Browsing From the Pastor's Desk

Gloomy Saints

Aug 10, 2017

Saint Teresa of Avila said, “God save us from gloomy saints!”

Our concepts of reverent and proper “religious” behavior are formed by our culture, and we have inherited our ideas about that from ancient Rome… not Christian Rome, but good old pagan Rome who feared the gods, who were liable to smite you if they got offended or were in a bad mood. I remember when Pope Paul VI visited America, the first Pope to do so. After the Pope delivered a benediction in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, cheers and wild applause erupted. That raised a lot more than eyebrows at the time, but God did not smite anyone.

Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, a Dominican theologian and great mystic of the late 13th and early 14th centuries wrote: “My Lord told me a joke. And seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I shall ever read.” Clearly, he was not a gloomy saint.

The Bible itself and the Church in the middle ages thought rather badly about jokes and laughter; they were equated with derision and thought to be wholly inappropriate to a religious life. Church leaders and theologians took Paul’s warning in Ephesians 5:4 about engaging in “silly” talk very seriously. St. Bernard believed that Paul’s admonition forbade not only lewd or boisterous jokes but any kind of humorous quip designed to provoke laughter. Saint Benedict in his rule explicitly says: “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity, gossip and talk leading to laughter.”

But God doesn’t follow that rule, as Meister Eckhart found out. Every normal person laughs. The very fact that we humans have a sense of humor, and because we are made in His image, indicates that God does, too.

You wouldn’t know that immediately from the New Testament. There’s not one text that explicitly says Jesus laughed or even smiled. But to think that Jesus, fully human as well as fully Divine, never laughed or smiled would suggest that he had some deep psychological problems. After all, the Gospels say that Jesus wept (e.g. John 11:35). We certainly wouldn’t attribute to Jesus any sinful emotions or behaviors, nor do the Gospels ever portray him being boorish. So the only reason to think he didn’t laugh would be if we ourselves thought that laughter was evil.

In the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, we’re told that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. There’s a time to build, a time to tear down; there’s a time to dance, a time to sing, a time to laugh, a time to cry. Since God has appointed proper times for laughter, and Jesus always did what was proper, when it was time to laugh, I’m sure that he laughed.

You wouldn’t know that from Christian art, either. That leans heavily on the Suffering Servant motif, with some relief with his portrayal as the serene Lord of creation. The picture of Jesus that the Gospels paint is one of a well-rounded, magnetic personality. He attracted children — and what child wants to be around a gloomy saint or someone who doesn’t laugh? The Pharisees accused him of being too happy. Jesus told John’s disciples that his time was not a time for mourning.

We rightly take Jesus’ words seriously, but Jesus showed a great sense of humor in His preaching. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The only subjects worth joking about are serious subjects.” I’m pretty sure the line about the “log” in one’s eye is a purposeful exaggeration; the blind leading the blind and falling into a pit, and the incongruous image of a camel going through the eye of a needle, probably provoked some understanding chuckles from his listeners. It makes me think of Bishop Sheen, who always peppered his preaching with humorous images.

Jesus encouraged joyful laughter in the Beatitudes, saying, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” Jesus spoke of rejoicing in His parables in Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were all found. The result in each case was great rejoicing… and a party. In Luke 15, every parable ends with a party.

Jesus loved a good party. He performed his first miracle so that a wedding party could go on. The self-righteous people around Jesus criticized him for being a glutton, hanging out with drunkards and sinners and having such a good time. His contact list of friends included all kinds of people, especially party animals.

We know Jesus saved us. We know the Church is the entrance hall of the Kingdom of God. We are inside the door! Our Baptism into Christ removed our sin and injected God’s own life into each of us. The other Sacraments maintain and strengthen that life and restore it if we lose it. We are saved people… Jesus’ party people! The Mass is a celebration! The priest is specifically called the “celebrant.” So smile… laugh… sing ! You have lots to be happy about. Please… don’t be a gloomy saint at St. Anselm’s.

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