Each day during the week of October 15 through 19, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back every weekday for the new question and scroll down to see previous day's entries! Let us know what you think--or question!--by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Question of the Day for Friday, October 19, 2007
Q. This week you’ve been discussing faith and humor, and you noted several saints with a sense of humor. I once heard that St. Thomas More joked as he was being executed. Are there other anecdotes from his life illustrating his sense of humor?
B. D., via email
A. You’d better believe it! In fact, I think that humor as a spiritual discipline has probably found its greatest saintly brilliance in the life and work of St. Thomas More.
Unfortunately, what most folks know about him has to do more with tragedy than comedy. For his faithfulness to the Church, of course, he languished for fifteen months in the Tower of London, in the shadow of the scaffold where he finally met his martyrdom. In those terrible days, he wrote some of his finest works, among them his treatise entitled Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.
What is startling about these works is the sense of freedom, even a kind of lightness, that characterizes them — the Dialogue, for example, is filled with what More called “foolish merry tales.” Such lightness, though a recurrent theme throughout More's life, startled his contemporaries (as it does ours) when it appeared one last bright time as the saint joked with his executioners.
Weary and stumbling from long ill treatment, and with his hands tied behind his back, he feared that he might not be able to negotiate the shaky steps up to the scaffold to be beheaded. So he turned to the lieutenant beside him and quipped, “I pray you, see me safely up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.”
Once he had laid his head on the block, he asked the executioner to wait while he moved aside his beard, which had grown long and scraggly during his imprisonment. After all, he observed dryly, his beard had never committed any treason!
It was only the last of many jests from a man who from his early days had been a first-class joker. As a boy he once wrote a stand-up comedy routine to be recited as a welcome to the guests at a feast. His youthful Latin compositions play on the fact that his name in Greek, Moros, means fool (the root of our word “moron”), and they flash with wit: “If your feet were as light as your head,” one noted, “you could outrun a hare!”
As an adult he became famous well beyond England for his practical jokes, such as “medicating” the food of distinguished guests at his table. With what kind of surprises he “medicated” them, we can only speculate with glee. Perhaps hot pepper? Or maybe some kind of purgative?
Even More’s formal treatises include a number of funny stories whose good humor can still draw laughter nearly five centuries later. And though he may have taught his children that, as he put it, “virtue and learning are meat” while “play is only the sauce,” nevertheless the children well knew that he considered the spice of that sauce indispensable.
Is it any wonder that this man’s household included a live-in professional jester and a pet monkey?
Much of More’s humor had a spiritual point to make. Take, for example, the practical joke he played on Anne, his daughter-in-law. She was quite attached to expensive jewelry, and she once begged him to buy her a string of pearls. I can just see the loving sparkle in More’s eye when, as she later opened the jewelry box he presented her, expecting that her fondest wish had come true, she realized that inside was a necklace … made of white peas.
They all had a good laugh, and the point of the joke was made: In the end, when we leave all such things behind, pearls will be of no more value, and no more permanence, than peas. In that moment Anne recognized the vanity of costly trinkets, and she learned to long for other things instead, things infinitely more precious and lasting.
In short, More knew the meaning of that advice from the Book of Proverbs: “A merry heart is good medicine” (17:22).
For more about the lessons we can learn from St. Thomas More’s keen sense of humor, check out “Thomas Moore: The Merry Saint,” which is the introduction from my book Be Merry in God: 60 Reflections From the Writings of Saint Thomas More. (Click here.)
This week we’ve been responding to one person’s multiple queries about humor and the Christian faith. Monday we examined some humorous Old Testament passages; Tuesday we discussed whether Jesus displayed a sense of humor in the Gospels; Wednesday, we talked about the humorous aspects of the Gospel reality itself. Today we’ll answer the inquirer’s final question: Did any of the saints have a sense of humor?
