What’s there to laugh about? These nuns have the answer

A detail of a photograph in Andreas Reiner's exhibition Divine: A Confrontation in Photography. Below: full portraits from the exhibition

We live in a time saturated with images. We are used to seeing suffering displayed. Even so, certain pictures make our hearts stop. Earlier this month we saw one such, of a toddler washed up on a Mediterranean beach like driftwood. Seeing such a sight, we touch it, somehow; we carry it within in remembrance. Can we ever laugh again?

We know the caricature of the hysterically happy Christian who insists that trials here below are slight and that “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. Such cheer grates. It withers before tragedy.

Is the only alternative a mournful, unsmiling composure? Should Christians laugh at all? Great masters have answered, No. St Benedict speaks for monastic tradition when, in his Rule, he urges monks not to laugh. Laughter, he says, blocks self-knowledge. It is a self-indulgent utterance, to be tempered and, ideally, suppressed. But is this all? What about Christian joy, a Gospel promise? In a religion based on incarnation faith, should joy not descend from eternal realms and leave its mark on the body of believers?

Such questions are provoked by an exhibition opening in England next week, after attracting attention in Germany and Italy. It consists of 50 portraits of Vincentian nuns from the Swabian convent of Untermarchtal, all photographed laughing. That may seem trivial. It isn’t.

The project originated in 2013, when the photographer Andreas Reiner visited Untermarchtal on a job for a newspaper. Having had no exposure to religious, he did not know what to expect. He thought he might find introverted, bitter women. What awaited him was different. He was struck by the Sisters’ wholeness and humanity – and by their joy. This made him thoughtful, especially since most had spent lives engaging closely with human pain. He encountered a rare, precious quality of being. One might sum it up as hope. He wished to capture it in images. He found that its language was laughter.

The result is more than a banal reminder that nuns are happy people. Somehow, a hidden depth of the human condition is unravelled with insight, tact and affection. We face faces that have faced the brutality and pain of life and have therein intuited Another’s Face.

These portraits witness to the Gospel of paradox. With the integrity of lives fully given, they proclaim that at the heart of things is gladness, that grace bears us up despite all, and that the response to grace is a joy that, for overflowing outwardly, is neither crass nor superficial.

Faced with the pathos of life, we do not have to choose between denial and despair. There is another way. The laughter portrayed is not a laughter of amusement, defiance or scorn. It is the laughter of gratitude and trust, the vulnerable laughter of courage. Such laughter does not isolate. It embraces. It consoles.

These pictures, then, speak of hope, inspire hope. Not for nothing does Reiner present them as “A Confrontation in Photography”. Come and be benignly confronted.

Andreas Reiner’s exhibition Divine: A Confrontation in Photography is on display in the church of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey on September 14-October 3 and in Westminster Cathedral on October 6-20