THE CULTIVATION OF A SENSE OF HUMOUR
To be entirely wanting in a sense of humour is a loss that affects even our spiritual life. When we possess it, it can help us very considerably in bearing up against the inevitable trials of life, and in meeting in a spirit of cheerfulness these days of increased misery and suffering in which we with most of the world find ourselves involved.
Our Lord Jesus never went about in a state of habitual sadness
It was characteristic of Our Blessed Lord, our great exemplar in all virtues, that although He had a clear foreknowledge of the terrible Passion and Death that lay before Him, He never went about in a state of habitual sadness. As He was human and had the tenderest and most sensitive of human hearts, there were times in His life when He showed how deeply His feelings were stirred, as when looking down upon the beautiful city of Jerusalem, and for seeing the fate that only too soon was to fall upon it, He wept at the thought that all His efforts on its behalf were to prove fruitless. We recall, too, how deeply He was affected on hearing of the death of His friend Lazarus. We know, too, how before entering upon His Passion with the betrayal of Judas in His mind, the denial of Peter and the desertion of His apostles all clearly foreseen, He was sad as He walked to His prayer and to His agony in the Garden, so that He exclaimed: “My soul is sorrowful even unto death.” This only showed that He was human even as we are. But these manifestations of His feelings were isolated and exceptional and stood out in marked contrast to that habitual cheerfulness and calm that was so conspicuous in the greater part of His life, a charm that won the confidence of the beggars by the wayside and drew Him the love of little children. As He went through all the parts of Galilee and Judea, multiplying His miracles and acts of charity, He had ever words of comfort on His lips, telling men and women “to be of good heart”. The words were an echo of His own interior soul and had their source in His close union with His Father, with whom He was One as He was God and one in will as He was Man, subject in all things to the will of His Father.
Our Lord Jesus was telling people “to be of good heart”
And so we find that in those closest imitators of Our Lord, the saints, cheerfulness was a marked feature in their lives. A sad saint is a contradiction in terms, sadness being simply incompatible with sanctity. Most, if not all, of the saints had far greater sufferings than we even in these calamitous times are called upon to endure. But they had the divine wisdom never to brood upon them, much less to grumble and talk about them. On the contrary, they regarded them as so many opportunities of proving their love for their Crucified Lord; and looking upon them in the light of eternity they came to see that in themselves they were of small account, incidents in this brief passage of time, not even as a drop of water in that infinite ocean of the everlasting hereafter.
A sad saint is a contradiction in terms; sadness is incompatible with sanctity
To get anywhere near that serenity and peace of soul that was Christ’s and His saints’, we need of course, first and chiefly, the grace of God, for the gaining of which, however, we have so many means at our disposal. But in addition we must use all natural means, so that God’s grace may more effectively work in us. And among those means a cultivation of a sense of humour occupies more place and is of greater importance than some of us may be inclined to think. It is a sense of humour that induces that cheerfulness of spirit which, as we have already indicated, is an essential in our spiritual life. It is a sense of humour that will give us a truer appreciation of our own littleness and will prevent us leading lives of pretence and of exhibiting ourselves as people of more worth than we are. It is a sense of humour that helps us not to exaggerate or to make too much of the evils from we are undoubtedly suffering. As an example of this we may remember Bairnsfather’s famous picture of the two soldiers under heavy fire taking cover in a shell hole. When one of them grumbles at the inadequacy of their shelter, the other replies: “Well, if you know of a better ‘ole, go to it.” The humour is heightened when we read of the German officer who, being shown the picture, gravely explained to his men the meaning of the words, as he thought, with no sort of suspicion of the joke in them. It was humour again when a soldier stunned and bewildered by a “dud” shell that fell between him and his comrade exclaimed, “Where are we?” and then, glancing at his friend who had apparently been no saint, he added, “Any’ow, it can’t be heaven.” And during the last war we may recall with some justifiable pride how the ordinary men and women of London, as well as those of other large cities in England, never lost their cheerfulness despite the constant and destructive bombing to which they were subjected. One woman had already lost her own home in the blitz and had found room in the house of a neighbour. When later on deprived of that too by a nearby falling shell, she merely remarked: “Well, never mind, we can always doss down in one of the Underground Stations.” It was this cheerful spirit that was a mutual help to all those suffering people; and it aroused the admiration and wonder of visitors to this country that night after night of these bombing onslaughts, men and women would go about their work during the day, seemingly quite unconcerned, and exchange jokes with each other about happenings in the night that presented to them some humorous aspect. Most of these people were at least Christian and some no doubt were good Catholics. In any case their example shows us how we ought to face the trials that beset us to-day – but we must face them in a supernatural spirit.
Facing trials in a supernatural spirit
St Paul tells us (2Cor. 9:7), quoting from the book of Ecclesiastics (35:2), “God loveth a cheerful giver.” To see in all the miseries of our present life God’s will, and to submit gladly to all that it entails, is at once to make ourselves pleasing to Him and to heap up treasure in heaven, while, if at the same time we will but keep cheerful, it helps to lighten the heavy load we may be called upon to bear.
God loveth a cheerful giver (2Cor. 9:7)
Instead of grumbling and moaning over things and thereby making life more unhappy for others as well as for ourselves, we shall often be able to find even in the most trying situations some humorous element upon which we can seize to keep ourselves smiling. The poverty, for instance, to which a large number of people to-day are reduced is indeed an affliction. The man who can no longer afford to buy himself a new suit of clothes of which he is sorely in need can laugh at himself as a sort of animated scarecrow as he walks out in the threadbare rags that is all that his now depleted wardrobe can supply. He will laugh the more if he is able to reflect that in the days of his prosperity he strutted about with an air of pomposity and importance for which the only excuses were the well-cut coat on his back and the carefully creased trousers that fell on his well-polished shoes. He may laugh at the thought that he was then no better than a ridiculous walking “tailor’s dummy”.
In a picture in an old Punch [magazine] of two tramps in rags and tatters reclining under a May tree in full bloom, there was humour in the remark of one of them who said: “I wonder whether the saying ’till May be out don’t shed a clout’ means the month or the blossom?” That poor fellow’s sense of humour must have made it easier to bear with their very evident poverty.
The Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier and Cheerer of our souls
This sense of humour relieved the sufferings of a good priest lately dead, who for years was confined to his room and towards the end of his life was unable to stand on his feet, as the least movement caused him agonising pain. Yet he was habitually cheerful and ready to share a joke with any of his visitors. When he had received the Last Sacraments and death was very near, to the nurse, who to warn him the better said, “Father, your pulse is now very, very slow,” his only reply was, “Pessimist!”
There are undoubtedly situations in which it is very difficult to savour any humour, but there are few sufferings in which a person of the right disposition cannot find something to excite his mirth or at any rate keep him cheerful. The good Catholic, who is having what is called “a hell of a time” on this earth but with the grace of God is accepting it with resignation and patience, may find at least a chuckle in the thought that he is outwitting the devil and refusing his pressing invitation to join his company in that infinitely worse hell in the next world.
There are those who, as we know, are born without any sense of humour and who in consequence are often the worst advertisers of religion. What can one say to them? It may be suggested that they pray very hard to the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier and Cheerer of our souls, so that even if no miracle be worked to make them see any sense of humour in the happenings of life, they may at least acquire a cheerful disposition that will be a help in their own spiritual life and exercise a good influence upon their neighbour.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949