given that just 24 hours earlier, these women were almost complete strangers to one another, the proof of the power of play and creative expression was tangible.

A second activity, pumpkin carving, found participants gathered around tables, assisting one another in designing and carving their pumpkins. Another group worked on sifting through the pumpkin insides to pull out seeds for roasting. When all the pumpkins were prepared, we placed candles inside each pumpkin and turned off the lights to see the beautiful works of art. In reflecting on this activity we noted that in order to be God’s light in the world, we first had to sink our hands into the messy inside of the pumpkin, pulling it out and straining it to separate the seeds. We noted that even in the messiness, the seeds of goodness can be found. As the inside of the pumpkin was cleared, we talked about the necessity of removing blocks so that the light might shine through the holes and cracks to reveal something beautiful. Even though the atmosphere was playful and light-hearted, the activity brought many in the group to tears as they acknowledged where they were on the continuum of spiritual growth and self-understanding.

We ended with cupcakes prepared by one of the discerners. They were decorated and topped with cookies to resemble tombstones. As we enjoyed the sweet treat, participants were invited to share with the group what they would like to have engraved on their tombstone. We laughed at some of our silly responses, but later acknowledged that we’re all “saints-in-the-making,” called to leave our mark on the world. We prayed a litany of the saints, calling upon heroes in our faith history and in our personal history, asking them to surround us and fill us with courage and strength to do great things for God.

Spice it up

Opportunities for play and fun are all around. Here are some ideas:

• Can you arrange virtual or in-person access to a nursing center where discerners can visit with the wisdom figures of your congregation?

• Does your community have artists, writers, or musicians who can share their gifts and help discerners to draw upon their creativity?

• Are there special liturgical feasts or holidays that can be a springboard for creative ideas?

• Can community members participate in recreational or creative initiatives, online or in-person? There are ways to play Pictionary, Jeopardy, and other games using Zoom.

• Does your congregation have a garden or other outdoor seasonal work— anything from raking leaves to shoveling snow—that participants can work together to accomplish?

• Is there space for discerners to collaborate in a cooking project, such as making soup or baking cookies? Afterward could they distribute the results to a group or individuals in need?

• Does your congregation have a special mission with the poor that discerners could participate in?

• Is there a film or show with themes related to discernment, social justice, or the community charism? Consider hosting a viewing and discussion.

• Do you have access to a gym or another indoor or outdoor facility for physical activity, team sports, or other recreation?

Of course it’s also good to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities for fun. Many times discerners themselves will find ways to use their creativity and humor during their free time or in response to an activity. Let the Spirit lead you. Relax and try to draw others, particularly your own community members, into the fun. Most of all, enjoy the lightheartedness that comes when brothers and sisters work, pray, and play side-by-side and attract others to share in the gift that is religious life.

A version of this article appeared in HORIZON 2012, Summer, No. 3.

Related article

“Laughing with the saints,” by Father James Martin, S.J. HORIZON 2009, No. 2. Find this article and more at the HORIZON online library, nrvc.net/horizon_library.

Published on: 2021-11-02

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, Volume 46

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