The short answer is yes. In fact, if we need any more evidence that the life of Christ had its humor, we need only look at those who, down through the ages, have imitated His life most closely. In the lives of the saints, we fill out the portrait, so to speak, of divine life. The kinds of things Jesus did that the four evangelists passed over in silence, we can find echoed in the more detailed accounts of the saint’s biographies.
We could take so many examples. In Scripture, St. Paul’s barbed humor actually borders on the risqué when he criticizes those who were insisting that new male Christians must be circumcised. The meaning of the passage in Galatians 5:12 is often obscured by translators concerned about modern sensibilities. But in this epistle the Apostle actually quips that those who are practicing and demanding circumcision ought to just go all the way and castrate themselves!
From the early centuries of the Church, we might recall of course the martyr St. Lawrence. Because he refused to renounce his faith in Christ, Roman imperial officials ordered him to be roasted alive, slowly, on a red-hot griddle. At one point as he roasted, he said to his torturers: “You can turn me over now. I’m done on this side!”
I think also of St. Francis of Assisi, whom Chesterton has rightly called “the court fool of the King of Paradise.” His entire adult life, it seems, was a startling comic elaboration of Christ’s act of overturning the tables, smiling playfully as he did so, and pointing out the absurd incongruities of his contemporaries.
Or what about St. Teresa of Avila? What a quick wit shines through her writings and sparkles in the anecdotes of her biographers! Perhaps you’ve heard, for example, of how she was on her way one day to perform her administrative duties at one of the religious communities she supervised, when the donkey she was riding on stumbled as he forded a stream. She was thrown into the muddy water.
As she picked herself up and wiped off the mud, she was heard to say with a sigh, “Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!”
For more examples of saintly humor, especially in the hour of death, see chapter 10 in my book Last Words: Final Thoughts of Catholic Saints and Sinners. (Click here.)
Question of the Day for Wednesday, October 17, 2007
So far this week we’ve been responding to one person’s multiple queries about humor and the Christian faith. Monday we examined some humorous Old Testament passages, and Tuesday we discussed whether Jesus displayed a sense of humor in the Gospels. Today we’ll look at a broader and deeper issue: Is there a way in which the Gospel itself could be said to have a humorous aspect?
The comical remarks of Our Lord that we examined yesterday, though certainly significant in themselves, point beyond themselves, I think, to a more profound reality. In a sense, the entire Gospel is permeated with the liberating vision of humor.
The human dilemma is, after all, a paradox, an incongruity resulting from the Fall. As the psalmist says, we are mortals who flourish and fade like the grass (Psalm 103:15), and yet, as the preacher of the Book of Ecclesiastes says, we have a sense of eternity planted in our hearts that makes us hope for immortality (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
As St. Paul told the Romans, we have the universal moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15), yet we all sin and fall short of even our own moral standards, not to say the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We crawl on earth but we hope for heaven. So how do we reconcile these terrible contradictions of our existence?
The resolution of the paradox comes in the Good News that God is God, and we are beloved dust. If we’re willing to listen, then far above the mud in which we wallow, from beyond the skies for which we reach, we’ll hear a cosmic tumult. And though it comes to shake the earth like thunder, it won’t be thunder. It will be the sound of laughter.
From His throne, the Lord of the galaxies looks down at the earth. There, He beholds the specks of dust claiming lordship of their lives and of the earth itself. Not surprisingly, the absurdity of our pretense breaks the divine Countenance into mirth, and as the psalmist tells us, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalms 2:4).
If we’re willing to lay aside our pretenses, that heavenly laughter can cleanse us and awaken us to repentance. It will quake our faulty foundations, tumble us from lofty and dangerous places, and rip away our masks.
In His great faithfulness, Our Lord follows His chastening with a promise of redemption. In the depths of our repentance, when we have at last realized that we cannot save ourselves, we hear again the sound of laughter. No blast like thunder comes this time, but rather the still, small voice of God comes gently laughing. And to our amazement, it’s the crystal laughter of a Child.
