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As we enter the solemn season of Lent it is worth stopping to remember that the saints say that we should keep a “joyful Lent.” While we should take the state of our souls seriously, we needn’t take ourselves so seriously…

joyful soulBefore his sudden fall from the limelight last week, an interestingly entertaining interview made its way into the scrambled world of the internet between the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and the liberal jester Bill Maher. It’s a sharpish exchange between the always grinning, always cynical Mr. Maher and a guy Mr. Maher accurately calls “an impish British fag.”*

There’s crude language in the interview, but the predictably sardonic Mr. Maher is clearly befuddled by a young man who claims to be a Catholic and who seems to espouse some conservative views, and yet who comes across as a simpering, giggling, waspishly witty homosexual. Sparks flew in the discussion, but there was light as well as heat.

When the two spoke about humor they made some interesting points. Mr. Yiannopoulos said humor should not be policed for political correctness because, rather than dividing people, it brings them together. Mr. Maher pitched in that humor works its magic because when people laugh, they realize that the joke is, in some way, true. Even if they think the jester is from the other side of the ideological divide, if he can get them to laugh, he has won them over, and he has done so by using laughter—which is involuntary.

I wish that part of the conversation had continued because there is much more to be thought and said about the role of laughter in the process of enlightenment. That laughter is involuntary makes it a kind of secret weapon. Whenever the emotion buttons are pressed, whether with laughter or tears, a person’s defenses are penetrated. Bias trembles and rational objections begin to crumble, and the person’s humanity begins to show.

From time to time I have allowed myself to get drawn into debates with atheists, feminists, or other religious extremists, and I have always found that the laughter test determines whether I should continue the discussion or not. If I make a joke and my opposite number doesn’t get the joke, gets angry, or refuses to admit humor into the discourse, I realize there is no point in going on. If a person is so locked into his mental suitcase that he can’t see the light of a joke, then there is no real communication.

The word “humor,” of course, holds hands with “humanity,” “humility,” and “humus” (the last is the word for “earth”). If you like: The humorous are humans who have humility and who are down to earth. The inability to take a joke or make a joke is one of the hallmarks of pride. Satan never laughs. Ever. C.S. Lewis used two quotations to preface his Screwtape Letters: one by Saint Thomas More and the other by Martin Luther. Both acknowledged in their own way that the devil was a “prowde spirit” and the best way to make him flee was to mock him.

As we enter the solemn season of Lent it is worth stopping to remember that the saints also say that we should keep a “joyful Lent.” One of the reasons I wrote two books for Lent in the style of The Screwtape Letters was to help Christians face the solemn spiritual battle with a sense of humor as well as a sense of seriousness. There is nothing wrong with jousting and jesting at the same time—especially if the one we are jousting with and jesting about is ourself. While we should take the state of our souls seriously, we needn’t take ourselves so seriously.

The problem with the impish Mr. Yiannopoulos and the cynical Mr. Maher is that much of their humor is accusatory, angry and sarcastic. In that respect it is a lower form of humor—one which too often has a cruel and sardonic streak. As such it reeks not only of supercilious self righteousness but also an underlying darkness and despair.

What is needed more than ever is a playful spirit— the innocent laughter of children, family members weeping with laughter at one another’s lovable foibles, and the eternal lightness of being that marks the truly joyful soul.

In this world darkened by the gloom of the seriously self-righteous, what is needed more than ever is the rumbustious, rollicking good humor of men and women who have seen the eternal perspective and have therefore put this world in its proper place. When we have seen that the whole great drama is in fact a comedy (because it has a happy ending), we are able to be confident and enjoy all that the good world and the good Lord have to offer.

*The interview can be viewed here.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Someone check my memory but I think it’s Umberto Ecco in The Name of the Rose that implies laughter is ultimately subversive. That’s a different take than what Father L. presents here. Now they both might be true; it may depend on the way laughter is used.

  2. Is humor a sub-division of joy. There is in every depiction of our Lady a sense of serenity. I can not see our Lady laughing, but I can see her being delighted in the joy one has gained by expressing humor. Joy through humor belong on the list of gifts in what it means to be human.

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