I can think of no worse place to be than in a church, a temple or a synagogue when an unbidden and involuntary giggle would invade my psyche and take control of me. A “giggle,” is too mild a word: uncontrollable laughter would rise to the level of guffaws and downright knee-slappers’ right at the most somber parts of a religious service.
I noticed it while still in high school and my mother would shake me awake in time to make the 12 o’clock mass, the last one on a Sunday at our parish church. I’d still be half asleep as I snaked my way into St. Ludwig’s Catholic Church in Brewerytown, North Philadelphia, just as the choir would finish its first Latin rendition of some hymn. Dipping my hand in a well of liquid, I’d touch my forehead, my chest and both of my shoulders with holy water while seeking a place to stand in the back of the church.
You’d find a group of guys leaning against a marble railing some eight feet across guarding a statute of some saint or other behind it. I didn’t know it then, but they were my role models, the older fellows those of us in our mid-teens looked up to. I wanted to be as cool as “Chalky” Thompson who’d sing a mean and raucous rock & roll bass to the Doo Wop song, “Mopity Mope” by The Boss-Tones. To be acknowledged by someone like a Jackie Toy, who’d later become a mentor for me, would simply make my holy day of obligation a great day.
We’d all gaze to the front where a priest adorned in his vestments would be making sacrificial offerings on the steps of an altar. We’d barely hear what he said, but knew the responses by heart having served as altar boys while in the church’s elementary school.
Someone would whisper something. You wouldn’t hear it at first, but you’d see the response and the effect it’d have on the intended listener. “What did he say?” I’d ask and someone would answer, causing the first belly laugh. Old people in pews ten to 15 feet in front of us – those still with good hearing – would turn and give us looks of warning. But it would be too late. One laugh would lead to another. I’d try to swallow the giddiness, but it would only get worse, with me forcing myself to turn away from my fellow blasphemers and seek an out. I’d raise my hands to cover my face, using a prayer-book or one of those weekly church pamphlets to hind behind.
But the laughs would just continue. God-awful laughs would rise up and need to be released as tears would come to my eyes and I’d bend forward pointing my head toward the church floor looking for some miraculous hole to open for me jump into to hide.
It would seem forever before I got control of these involuntary laughs. I’d feel so bad, but also so good, if you know what I mean. There I was in the house of prayer and I’d feel a goodness — a forgiveness — come over me despite my behavior. Was osmosis of some sort taking place? Were the congregations’ prayers and meditations getting through to me and the other rowdy sinners in the back?
Maybe. I’d really feel sorry for disturbing anyone during services, but I’d feel uplifted by sharing those stupid happy moments with like-minded persons.
After all these years, I still enjoy a good laugh while acting a little devilish in the presence of a Higher Being. I intend no harm, and I believe whenever two or more are gathered in His Name “. . . there is love . . . ” — not to mention a lot of fun.