Humor, the Holy Spirit made me do it

Tracey Horan, left, and other young Sisters of Providence practice being goofy. (Provided photo)

Those who know me well know that I find a special joy in some non-traditional holidays. As a math teacher, "pi day," celebrated March 14, was a big event for my students and me. We would read Sir Cumference and the Knights of the Round Table and, of course, consume our share of pie. For years now, April Fools' Day has also topped the list, with a particular focus on pranking my dad in some fashion every year. This has included things like a prank call to his work phone impersonating a disgruntled client and a surprise ambush of cascarónes (Mexican Easter eggs filled with confetti) the year April 1st coincided with Easter.

More recently, I've brought my Sisters of Providence into the mix, which has been particularly effective. My all-time favorite, and perhaps most successful, April Fools' Day prank took place my postulant year when I convinced one of the sisters to call my dad and inform him about the "dowry" my parents would be expected to contribute to the community before I continued on to the novitiate. (For the record, this was once a real thing to support young sisters financially during formation but was discontinued years ago.)

"But what if he believes me?" this sister asked as we were prepping for her role. Don't worry, I told her; I do this every year. He'll probably figure it out right away and just start laughing. I suggested she just keep adding more and more ridiculous things to the list — a phone, a computer, a new car, a pony — and he would certainly catch on. Instead I got a text from her that day: "You better call your dad — I think he believed me!" In his words, "I never thought a nun would prank me!" A series of exchanges ensued after this, my dad sending a payment of Monopoly money, the sister sending back a pretend receipt with the remaining balance.

I come by it honestly. My dad is known as a pun master in our family, and he shares this trait with many of my aunts and uncles. What's more, St. Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of our community, was renowned for her humorous slights. In giving counsel to a sister in her charge, she once wrote, "You are very foolish, my dear sister, to be tormenting your imagination with the fear of losing your mind … believe me, my daughter, we cannot lose what we never had."

As she and her five companions made the perilous journey from France to their new home at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, she used humor to take things in stride. When a storm rocked their ship, causing a sister Mother Theodore describes as "plump" to land on top of her, Mother Theodore recorded in her journal, "I thought I was killed." On the last leg of their journey, as the founding sisters made their way over the rough corduroy roads, Mother Theodore wrote that they "danced without a fiddle all afternoon."

When I first read a biography about Mother Theodore, I remember thinking both, "This lady is hilarious!" and, "How could she have taken these experiences so lightly?" After all, she had reason to believe more than once during her travels, due to illness or the treacherous journey or both, that she would not make it. What I observe in this interplay of real risk and humor, though, is a lightness and freedom of heart that only comes from deep faith. Mother Theodore learned not to take herself too seriously because the mission was God's, not hers alone, and she held that truth deeply.

We see this truth in comments Jesus made throughout the Gospels that would, in his day, have been considered hysterical. Of course in our modern context, we miss the boat on Jesus' humor: calling Herod a "fox," poking fun at the blind leading the blind, the absurdity of swallowing a camel or burying thousands of dollars' worth of treasure in the ground. Digging deeper into the context, we find that in addition to being called healer, prophet and messiah, Jesus may also have earned the title "jokester" among those who knew him well.

In all honesty, the last couple of years I have found myself more hesitant to lean fully into the day of fools. The times feel too serious: Families are being separated, the gap between the rich and the poor in our country is growing, and corporations are lining their pockets by ramping up incarceration and immigrant detention. How can anyone indulge in humor these days?

As a community organizer, I spend a great deal of my time reflecting on the seriousness of this moment and what it requires of us as people of faith, as people who claim to live Gospel-driven lives. I've come to the conclusion that we may need humor in these times more than ever. This is not to say that we need not take this moment seriously, but that we need not take ourselves too seriously in this moment.

The thing about humor is that it allows us to breathe. Laughter naturally relaxes the body, allows air to flow freely, loosens our muscles, our grip on control. (Anyone who has lost control of bodily functions during a powerful fit of laughter can confirm this!) I know in myself that when I am closed off to humor, I am also closed to new possibilities, closed to change and transformation, closed to communion. When we infuse humor, we allow ourselves to be surprised by the world around us; we awaken our imaginations to the creative and unexpected. Only this sort of inner freedom makes space for the Holy Spirit to create newness in us, a newness that could and does change the world.

So in case you missed it, go ahead and celebrate April Fools' Day a bit late this year. If it doesn't go well, you can always say Sister Tracey made you do it. If it goes well, be sure to announce loudly that Sister Tracey made you do it. Oh, and the Holy Spirit.

[Tracey Horan is a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Her first deep conversation with this community occurred in a melon patch during her time as an intern at the Sisters' White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. She is a community organizer with Faith in Indiana (formerly IndyCAN).]