Today is the Feast of All Saints. To which many non-believers, and believers, may say: Big deal. Who would want to be anything like those gloomy, morose, unsmiling people that we see portrayed in Christian art?
But here's a surprise: even the briefest glance at their biographies reveals joyful and energetic men and women who liked to have a laugh.
Indeed, the more you know about the actual lives of the saints, the more it strikes you as bizarre that so many statues, paintings and mosaics of the saints show them as unsmiling men and women. These are surely misrepresentations of the holy men and women of Christian history, many of whom were not only joyful but had terrific senses of humor.
Stories about the overt humor of the saints reach as far back as the early Roman martyrs -- that is, from the very earliest days of the church. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a grill, over hot coals, called out to his executioners, "This side is done. Turn me over and have a bite." In the fourth century, St. Augustine of Hippo, puckishly prayed, "Lord, give me chastity ... but not yet."
Some saints were known specifically for their rich sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, a 16th-century Italian priest, for example, was called "The Humorous Saint." Over his door he posted a small sign that read, "The House of Christian Mirth." En route to a ceremony in his honor, he once shaved off half his beard, as a way of poking fun at himself. "Christian joy is a gift from God, flowing from a good conscience," he said. And "A heart filled with joy is more easily made perfect than one that is sad."
Much of St. Philip Neri's humor was a way of keeping him humble, as he engaged in what could only be called acts of public silliness, like wearing a cushion on his head like a turban and wearing a foxtail coat in the middle of the summer.
When a young priest asked Philip what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, the future saint said, "A prayer for peace."
St. Francis de Sales, the 17th-century bishop of Geneva and renowned spiritual master, espoused what you might call a sensible, cheerful and gentle spirituality. "When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time," he once wrote. His humane approach to spiritual matters stood in contrast to some of the rigidities of his day. So did his desire to help lay people live a life of deep spirituality -- when "real" spirituality was thought to be the province of clerics. His classic text Introduction to the Devout Life was written specifically to help laypeople on their path to God.
Francis de Sales also knew how to use a joke to good effect. He was, for example, a great friend of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a French noblewoman, and together, in 1610, they founded a religious order for women, the Visitation sisters. After Jane had initially decided to follow a strict religious life and remain unmarried after being widowed, she continued to wear low-cut dresses showing off her décolletage. On the night of their first meeting, Francis de Sales took a look at her dress quipped, "Madame, those who do not mean to entertain guests should take down their signboard."
Saintly humor continues up until modern times. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example is Blessed Pope John XXIII, who served as pope from 1958 to 1963. His most famous joke came when a journalist innocently asked him, "Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?" John paused, thought it over, and said, "About half of them."
Someone once asked John about the Italian habit of closing offices in the afternoon. "Your Holiness, we understand that the Vatican is closed in the afternoon, and people don't work then."
"Ah no!" said the pope. "The offices are closed in the afternoon. People don't work in the morning!"
Shortly after his election as pope, John was walking in the streets of Rome when a woman passed him and said to her friend, "My God, he's so fat!" Overhearing her remark, he turned around and replied, "Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest."
In the 1940s, when John was still an archbishop and the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Paris, he was at an elegant dinner party, seated across from a woman wearing a low-cut dress that exposed a good deal of cleavage. Someone turned to him and said, "Your Eminence, what a scandal! Aren't you embarrassed that everyone is looking at that woman?" And he said, "Oh no, everyone is looking at me, to see if I'm looking at her."
John XXIII is my avatar for holy humor. In fact, I was introduced to the life of this seminal figure in contemporary religious history not through any scholarly autobiography or learned lecture but through a book called "Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John," which I stumbled across in a retreat house. At the time I was supposed to be praying silently.
The passage that made me laugh in the retreat house (and draw pointed glances from the other, more silent retreatants) was a story that placed the pope in a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.
"Holy Father," she exclaimed, "I am the superior of the Holy Spirit."
"Well, I must say, you're lucky," said the pope, delighted. "I'm only the Vicar of Christ!"
Who couldn't love a pope who had a sense of humor? And who couldn't love a man who was so comfortable about himself that he constantly made jokes about his height (which was little), his ears (which were big) and his weight (which was considerable). Born Angelo Roncalli, in the small town of Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo, after he was elected pope, he met a little boy named Angelo and exclaimed, "That was my name, too!" Then, conspiratorially, "But then they made me change it!"
Much of his humor seemed to flow naturally from his joy. His joy made him comfortable enough to laugh at himself, to poke fun at his office, and invited others into his humorous outlook on the world. And that joy made him comfortable with the absurdities of the world. For his openness, his generosity and his warmth and his humor, "Good Pope John" was loved by many. When he died a friend of mine was in a cab in Rome, driven by a Jewish cab driver. "He was our pope, too," he said.
There is something irresistible about a person in a position of authority with a self-deprecatory sense of humor. It instantly binds you to the person. Perhaps because we see in him or her a reflection of what we could be, of what God wants us to be even in the midst of our accomplishments: simple, humble, aware of our own limitations and, of course, joyful.
This essay is excerpted from the new book 'Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life' (HarperOne).