The Wit and Humor of the Saints

But the saints are never the kind of killjoy spinster aunts who go in for faultfinding and lack all sense of humor. (Nor should the Karl Barth who so loved and understood Mozart be regarded as such).

For humor is a mysterious but unmistakable charism inseparable from Catholic faith, and neither the “progressives” nor the “integralists” seem to possess it – the latter even less than the former.

Both of these tend to be faultfinders, malicious satirists, grumblers, carping critics, full of bitter scorn, know-it-alls who think they have the monopoly on infallible judgment; they are self-legitimizing prophets – in short, fanatics. (The word comes from fanum, “holy place”, i.e., it denotes guardians of the temple threshold, transported into frenzy by the Divinity. They are ill-humored, as was Jansenism in toto, which spread like a blight, for centuries, over the spiritual life of France. Perhaps Claudel and Bernanos were the first to be completely free from it). And naturally they are critics before all else.

Having thoroughly criticized the pure, the practical and the judging reason, there is nothing left of reason but criticism itself, the real “thing-in-itself” that grinds up everything that comes between its millstones – all thinking about God, the language in which it is expressed, every form of proclaiming the message (Fichte began his career with an attempt at a critique of all revelation), and every recognizable feature of the Church itself, is a contradiction in terms. Whatever is, should not be or it should be otherwise; “changing the world” – that is the secret password of these humorless hard-liners.

They are rigid, while the Catholic is pliable, flexible, yielding, because the latter’s firmness is not based on himself and his own opinion but on God, who is the “ever-greater.”

Somehow it bespeaks a sense of humor when the Catholic Church, which, since the time of the Church Fathers, through High Scholasticism and modern humanism, was always inclined to absorb and integrate the heritage of antiquity and even of all non-Christian religions, responds to the Reformation with the putti of the Bavarian Baroque. And decidedly humorous is the way Chesterton, the defender of “nonsense, humility, penny dreadfuls and other despised things”, answers the bestial seriousness and despairing optimism of modern world views – which are united in their opposition to Rome – saying that only the Catholic form guarantees the miraculous quality of being, the freedom, the sense of being a child, of adventure, the resilient, energizing paradox of existence:

“A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. A stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air… Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. This has always been the instinct of Christendom… Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue… It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

“Looking down on things [from Zarathustra’s mountains] may be a delightful experience, but there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon… at the moment when we attempt to appreciate things as they should be appreciated… We do actually go through a process of mental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish to feel the abounding good in all things.”

The book on the humor of the saints has yet to be written. Goethe has given us a short excerpt of it in his Philipp Neri, der humoristische Heilige (the humorous saint), particularly in the latter’s far from reverential exchange of notes with Clement VIII. But what merriment do we find as early as Irenaeus, when he pricks the shimmering bubbles of the gnostic world systems! And in Clement of Alexandria, too, when he juggles with these systems like a circus artist.

What a boyish spirit of adventure in Bonaventure’s “Chart for the soul’s journey to God”! What flashes of humor (for which one seeks in vain in the solemn Reformers) in Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila! And, nearer to us in time, what charming mischief in little Therese, to say nothing of Claudel’s homely laughter (through tears of passion).

What a lighthearted grandezza in Peguy as he opens his Christian soul to all Jewish and Gentile values, only to lay down all these treasures, smilingly, at the crib (in Eve); what a loving forbearance did Madeleine Deibrel have for the shortcomings of Christians (whom she wished were burning torches).

And I take the liberty, with a good conscience, of appropriating for the Catholica the humor of C. S. Lewis (whose tales are more beautiful than Brentano’s) and Ljeskov, for whom life with all its terrors remained a single paradoxical miracle. Then there is Kierkegaard, who looks wistfully beyond the limits of his melancholy religion toward the Catholic paradise where, in spite of all its seriousness, one may be “a little mischievous”, where “all that is childlike recurs in one may a heightened form, as a mature naïveté, simplicity, wonder, humor”.

Peguy’s final categories (in the Note Conjointe) are the “morale souple” and the “morale raide” – the pliant, flexible attitude to life versus the rigid attitude that we also find among Christians. For him, flexibility has nothing to do with laxity: on the contrary, it places greater demands on man and on his love than any comfortable rigidity.

It would be useful if at this point we could make a survey of the papacy in a world context: papacy and diplomacy, papacy and humanism (from Damasus through Gregory I to Gregory XVI, up to the writings of Paul VI), a papacy that is easygoing in nonessentials but unyielding concerning the slightest deviation, the merest jot (homoousios instead of homoiousios) that represents the tip of a hidden iceberg on which the bark of the whole Church would smash to pieces.

Most of the time all that is needed is the occasional light touch of the helmsman’s hand. Even if not all popes have lived up to this ethos that is inherent in their calling – particularly when the office of Peter was overshadowed by state power – one may still say that it belongs to the very concept and the particular ethos of their mission.