My cat Mrs. Peel has a lot of nicknames, things I call her when I am besotted with her, and bubbling over with affection. She tolerates them all, and rather enjoys the ones that refer to her royal and extraterrestrial origins. When I was little, my parents had many affectionate nicknames for me. My dad, when we were giggling with of extreme silliness, sometimes called me "Dopey Dildock". I thought he made it up, and never much wondered where it came from.
Year later, though, I discovered a word in the journals of Henry David Thoreau: opodeldoc. "Dopey Dildock" is opodeldoc, and opodeldoc is a kind of liniment invented (or at least named) by Paracelcus, a physician of the early 1500s. In Thoreau's time, there was a popular patent medicine called Speer's Opodeldoc. Later, there was a Dopey Dildock in a 1930s comic strip, and that's probably where my dad picked it up.
I discovered something else in that passage from Thoreau's journals. When I first read his published writings, I was an earnest teenager with a serious eye. Years later, while I was living in the Adirondacks, I found his journals, the things he wrote for himself, and I laughed out loud, often. Take, for example, his entry on March 19, 1856:
On the morning of the 17th, Mrs. Brooks's Irish girl Joan fell down the cellar stairs, and was found by her mistress lying at the bottom, apparently lifeless. Mrs. Brooks ran to the street-door for aid to get her up, and asked a Miss Farmer, who was passing, to call the blacksmith near by. The latter lady turned instantly, and, making haste across the road on this errand, fell flat in a puddle of melted snow, and came back to Mrs. Brooks's, bruised and dripping and asking for opodeldoc. Mrs. Brooks again ran to the door and called to George Bigelow to complete the unfinished errand. He ran nimbly about it and fell flat in another puddle near the former, but, his joints being limber, got along without opodeldoc and raised the blacksmith. He also notified James Burke, who was passing, and he, rushing in to render aid, fell off one side of the cellar stairs in the dark. They no sooner got the girl upstairs than she came to and went raving, then had a fit.
Haste makes waste. It never rains but it pours. I have this from those who have heard Mrs. Brooks's story, seen the girl, the stairs, and the puddles.
(Heart of Thoreau's Journals, O. Shepard, ed., New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961)
Thoreau! When I went back and reread Walden, it suddenly had funny bits I didn't recognize before, because this time I was ready to see them (the chairs! the chairs!). When someone or something is thought to be serious, we sometimes fail to see humor anywhere. This problem besets many a pulpit on many a Sunday. The Word is far too often a grim word, and the Gospel presented as not such good news. Yet only one little letter separates holy writ from holy wit. "Joy," wrote Madeleine L'Engle, "is the infallible sign of the presence of God", and that joy is the deep source of holy humor. In the Bible, the book of Jonah is hilarious (especially the last sentence: And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?). Sarah, in Genesis, thought God was a riot (A baby? To an old woman with a so-old-as-to-be half-dead husband?!). I think that Jesus laughed so often that it was not even remarked upon, and heartily. How could he not, with Peter around? And I'm pretty sure that even St. Paul sometimes cracked jokes.
G.K. Chesterton remarked that angels fly because they take themselves lightly; I think we who are on any sort of spiritual path could let ourselves laugh more. No matter which one it is, the path is often hard, but nobody's making us walk it, and perhaps we shouldn't be so mopey about it all the time, and so quick to equate sacred with serious.
In fact, it's too serious not to be taken lightly. Let's lighten up. And let's pray, "Your will be done in mirth, as it is in heaven." For we have seen the puddles.