There is a great story the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to tell about a Dominican friar who played the organ at vespers for a community of nuns. It seems that if the friar was feeling up for a bit of fun, he would roll the closing hymn into an on-key rendition of “Goodnight, Ladies,” causing a few giggles in the cloister as the sisters would put down their breviaries and head to dinner.
In the twentieth century, that was exactly the sort of affectionate Catholic humor that would evoke fond chuckles. Sharing it in the twenty-first century, though, could tempt not laughter but drama, as various cranks ride their favorite hobby horses over to the tale and vent their outrage: “That’s not funny,” one voice might proclaim. “Even if the ceremony were at its end, the praise and worship of Almighty God is not the time for any sort of jocularity! How irreverent!”
“That’s not funny,” another may carp. “Nuns are serious, godly, and powerful women, and it just figures some man would disrespect them and minimize their ministry by playing such a trifle at their prayer time! Ladies, indeed. How condescending!”
“That’s not funny,” someone else would cry. “The friar should have been reprimanded and never permitted to play for the nuns again! I am shocked, shocked, that a man of the cloth, a bishop, would encourage such behavior by sharing this story for laughs! How irresponsible!”
Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time on social media can probably imagine additional objections because in the year of our Lord 2021, the opportunities to loudly identify problematic moments are legion.
Humor as a holy extension of Joy
This summer’s edition of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute, is focused on humor—its place in the world and especially in the life of faith. “True humor is ultimately about joy,” writes Bishop Robert Barron in his introduction to the issue. He points out that “the essence of comedy is the coming together of opposites, the juxtaposition of incongruous things,” adding that even the Incarnation is something of an absurdity—a divine pinprick to the air-filled balloon of human ideas about status, elitism, and neighborhoods. “This Incarnation of God was first made manifest not in Rome, Athens, or Babylon, not in a great cultural or political capital, but in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny outpost in the corner of the Roman Empire.”
It’s a sacred joke that Augustine, Aquinas, and G.K. Chesterton all appreciated, and hopefully we do, too, even in our uptight times.
These days, however, writers and speakers (and really, all of us) are learning to anticipate negative reactions in order to head them off at the pass because once a line or a word becomes too noisy—once all of the angry people find something to chew on in order to serve their voracious appetites for insult—then the overriding message of a discourse becomes lost.
Who does our humorlessness serve?
The narrowing of rhetoric means there isn’t much room in which to be light or to try to bring light to bear on human nature and the search for spiritual succor that exists within all of us.
There is a bit of madness in the air—and going over the air, so to speak—which must delight the prince of the air, who loves chaos. But if the prince of the air is having his day, well, the Holy Spirit travels on the same air, as does our Lady. We must actively choose which breeze we want to keep at our backs and then discern wisely just what it is we are serving with our gasps and our shocked faces.
Because truly, as a society and as a Church, we are sometimes entirely too shocked too often, whether it comes at the sharing of a silly observance, an unresolved idea shared too quickly, or something truly troubling, like the exposure of a vowed cleric who has stopped living out his promises. To be appalled and concerned by such headlines is appropriate; we want our priests to be holy and chaste. But to be shocked means we’re running off to gossip or opine about what has shocked us, adding to chatter without construction. Too rarely are we thinking, “this is a soul in serious trouble, and he needs both prayers and help.”
To learn to accept people, even people we don’t like, as being beloved of God (no matter what) means to stop being so shocked at what they do or say and to try for a little human empathy—the old “there but for the grace of God goes I,” line—to be willing to allow for a bit of mercy in this teeming, merciless age. While we are gasping at all the shocking things, we must remember—we are called to remember—that the subjects of our outrage are often people who are in trouble spiritually and need (at the very least) our prayers.
The saints were never shocked
And here, we can ask for the help of the saints, because the saints were never shocked. Not only did they laugh and tell jokes (see St. Philip Neri and his Spanish contemporary St. Teresa of Avila), but they understood human beings as living, breathing oxymorons—that we are very simple complications and therefore capable of anything. When we think of the doctors of the Church, especially the women, we realize that they were unshockable. I love how Catherine of Siena handled one of her followers, a young man who would fervently work at her side for a while and then go off and party and carouse. When he would later return with his head down, Catherine would greet him with a simple, compassionate, and merciful “Alright, son, go to Confession and get back to work.” She understood that even the most ardent soul will sometimes fail, and the most willing heart might become diverted. The saint simply loved the son before her, pointed him in the right direction once more, and left the judgement part to God.
So saints are not shocked, but narrow moralists are.
Disciplinarians are shocked, but the holy never are.
In the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates amusement, exhaustion, anger, and even frustration at times (thick as planks, the apostles could be sometimes), but we never read that he expressed shock at what he beheld. Whether it was the woman caught in adultery, the moneychangers at the temple, or the preening high priests, he knew that the human heart is vain and fickle even when it is inclined toward goodness. He knew that circumstances can bring out the worst in us, at least as often as they bring out the best in us.
From shock to awe
It is one thing to be shocked at a thing and another to wonder at it. In his Life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Ideas become idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” As a Church, it is easy to feel “shocked” at the myriad challenges we face and by how ineffectual some of our leaders can seem. Too many Catholics figures of authority appear (as likely informed by our individual biases) to have taken their eyes off of Christ—which is, not shockingly, a rather common human failing—and in that case, it is the job of the laity to help them right themselves. This we cannot do if we are stuck-on-shocked, busily deciding who the Church should and should not correct and then falling into pugnacious demands of perfection on one hand or derisive snorts of “And just why should I listen to you?” on the other.
Rather, we are going to have to build up the Body of Christ by assisting the leadership in patient, loving, even empathetic ways, understanding that the human element within the Church—whether in the sacristy or the pews—will quite often miss the mark, and by asking the Holy Spirit to be the conduit for wisdom.
That might feel like it’s asking a lot of all of us, and oh honeys, maybe it is. Let us pray together on it, and then maybe find a silly song to smile at together as we set ourselves to it.
Photo: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.