Saint Ignatius High School

The Best Medicine

Humor, Faith, Father Ober and St. Teresa of Avila. What do all of these things have in common? Read Jim's blog to find out!

The Best Medicine

Walking back to her convent during a particularly intense rainstorm, St. Teresa of Avila slipped in the mud, falling on her behind. Sitting in the muck, she cried out to the Lord, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Roughly contemporaneous with her fellow Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa profoundly impacted the Church as a mystic, reformer, and spiritual writer.  Such was her lasting influence on the Faith that she was named a “Doctor of the Church” by Pope St Paul VI in 1970. 

Sadly, I suspect that Teresa’s response to her fall outside her convent didn’t contribute to her honorific, but I really hope it did. That her sisters would remember that–and other similarly goofy events in her life–suggests that Teresa must have been a hoot. That a person who had such a deep relationship with the Lord and such great insights into His nature prayed to Him to deliver her from “sour-faced saints” makes the case that humor–and laughter (and the joy they signify)–should be a part of our spiritual lives.

If that’s the case, some of our fellow Christians didn’t quite get the message: we can all point to friends or family who, upon accepting Jesus, seemed to have rejected laughter; taking all of life with a deathly seriousness. In fairness, there is a case to be made for their perhaps excessive earnestness.  The book of Sirach notes that “Fools raise their voice in laughter, but the prudent at most smile quietly” (Sir. 21:20). In addition, no less a light than St Benedict of Nursia, in his influential Rule, noted that “[w]e absolutely condemn in all places any…talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind” (Rule of St. Benedict 6:8). 

The command remains in force today, but I know a lot of Benedictines and can testify that (almost) all of them are great fun to be around and are quick with a joke.  Moreover, Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas made a virtue of “mirth,” noting:

In human affairs, whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others…by hindering their enjoyment.…[and] a man who is without mirth, [is] burdensome to others (ST II-II, Q.168, art. 4).

Of course the Jesuit take on humor can be summed up in two words:  Father Ober, perhaps the funniest man in North America..

So what are we to make of this?  How do we reconcile the thoughts of one of the most influential monastic leaders in Church history (not to mention the Word of God) with those of the Angelic Doctor and our experiences of daily living?

In his essay “Humor and Faith,” American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr provides an answer.  For Neibuhr, “[h]umor is…a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer,” because in humor we see the “incongruities” of our existence. We see, with writer Ernest Becker, that we are–as he so delicately puts it–”gods who [defecate];” women and men made in the image and likeness of God who have serious conversations with spinach in our teeth. Humor points out that the world is not as it should be, that there is an ideal to which we aspire but, as often as not, fail to reach.  Humor reminds us that we are not the “end all and be all'' of existence.  Chesterton once reflected that “[a]ngels can fly because they can take themselves lightly” and that “Satan fell by the force of gravity” (i.e., taking himself too seriously).  One wonders what we could do if we could just laugh at ourselves a little more. 

We might wind up like St. Teresa…in Heaven.

Of course not everything is funny, and I suspect this is the source of the cautionary tone found in Sirach and the Rule of St Benedict. Here too Niebuhr is instructive: laughter is a natural, humbling response to our simple foibles…it is our often unconscious response to the realization that we are not perfect…that we are not God.  But in the face of existential evil--sin, death, suffering, that which Jesus confronted in His earthly ministry---the proper response for Neibihr isn’t laughter, it’s faith.  Trusting in the Providential love of God.  It is also action.

Recognizing its limitations, humor remains the “best medicine” for healthy spiritual life.  Humor attunes us to the reality that things are not always as they should be, and thus readies us to respond to the call to be “salt and light” for the world (Mt 5: 13-16). But it also sees that behind the difficulties, inconsistencies, and headaches of our daily lives is something good and meaningful and worthwhile. 

Or better perhaps, Someone.

As Christians we know the Good News of God-made-Man come into our world.  We know each one of us matters: that we are important, even if imperfect; and loved, even if, at times, unlovable. We know that falling in the mud on our bums is nothing more than a reminder of the dust whence we came and to which we will return–and that the fall is less painful if the pedestals we put ourselves on are not too high.

So we laugh, joyful and confident that despite our failings, our cooperation with the love and grace of God can carry us into eternal life.  We laugh knowing that in spite of the evil that seems to run rampant, the redemptive love of Christ has the last word. We laugh because we know that, flawed as we are, Christ has nonetheless chosen us to share that reality with the world.

And we laugh, because we know that there is nothing that draws people to the Faith like a joyful Christian.

As he closed what might be his most important work, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton reflected that during His sojourn on earth Jesus expressed to the world the gamut of His emotions–anger, fear, compassion, sadness–withholding only His mirth.

He left that for us.

A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.