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A theology of humour

· Blessed are those who know how to laugh at themselves for they will never stop having fun ·

Did Christ have a sense of humour? Can traces of his smiles be seen in the Gospel? Let us look at him for example, in the episode of Mary and Martha. While her sister Mary was sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, Martha was fretting, serving and tidying the house. Jesus said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things”. Thus he was observing an agitated, indeed an unheedful Martha; he did not reprimand her, he did not judge her; no, he called her and recalled her to herself. And we can imagine that he did so with a smile, with indulgence and compassion, tinged with a certain sense of humour.

Likewise, in the far more dramatic episode of the adulterous woman, wasn’t there a sort of sense of humour when he said: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her?”. This is a sentence that refers the other to what he is, without condemning him but aiming for precisely the right point, if one may say so.

He Qui, “Martha and Mary”

The Desert Fathers are known for their amusing words, full of humour and teachings. Their vision of the things of life was in a certain way “decentred” in comparison with that of the disciples. Their gaze and their discernment left “the world” in order to see and judge according to “salvation”. This faculty of distancing the self creates a discrepancy with what is considered normal. From this gap humour arises. By this way of living they practised two things: on the one hand humour as the art of distancing themselves from the world to focus better on the essential, and on the other, a form of discrepancy or gap as they faced grace bursting into the human sphere. Hence the lunatic behaviour of the man of God is the sign that all norms, including religious norms, are not equal before God’s salvation. Salvation creates a difference. This difference makes room for a fully spiritual work, look or gesture. Here is a famous story that illustrates all of this.

One brother at Scete erred for a second time. A council was held to which Abbot Moses was convoked. However the latter refused to go. Then the priest sent him a message saying “Come, we are all awaiting you”. He stood up and went with a laundry basket filled with sand, carrying it on his shoulders. The others asked him, “What is it, father?”. The old man said, “My errors are being lost behind me and I do not see them; and have I come today to judge the faults of others?”. On hearing his words they said nothing to the brother and forgave him.

At the root of Christian humour is faith in the God of mercy whose ways and thoughts differ from those of men and women and for whom a principle of truth and charity in a human heart is priceless. His holiness is an invitation to wise modesty in the face of human limitations for it is in the small things of daily life – problems of health, misunderstandings, setbacks – that the sense of humour generates a broadening of the heart, a sort of inner dilation that placates and opens the eyes of the heart to the essential. This trust in God creates a climate of relaxation where the smile can be born, despite any feeling of shame or guilt.

St Philip Neri, the saint of humour and of cheerfulness is a famous example of this. His constant good mood made him close to everyone, it did not isolate him; on the contrary he knew in his innermost depths that we are all subject to the same weaknesses. His life is full of anecdotes, full of good humour, of wit and teachings. Behind such human and simple appearances he would conceal the loftiest mystic favours. His jokes almost always had a precise aim: he wanted to deceive others when he perceived that an ecstasy was about to come upon him. The more present God was, the more the man within him remained simple. The trait of his character that fascinated his friends and disarmed his enemies was his festive air, a sort of cheerfulness which harmoniously accompanied the grace of his ways. His password to enter the spiritual life was: “Be humble, be lowly!”. He ceaselessly commended himself to God saying: “Lord, do not trust me! Today I might betray you”.

One day a respectable Roman woman accused herself of telling tales and slandering her neighbours. St Philip Neri gave her the following penance: she was to go home, plucking on her way the feathers of a chicken that she was to buy at the market. And if she started telling tales again, she was to make her confession immediately, in an attempt to correct herself. The good woman went on her way immediately, plucking the chicken, but that very evening, although she had been scrupulous, she returned to confess because she had once again told tales. The saint forgave her, gave her absolution and said to her: “As a penance, go back through the streets you took and pick up the hen’s feathers one by one”. In this amusing and surprising story, humour steps back from reality. This detachment inspires a new dimension; it unexpectedly gives rise to an original viewpoint of the event and thereby brings about a change in level that makes it possible to see the event in a different light. In other words, the world’s way of thinking shifts to make room for the viewpoint of salvation.

St Thomas More was known for his sense of humour. It was a feature of his character and a method: “I am reproached for mingling jokes, witty remarks and teasing words with more serious subjects. I believe that the truth can be told laughing. It is certainly more fitting for a layman, as I am, to pass on his thoughts in a cheerful and lively manner rather than in a serious and solemn way like preachers”. His humour was an expression of a profound joy, nourished by faith. While he was mounting the scaffold, he asked the official who was taking him to the gallows, “as regards my descent, let me go on my own”. He then advised the executioner to aim well because he had a rather short neck, and once he had laid his head on the block, he asked, still joking, to keep his beard which had grown during his imprisonment in the Tower of London: “it has not betrayed so it must not be cut off”.

In his discourse to the Roman Curia last December Pope Francis made a list of diseases, in which he took care to mention St Thomas More. He said: “So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit which makes people amiable even in difficult situations. How beneficial is a good dose of humour! We would do well to recite often the prayer of St Thomas More”.

This is the prayer: “Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humour to maintain it. Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place. Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumbling, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called ‘I’. Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke and to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others”.

St Thomas More mentions here a fundamental characteristic of good humour: “Do not let me be excessively crucified for that too burdensome thing that people call ‘I’.” In fact the sense of humour demands a perceptive gaze and a good knowledge of oneself. Whoever applies this form of self-derision to himself or to others is neither blind nor too encumbered by his ego. Humour keeps us the right healthy distance from ourselves. That is to say, it permits us to see ourselves with our own shortcomings and inadequacies and to laugh at them, not ironically or in a disenchanted fashion, but gently and tenderly, as does the Lord when he looks at us – without any doubt as in an answer in a Don Camillo film.

Jesus: “Well, look who it is again: Don Camillo! So have you lost your tongue?”. Don Camillo: “Lord, how often have I called you in the past three years and you have never answered me, whereas now here is your voice once again. God is closer here than he is in Rome. Jesus: “Don Camillo, God is always at the same altitude, here he seems closer to you because you are closer to yourself”.

The Desert Fathers would have responded: “My God, if you are everywhere how can it happen that I am always elsewhere?”.

Catherine Aubin




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 23, 2020