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Centennial Symposium

Comedy and Compassion:

What Wisdom can Religious Congregations reap from living through the Drama of Inculturating the Gospel amid diverse peoples?

Sr. Maria Burke, SSpS December, 2008

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I. Introduction

My assigned topic direct me to relate four key ideas: comedy, compassion, experiential learning and systemic wisdom. I think it is easier to consider experiential learning about comedy and compassion first from the vantage of individual missionaries muddling onward with the best of intentions and then to distill out what might be helpful for missionary religious congregations.

II. Comedy

1. Defined to death.

Humor, according to Aristotle, began with the writings of Plato. At least that is what one of the references I consulted claims. Definition of terms, quotations from experts certainly have a place in many contexts. But I don’t feel that this is one such situation. We could spend a goodly amount of time differentiating the precise meaning of humor and the specific responses they cause. So, let us just agree that some things seem funny to us and that experiencing something funny is usually pleasant and helpful.

2. Comedy as the Christian worldview.

Your worldview is your vantage point; it is, in a manner of speaking, your values, concerns, preferences in action. I learned about a worldview in action from Sr. Brunhilde, a nurse-midwife in Papua New Guinea. Sister B. is in her 80’s now and is back in the German Province. I lived with her in Alexishafen in the 1970’s.

Sister simply loved being a nurse and missionary. She particularly loved working with mothers and mothers-to-be. She never said, “Oh, I just love doing this work!” But her whole approach and involvement day after day just communicated that she found her meaning and fulfillment in this work. She became provincial in PNG and frequently needed to visit the sisters in various stations, but she did not like to drive. I was working with the St. Therese Sisters and could pretty much set my own schedule—so I often was her driver boi. This gave me the chance to see the world she lived in. Her world was populated by mothers and babies, pregnant women and ladies worn down to “bun nating.” Before spending so many hours with Sr. Brunhilde driving around the north coast, I certainly would have seen all these women and beautiful kids. But listening to Sr. B noticing details and specific insights opened my awareness to dimensions of reality I never could have sensed on my own. In her own way she evangelized me to the life of PNG mothers.

Comedy can be a very helpful worldview for us as Christians in these times. Humor can be summarized as an appreciation of the incongruous. So much of our belief system really is incongruous. God loves us personally. We are going to live forever. We can contemplate the Triune God. But we get frayed to the limit by the person next to us because she hums all the time.

When I was studying at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago I got to know Fr. Charlie Walter, a Comboni missionary who had worked in South Africa and in Peru. He also had been assistant general here in Rome. He was very bright and innovative, but had never been famous for his patience. A few years after we finished at CTU Charlie became quite ill and was moved from the hospital to a hospice. About a week before her died, in his own cerebral way, he summarized his struggle to be a good, kind patient patient. He said, “I know I have cancer, that it is terminal, and I’ve come accept it; it is ok. There is so much pain, there is no way to lie or sit or stand that lessens the pain. But I know it won’t go on too much longer. I can’t do anything for myself, and when the nurses help me they often make everything worse. But I’m learning to behave myself. I can handle being helpless, in pain, even dying. But I can’t understand that the one thing that causes me absolute rage is that every day they bring me cold mashed potatoes on the dinner tray.” Laughter softens the pain of our own short comings.

3. Spirituality of humor
(The venerable parable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. )

Humor takes us outside ourselves; comedy is truth telling; laughter is a form of self detachment. For example, the wonderful film Amadeus can be viewed as the story of the vocation of Antonio Selieri, court composer to Joseph II of Austria. Selieri could not understand how God could gift Mozart with such talent when he did nothing to merit it and very little to nurture it. Seleri ends by attempting suicide and is placed in a mental institution. In the final scene he confesses his jealousy of Mozart and his anger at God; then he is rolled through the halls of the institute which are lined with other inmates in tragic states of mental breakdown. Selieri draws himself up as if he were the Pope being borne on the sedea gestitore, and blesses the people he passes, saying, “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you.”

4. Physical benefits of humor

Humor relaxes us, gets us out of our heads, divine inspiration happens when we open up, loosen our grip on how things should be. Humor helps us to know our place in the plan of things. Language learning is one of the greatest opportunities in the lives of missionaries. It is also a wonderful school for learning humor because it offers endless opportunities to experience our limitations.

III. Compassion

The role of compassion in Christian living, particularly in ministerial work, is taking on new significance in our time. New insights come from research into entomology and linguistics. None the less, the traditional definition of compassion, to feel with, provides a wide scope of insight for missionaries. I find it useful to consider compassion as a process that, once engaged, becomes almost automatic.

Compassion is to feel with another so intently that we are moved to take action on their behalf. Key elements:

— To feel - it is a responsibility for missionaries to maintain their ability to feel, to be touched by the events around them. We need to be aware of our personal escape routes. Some of us hide in our heads, unwilling to show compassion because problems are logical and to be expected. At other times we indulge in sarcasm because we are afraid we don’t have reserves of energy sufficient to assist one more person. Some situations are overwhelming and seem beyond our abilities to witness much less improve.

