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Living Faith: Journey ends in ‘holy laughter’ at monastery

Every once in a while growing up, the old funny bone got tickled in the middle of church, and the spontaneous sillies erupted during a time of sacred silence.

Keeping a lid on it in such times seemed downright impossible, and only the saddest of thoughts could bring things back around.

It happened again just recently. This time, I was 45 and in a monastery in Conyers, Ga., during a phase of evening the monks call “Great Silence.”

I should have known by early texts I’d exchanged with my two fellow pilgrims – faith sisters from Wisconsin I’d not met before in person – that it was going to be that kind of trip.

In separate vehicles, we neared the first place of convergence in Kentucky, and the closer to one another we got, the zanier our digital exchanges became.

“Can’t wait to join y’all,” I’d written in my best Southern text-drawl.

“You sound like Paula Deen,” one responded.

“Why thank you, sweetie pie,” I wrote back.

What would dinner be, we wondered together, giddy with Southern wonder? Might we be treated to pork hocks, fried okra and a good old bowl of grits?

Our trip together in the Deep South would undoubtedly be a discovery of literary and spiritual significance, but it also seemed it would be speckled with a heaping portion of side-slappin’ laughter, too.

Our quest would center on our mutual writer heroine, Flannery O’Connor, known as much for her fiction writing as her humor.

During each leg of the trip, we read aloud from her letters, “The Habit of Being,” mostly through tear-filled chuckles, because Flannery just had that no-nonsense, wry-humored way of seeing the world that makes your lips curl upward.

She had a serious side, too. Her letters show she was a woman in a die-hard search for God.

Flannery lived her richest writing years on a patch of land called Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Ga., with her mother, Regina. Her father had died when she was a teen of the same disease – lupus – that would claim her life at 39.

As much as anything, her letters reveal the thoughts of a dying woman; nothing funny about it.

Our first leg of the journey happened in an area dubbed “The Holy Land of Kentucky.” In a small blue car, we followed the twists and turns of plush green hill country dotted with dark red soil, brick homes and Marian statues.

After visiting the monastery where spiritual writer Thomas Merton found his voice and vocation, and the mother house of the Sisters of Loretto, we pointed the vehicle due south to our primary destination of Milledgeville – a city that, pre-Civil War, served as Georgia’s capitol.

In awe, we took in the beautiful magnolia and sweet-gum trees and all the stately Southern buildings with their tall, white columns.

But the highlight was our visit to Andalusia, where a guide gave us an exclusive tour of Flannery’s home, including nooks normally closed off to visitors.

As we ascended winding stairs to an upper level, looked out into the yard where the peacock cage sits, then descended again to peer in at Flannery’s writing room, where her typewriter and books seemed freshly settled, we felt a presence with us.

It was the holy ghost of Flannery, no doubt about it.

After filling up on visits to our writer sister’s favorite haunts, we left the city and headed to the Holy Spirit Monastery, where Flannery once spent time on retreat.

That evening, we enjoyed a simple meal out on a covered terrace, staying dry while rain poured down all around us, refreshing the garden and our now-tired souls.

Morning would come quickly, and soon we’d be saying goodbye. We agreed that meeting in one of our “cells” for a last-night recap seemed the thing to do.

But we also knew that at 8 p.m. sharp, the monastery’s enforced period of silence would go into effect.

“We’ll just whisper,” we said. And we tried. Oh how we tried. But soon, with little warning, it came on with a vengeance – the sillies.

Oh dear, we thought. Are we disrupting the monks’ precious quiet? The wondering only made our giggling more intense.

Guilt flickered in our eyes until one said, “It’s OK, this is holy laughter.”

And that seemed right. After all, meaningful as the trip had been, everyone needs reprieve from serious things every once in a while.

Indeed, there’s a time for silence and solemnity, and a time to just let the holy laughter roll out. At some point, you just surrender, knowing God is probably right there, holding in his sides, too, and seeing it all as joy – a divine gift that’s meant to be opened.