A short time ago, on April 9, the popular Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin spoke to a large audience of Catholic students on the subject of joy, humor, and the spiritual life. He gave a wonderfully entertaining talk, bringing with him the full range of Jesuit jokes (A Jesuit died and was accepted into heaven amid much fanfare. A Franciscan, asking why he did not receive similar notice was told, “we get Franciscans here all the time, we haven’t had a Jesuit in the last 250 years.”) and a range of humorous stories.
At the same time, he spoke seriously about the real value of humor and a sense of fun and its value for the spiritual life. He talked about the value of humor to welcome, to express Christian courage (St. Lawrence, martyed by being roasted alive on a grill, said to his torturers “flip me over, I’m done on this side), and as a safeguard of humility. A man should be able to laugh at himself and even be able to make jokes at his own expense. If he cannot, he may be of the sort who “carries his own importance as though afraid of breaking it. He urged against those who risked considering fun and humor as enemies of the spiritual life and who were too concerned with solemnity.
There are two errors a man can make regarding solemnity in worship and spirituality. The one is to deny excitement, humor, and fun any place in the spiritual life, the other is to give them an overwhelming place and deny anny significant place to solemnity. The first error is puritan, but the second just as bad. I do not think Fr. Martin intended to deny a legitimate place to solemnity in the spiritual life, and I do not think he meant to suggest solemnity to be the enemy of joy. Nonetheless some questions asked afterward indicated that at least some of the audience had this impression and I think it worth reflecting briefly on. If one danger is that we deny excitement, fun, and humor any place in the spritual life, then another is that we deny solemnity any and dismiss or ridicule any attempts at solemnity as “dreary puritanism.” Likewise, we might wrongly assume that solemnity must be the enemy of joy. Afterall, if one is joyful isn’t he naturally exuberant and excited?
Well, no. Solemnity need not be the enemy of joy; in many cases it may be its ally. If I remember my own wedding rightly, it contained many elements of solemnity, but was not the less joyful for that. Or a scene from The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat saw Pan in the woods:
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror--indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy--but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew (1).
Awed into silence from what they saw, Mole turned to Rat and asked if he was afraid,
Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet--and yet-- O, Mole, I am afraid!'
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
The animals were no less joyful because they were the more solemn for their solemnity did not spring from dreariness, but from reverence. The solemnity came from the awe and the reverence, whence also came the joy. I read another writer who suggested that joy should come from wonder and awe not be based only in warm feelings and fun (2). That seems precisely right. Thomas Aquinas said that “no man can live without joy.” There may be times, however, when this joy may contain some elements of solemnity and it need not be the less joyful for that.
(1) From chapter 7: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/kgrahame/bl-kgrahame-wind-7.htm\
(3) See also Peter Kreeft: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/joy.htm