A Child! Could it possibly be that God Himself should crawl upon His footstool and cry for the breast? Priests, we had expected, prophets, we had anticipated; but who would have thought that God Himself would come in the flesh? The deepest and broadest “joke” of history — the great Incongruity of all the ages — grips us in awesome wonder; and we can only laugh with delight at the utter unpredictability of God.
Yet the surprise of the Incarnation has much more humor in store, for it blossoms into a Gospel of scandalous inappropriateness. The joke has just begun!
The King of Kings is born in a stable; the Holy One of Israel is befriended by prostitutes; the Lord of Lords is acclaimed as He rides on a dusty old donkey. He shocks the self-righteous people of His day with His startling behavior, proving what St. Paul would later observe: “Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … For the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20, 25).
Of course, the mighty and the proud may have scoffed at the scandal of the Gospel. But the joke was on them. For the Son of God has come to crash the world’s pompous masquerade ball, and His prank won’t be complete until He’s stolen away every last one of our disguises.
The mischief of Jesus inverted the world’s values and priorities, because it had to clarify again that God is God and we are beloved dust — beloved enough to be worth the life of His Son. In the eyes of many, those tables that Jesus overturned in the Temple were simply chaos. But in the act of turning them over, Jesus was showing the incongruity of worshipping Mammon, and what He did actually restored divine order to the house of God.
Question of the Day for Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Yesterday, in response to a query about biblical humor, we examined some Old Testament passages. Today we’ll reply to the inquirer’s second question: Did Jesus have a sense of humor?
As much as I admire G. K. Chesterton, and as much as his thought has influenced my own in countless ways, I must confess one tiny point at which I disagree with him. At the end of the brilliant little volume entitled Orthodoxy, he makes the observation — correctly, I think — that “the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.” But then he goes on to speculate about why the Gospel writers never speak of Jesus smiling or laughing, and concludes that perhaps “the one thing that was too great for God to show us while He walked upon our earth … was His mirth.” Chesterton thinks that Jesus had to hide it from us.
There’s no doubt, I think, and Chesterton would heartily agree, that Our Lord laughed and played. After all, laughter is a human universal, and if we’re fully convinced that the Church teaches truly when she teaches that Christ was fully human, like us in all things except sin, then how could we doubt it?
Unlike Chesterton, however, I think that we do see Our Lord’s mirth in some of His sayings, though it is no doubt a subtle humor, and that the Gospel writers simply had their own reasons for not speaking explicitly of His smiles and laughter.
In fact, the humor of Jesus provides the classic example of how laughter can uncover pretense or sham, thus cleansing our vision of the world and of ourselves. Most of His barbs were directed at Pharisees and other religious leaders who had deceived themselves into thinking that they had earned themselves a ticket to the throne of heaven. If any of them were ever able, by God’s grace, to let Christ’s humor have its intended effect, then I believe they discovered through His words how inverted their perceptions truly were.
Jesus’ jests about the hypocrites of His day focus on the incongruity of their self-righteousness and their pride. The humor, I think, appears most sharply when we try to imagine such people literally taking part in the activities Our Lord described. The image of a blind man leading another blind man, and both falling into a ditch (Luke 6:39), reminds me of bumbling episodes from slapstick TV comedies — the Three Stooges, for example, come to mind. Or a similar picture is evoked by His words about the hypocrites who blow trumpets to announce the jingling of their pennies in the collection plate (Matthew 6:2-4).
Then there’s Mark 21:4, where Jesus speaks of folks trying to hide their lamps under a bed. Now when you keep in mind that the lamps had open flames, and the beds were probably straw, then you get a comic scene in which a sleepy dullard wakes up to the smell of something burning, only to realize that it’s his own pajamas!
Or how about Our Lord’s words in Mathew 23:25-26, which calls to mind images of primly dressed diners eating from spotless dishes — filled with rotting garbage!
