The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.
~ Flannery O’Connor
Like so many insomniacs, I rely on light reading at bedtime to induce drowsiness. Dense philosophy or theology requires far too much concentration; a decent biography is just the thing, or, better yet, a fluidly written novel.
And what could be more fluid than an Agatha Christie murder mystery, right?
This past week I picked up a used copy of her Hallow’een Party (1969) and started it that night. As I settled into the covers, anticipating another satisfying Hercule Poirot page-turner, I was delighted to first encounter the following dedication: “To P.G. Wodehouse – whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”
How fun – and how unexpected! Wodehouse was the masterful English comic writer whose Jeeves and Wooster novels still make me laugh out loud, over and over again. Dame Agatha, on the other hand, equally masterful in her own right, can always creep me out, regardless of the sure knowledge that justice inevitably prevails in her stories. It seemed ironic, even askew, that two such dissimilar authors could have developed such a strong mutual esteem. They trafficked in such divergent worlds: the one saturated with mirth and hijinks; the other filled with malice and homicide. How did they connect? What bridged the divide?
Not that such a juxtaposition is unique in any way. Horror sprinkled with humor is a staple in the movie biz. Think Hitchcock, for instance, and more recently the films of Joel and Ethan Coen – especially their 1996 gem, Fargo. When the very pregnant Police Chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), captures a very brutal killer, she delivers the following lines with a rich Minnesota twang combined with a wry bewilderment:
So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya’ are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
Gunderson’s plain-spokenness and evident fecundity throws the rest of the film’s amorality and violence into relief – and it’s comic relief. It’s not that the gasps are simply counterbalanced with grins, but that Fargo’s grim universe is made all the more tenable because there’s something to laugh at in it.
Such were my thoughts as I prepared for Mass on Saturday, February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. For some reason (who knows why), I got it in my head that the feast must’ve been transferred to Saturday from Sunday – that the actual Lourdes feast was really supposed to be celebrated on February 12. Instead of simply consulting a breviary or some other authoritative source, I turned to Google and popped the terms “February 12” and “saints” into the search bar. The results made no mention of Lourdes (much to my chagrin – what was I thinking?), and a list of wholly unfamiliar names appeared instead.
One of them stood out: Julian the Hospitaller. “That’s a funny title,” I thought to myself. “What’s his story?” I clicked the link and discovered that Julian was the patron saint of jugglers and circus workers. Oh, and murderers, too.
Whoa. I couldn’t have strayed much further from the healing waters of Lourdes.
Leaving aside the circus angle for a moment, Julian’s story does indeed revolve around murder – and murder of Shakespearean proportions. Of noble birth, Julian was cursed as a child and fated to kill his own parents. As a young man, he learned of this horrific destiny, and he swore to avoid it no matter what. Accordingly, Julian took action and permanently removed himself from the vicinity of his parents by walking for 50 days straight.
Eventually he stopped and settled, and married a wealthy widow. After obtaining a knighthood, he entered the service of a king. Decades flew by, and Julian no doubt thought that he’d outsmarted the patricidal curse. Throughout all this time, however, his parents had been diligently searching, and their efforts were finally rewarded when they happened upon their son’s castle. Unfortunately, Julian was away on a hunt, but his wife welcomed them with great joy. Indeed, so pleased was she to meet her in-laws for the first time that she honored them with her home’s master bedroom as their quarters.
Returning home much later, Julian discovered the couple in his own sbed and assumed it was his wife with another man. In a mad rage, he killed them both, thus fulfilling the prophetic jinx. When his wife, who’d been to church, informed him of his tragic error, Julian grew despondent and despaired of his salvation. Nevertheless, according to one medieval version of the story, his wife offered unyielding encouragement. “Well I know that God is so merciful and so kind and loving,” she insisted, “that if we serve Him all our lives without anger and without envy, I do surely believe that he will grant us mercy.”
That was good enough for Julian who, with his wife’s support, dedicated the rest of his life to penance and good works. After a pilgrimage to Rome, the grieving couple established a hospice at a dangerous river crossing frequented by Crusaders, and Julian himself took on the duty of safely ferrying people back and forth. After many years of such service, Julian extended himself in a special way one night by taking in a frozen leper and billeting him in his own bed. The leper turned out to be an angel in disguise, the Golden Legend relates, and he came with a heavenly message: “Julian, our Lord hath sent me to thee, and sendeth thee word that he hath accepted thy penance.”
I’m well aware that the whole Julian story is likely a pious fiction. In fact, it’s exceedingly hard to identify the story’s provenance in terms of location or time period, or even if there’s any historical basis for it at all. Still, Julian the Hospitaller was an immensely popular figure throughout the later Middle Ages, and he was widely venerated as the patron saint of innkeepers, boatmen, and pilgrims – which makes perfect sense.
Yet, as noted above, he was similarly invoked by killers and entertainers. The murderer connection is understandable (for repentant murderers, that is); the entertainment connection, less so. I’m sure historians can ably unpack that incongruous linkage with insightful finesse, but I’m going to take a stab and suggest that it reflects a healthy contempt for the threat of death when one is rooted in joy – which might also account for the similarly incongruous reciprocal admiration that linked Christie with Wodehouse.
True enough, there’s nothing funny about death, let alone murder. But aren’t we invited by the testimony of the martyrs to laugh in the face of physical demise? “Turn me over,” St. Lawrence told his executioners as he was literally grilled. “I’m done on this side.” St. Paul seems to infer a similar glib attitude in his remarks to the church at Corinth: “O death, where is thy victory?” he writes, quoting Hosea. “O death, where is thy sting?”
Similarly, the fable of Julian the Hospitaller ends on a darkly comic note. After years of serving the poor and the sick in repentance, so the legend goes, Julian and his wife were struck down by thieves in circumstances neatly paralleling the saint’s assault on his parents long ago. It’s the kind of ironic twist that a patron saint of entertainers might’ve appreciated.
In any case, it little mattered – for either the real Julian, if there was one, or for the story’s audience – for the penitent’s final trajectory had already been settled. “Before man are life and death,” writes Sirach in today’s first reading, “whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Julian chose life after having first chosen death. For such as these, only more life awaits.