“Hilarity” is a word we don’t often think of in connection with St. Paul, but it pops up today in Romans—at least in Greek: ’ιλαρότης [hilarotes]. But in this case something is added in translation. Paul is not being hilarious—as much as we might like to see that.
He’s giving advice to the Romans about the art of living in community. Though we are one body, we bring different gifts to the body. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation, the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate in ’ιλαρότης. Or, as translated here, “the compassionate in cheerfulness”.
’Ιλαρότης is cheerfulness or gladness or graciousness. Phos hilaron, we sing at Evening Prayer; O gracious light, O gladsome light, O cheerful light. The Light of Christ is ’ιλαρόν: cheerful, gladsome, gracious. Hilarious? Well, with God all things are possible… In any event, Paul links compassion with cheerfulness. Ministers have gifts for ministry. Teachers have gifts for teaching. Exhorters have gifts for exhortation. The compassionate have cheerfulness. Compassion and cheerfulness he links together. We might not have thought of that. What’s the connection?
“For unto everything there is a season…” A time to be compassionate—and a time to lay claim to the compassion of others. A time to be cheerful—and a time not to be cheerful. We human beings have a wide emotional palette—and there is a season for all of it. A time to be angry, a time to be sorrowful, a time to be exhilarated, a time to be despondent. This is the real live stuff of our humanity, which we cannot deny. And, yet, as we are drawn more deeply into the life and light of Christ, we are drawn more deeply into his graciousness, into his gladness, into his cheer. O gracious light, O gladsome light, O cheerful light. The One who is all compassion is gracious, gladsome, cheerful.
Emotions can be contagious. Our brains have something called mirror neurons that give us the tendency to feel the emotions expressed in another person’s face. So, if we see that someone is very happy, we begin to feel some of that happiness. If we see a face that is very sad or fearful or angry—we begin to feel some of those things as well. Smiles make us smile; frowns make us frown. This natural empathy, this neurological empathy happens without our thinking about it.
So, this may be the link: our caring for others, our compassion for others can mean bringing the bright side into the social mix as much as possible, as we are able. I want to stress that “as we are able”. Cheerfulness, in itself, can be a caring, compassionate thing, because it’s contagious. Our cheerfulness can help contribute to the well being of our relationships, our communities. Cheerfulness, which is infectious, can be a gift to those around us. Cheerfulness conveys something of the gracious light of Christ, the gladsome light of Christ. The One in whom “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well, indeed.” [Julian of Norwich]
We can do without anything phony or false or exaggerated or inappropriate. We have every right to be sad or angry or fearful or anything else when the situation warrants it. We need emotional honesty. And there is a time for simply being with the suffering, not trying to cheer them up. When the three friends of Job see his tremendous suffering they sit in ashes with him for seven days–without saying a word! There is a time to cheer up and a time to shut up. As Paul says a few verses further on: “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
We are where we are and we sometimes, rightfully, inhabit dark places. It could be minutes or hours or days—or longer than we would wish. But when we’ve come out the other side into a brighter place, a gentle good cheer, a little of the gladsome light of Christ can be a gift to those around us. This seems to come naturally to some of us—others of us may need to be a little more intentional.
A gentle good cheer, a cheerfulness with a Christ-like graciousness to it. As we are able. As we are able. When we’re suffering the last thing we need is a guilt trip: all this and I have to be cheerful too?! As we are able…
I’m reminded of a long-time friend of mine who, like everyone else, has been through good times and not so good times, but is somehow able to bring to any social situation a gentle good cheer, a sense of humor and playfulness that are a real gift to those around him. His cheer is contagious—and this contagion can transform a social occasion. You probably know someone like my friend—or, maybe you are like that.
Perhaps we could think of cheerfulness, a gentle good cheer as a spiritual practice, or, at least, as a spiritual good—as a way of being compassionate to those we live with (as Paul’s words suggest). A way of bringing the light of Christ, the gracious light of Christ into the lives of others. Cheerfulness can’t be an all day/every day thing. But if we’re between the storms of life and in a comparatively neutral zone, we might be more intentional about returning to kind of emotional baseline of gentle good cheer. Rather than merely neutral, perhaps a baseline of gentle good cheer.
The “gentle” part of this is crucial. There are few things more irritating than exaggerated or false cheerfulness. But something gentle; a sensitive cheerfulness that can shift as we engage others. Cheerfulness needs sensitive calibration to be appropriate to the context. We need to be able to weep with those who weep. The art of living calls for emotional suppleness: the ability to respond with authenticity to the feelings of others and yet take advantage of any opportunity to lift others’ spirits. To be cheerful in the right way at the right time is a caring and compassionate thing. As we are able.
Phos hilaron. O gracious light, O gladsome light, O cheerful light. O hilarious light? Maybe that, too. Unto everything there is a season. Phos hilaron. “Pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven”. May the depths of your compassion shine in our hearts.
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