I almost laugh aloud at the absurdity of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23-24), of an eye doctor busy using tweezers on a patient while a log is sticking out of his own eye (7:3-4), of a gnat-free Pharisee with a camel’s hoof stuck between his teeth (23:24).
I laugh, but the laughter is redemptive (as I believe Jesus intended it to be) only when I place myself alongside the Pharisees and see my own pretensions made the butt of Our Lord’s jokes. To be a corrective for vision, humor must go beyond mere scorn of another person’s shortcomings to a recognition of our common predicament. When it does, it prods us to re-examine ourselves, convicts us of our need for salvation, and allows us to seek God’s rescue from ourselves, to cultivate hope that He can transform us and heal the incongruities.
When it doesn’t do these things — when, instead, our humor is itself self-righteous, and leads us to mock or look down on others — then humor only indulges the vice of presumption.
Question of the Day for Monday, October 15, 2007
Q. Do we have any examples of humor in the Bible? Did Jesus have a sense of humor? Or what about the saints? When I look at pictures of them, especially those with stern or otherworldly faces, I sometimes wonder.
Q. V., via email
A. You’ve touched on one of my favorite subjects — the humor of Our Lord and the saints! We’ll start today with your first question about biblical examples of humor.
As a young adult, I lived in Germany for a couple of years, and I learned then that what one culture finds hilarious may leave another totally cold. My American friends found German jokes too understated, too subtle. My German friends, on the other hand, almost never appreciated the humor in American knock-knock jokes or elephant jokes, and they obviously preferred more cerebral humor to slapstick antics. (I have to wonder whether the current crop of funny home video programs on TV, almost all of which depend on unintentional slapstick, have much of an audience in Germany.)
For that reason, ancient Near Eastern humor may not leave us in stitches. But if we understand it, it should at least crack a smile on our twenty-first-century Western faces.
My reading of Scripture suggests that these ancient texts sometimes confront us with an incongruity — which is typically fundamental to various forms of humor — intended to be humorous. Irony and hyperbole (exaggeration) are especially prominent aspects of such humor.
For example, we may not laugh aloud when we read the story in the Book of Genesis about how Abraham bargained with God to spare the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:17–33). But the humorous incongruity of the situation is unmistakable.
Here we find the almighty Creator of the universe haggling with a mere mortal, as if they were a couple of street-savvy merchants in a roadside bazaar. Sly old Abe keeps upping the ante, and in the end, the mere mortal walks away with the bargain! (I’m reminded of Bill Cosby’s old “Noah, how long can you tread water?” comedy routine. Noah bargains God down from 400 days and nights of rain to only 40 days and nights, which he notes is sufficient for a major flood because, by then, “the sewers will all stop up.”)
Or think of the scene in the Book of Numbers where the pagan prophet Balaam receives a divine rebuke from his pack animal (Number 22:21–35). Not only is there an element of slapstick here when the donkey starts talking. The story is also full of laughable irony: The normally dumb critter speaks, while the prophet acts asinine!
That kind of humor is healthy when we allow it to remind us that sometimes we too act like Balaam. Rather than simply laughing at him, we learn to laugh at ourselves.
If you doubt that God has a sense of humor, you need only look at his marvelously funny creation, the ostrich. Or the duck-billed platypus. Or just take a look in the mirror!
Sometimes, when I’ve done something really stupid, I think I can hear a few snickers floating down from heaven. It’s actually a healing kind of humor if we receive it the right way: Divine laughter is intended to strip us of our pretenses and cleanse us of our pride. It helps us see ourselves more clearly.
For more about the relationship between humor and faith, you might want to check out a lecture on the subject I gave a few years back at the Franciscan University of Steubenville: “‘God Has Given Me Cause to Laugh’: Toward a Theology of Humor.” Click here. Or if you can find an old copy of the now-out-of-print book I wrote some years ago, read chapter 22, “Humor: Seeing God’s Footstool,” in A Reason for Joy. Click here.
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