— To feel with: the realities active in the lives of those they encounter. We can do this only if we have felt similar experiences or if we are consciously open and listening to others with all our senses. This degree of openness requires tremendous self discipline; indeed the Whiteheads insist that these skills are the fruits of the asceticism of ministry in our times. Previous experience in our lives enables us to recognize the dynamics at work in another person. Virtue enables us to move beyond our own story to witness the struggle of others.

It is an occupational hazard for missionaries to become jaded to tales of struggle in the lives of those around them. Compassion fatigue is a risk if we do not cultivate a spirituality of companioning.

— To feel for: Sharing an experience can lead to bonding and mutual appreciation. However it does not guarantee a positive connection. Due to subtle perversities within us, at times difficult learnings in our past incline us to expect a toughness from others. Or years of living the common life with a sister in community have given us accurate insight into her personality and behavior. But, because of pettiness or competition rather than use our insight compassionately we use it as a weapon to push her buttons, to deliberately cause pain for the other.

—To feel with passion: Passion means intensity, feelings with energy. Passion is a sort of generator for life and involvement, it provide the drive and meaning for our activities. Our lifestyle allows us a great focus not available to many people. But if we do not consciously cultivate a passionate involvement in our own life, we become dehydrated, less effective in any sort of missionary outreach. If we loose our drive and begin to take our role of bearers of good news for granted, our own batteries go flat and we become almost toxic, discharging the batteries of the communities with whom we are engaged.

— To feel and to act: The great cartoonist Charles Schultz frequently used scripture as the basis for his little tales. In one such incident he portrays Charlie Brown and Linus meeting Snoopy outdoors during a blizzard. Very often the action compassion requires of us is surprisingly simple. At other times we need a real conversion of life in order to benefit another. Feeling with and for others is a starting point, but it is little if not followed through to completion.

Conscious compassion

All that I have said so far treats compassion as spontaneous. However we all also encounter circumstances in which we do not naturally feel with another. This may be because we do not share experience or understanding sufficient to automatically hone in on a common response. Or it happens that we are dealing with persons that we have long been taught to avoid or even to despise. Before we can show any compassion toward these persons we need to dig deeper to find a genuine common tie. Sometimes this requires that we “grow up” mature and overcome barriers we have constructed that insulate us from such people. In multicultural situations we may learn that even maturing isn’t sufficient to unite us, a real evolution is needed.

If we admit the implications of our belief in the example of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, then we can find motivation to require ourselves to move beyond our comfortable and safe little arenas.

IV. Wisdom for the groups

How do we systematize the functioning of comedy and compassion so that they bear fruit within our systems of community life? The images I’ve offered of comedy as a world view and compassion as an experiential bond between persons come out of the context of individual missionaries. If we muster the potential of our members we would have a sizable force advancing the working of intercultural living. It takes skill to cross from individual approaches to organizational policy, but it begins, I think, by practicing what we preach.

1. As intercultural missionaries we start with the premise, Everyone is already saved, and we did not do it:

We are called to a marvelous mission, but it is witnessing to the wonders of the lord. The Messiah has come, redemption is achieved, but not by our doing. We need to be creative in enabling our members to enjoy the results of knowing the wonders of the Lord.

2. You don’t know your own strength:

When we SSpS began having novices in PNG I would often get very irritated with the comparisons that were made between the life of the novices in Alexishafen and what a “real” novitiate was like in Steyl. I said that the PNG novices were being haunted by the hall of the motherhouse. These stories of the glory days of religious formation were generally presented with a mixture of outrage at how strongly conformity was enforced combined with a pride in how the story tellers endured and overcame.

Reflecting on formation practices of 40 years ago we are required to acknowledge that yes indeed we were formed. Like bread dough, perhaps, at times we were pounded and pummeled into shape. We were introduced to strengths and abilities within us far beyond what we thought we possessed or that we would have drawn upon if left to our own preferences.

3. Mix them up and divide them evenly:

When I was very small, before I started school, my mother and her friends had a “pot luck club.” Once a month about a dozen women would meet for lunch; they’d bring their youngest children and a casserole to share with the others. Most of the time the women met at a picnic grove in the forest preserve. The children could run and yell and generally get filthy dirty while the mothers talked and bandaged wounds. I was the youngest child at home. So I was used to being with older people. I learned that if I sat near the picnic table and was very quiet while the ladies were talking they would soon forget I was there and I would here some of the most interesting things about our neighbors and their families. Most of all the women spoke about their kids who were having problems. One daughter was too shy while another was much too bold. One didn’t take his schoolwork seriously and another worried beyond his years. Often one or the other mother would say, “Oh if only we could mix then up and divide them evenly.” I found this idea very interesting and a little frightening.

It takes skill to help people see their own needs and limitations. Too often people, particularly young people do not catch on to what could promote their growth and what could better serve someone else. Our congregational practices and policies can be great blue prints for growth but need to be judiciously administered.

V. Conclusion

Comedy is a wonderful tool to free us up for living. Once a bit free from our own cramped views and concerns we can be a compassionate resource to those we encounter. Feeling with others can activate group potential in service of the mission of the Lord. This process could be the greatest drama available, intercultural evangelization.