The Great Wit and Humor of the Saints

Someone said, “Good humor is nine-tenths of Christianity.” Of course it is not, nor anything like it. This is a “smart saying” whose value lies not in the saying but in the smartness. But a sense of humor has an important part to play in the spiritual life. Fr. Benson did not hesitate to call St. Teresa’s gift of humor “a divine gift.” Wisdom is from above, and it is the gift of the Holy Spirit; and humor is part and parcel of wisdom. Humor is the salt of life, and to some extent it is the salt of the religious life, preserving it from decay. G. K. Chesterton says of St. Francis of Assisi, “The sense of humor salts all his escapades.”

The history of many of the heresies is largely a history of the breakdown of the sense of humor. Their aberrations and absurdities can, apart from the Devil, hardly be accounted for otherwise. “Laugh and grow strong,” St. Ignatius said; and to one of his novices, “I see you are always laughing, and I am glad of it.”

It is significant, surely, that one of the most commonsense saints was distinguished by a playful wit and a keen sense of humor. Who ever ventured to pray as St. Teresa prayed: “From silly devotions, and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us”? “May Heaven preserve you from being a Latinist!” she writes to a nun who was rather fond of classical quotations. In her introduction to the Interior Castle, she observes, “So many books have been written by learned and holy men that there is nothing left for a woman to write about.” When she was asked to give her opinion on a memorandum written by Senor Salcedo, this was her comment: “Senor Salcedo never stops repeating through the whole of his paper, ‘as St. Paul says,’ ‘as the Holy Spirit says’; and then he ends by regretting that he has written nothing but nonsense. I am going to denounce him to the Inquisition.”

This article is from Fr. Roche’s A Bedside Book of Saints.

“What wit that man had,” wrote René Bazin of the Curé of Ars. The Abbé Toccanier sympathized with him in the vexations and sufferings he endured at the hands of the Devil. “One gets used to everything — even to the Devil,” said the Curé. “The grappin and I are almost comrades.” He asked a garrulous lady if there was any month in the year in which she talked less than usual except February; and when a priest asked permission to say Mass in his church, he replied, “Father, I only regret that it is not Christmas Day so that you might say three.” He used to say of the crinoline, which was the fashion in his day, “Our Emperor has done many fine things, but there is something he has overlooked. He should have had all doors wid­ened by law to admit of the passage of the crinoline.” And when he saw on the wall of the chateau a portrait of a lady in evening dress, he said, “One would think that she was going to the guillotine.”

Cardinal Capacelatro says of St. Philip Neri, “There was one feature in his character that never fails to fascinate the young: he was always mirthful and humorous. Like all the Florentines of his time, he was noted for a vein of pleasantry.” “I eat little,” he said once, “because I don’t want to grow fat like our friend Francesco Scarlatti.” He was a vegetarian and if, when walking with his friends, a butcher’s cart passed, he would say, “Thank God, I don’t need any of that stuff.” St. Thomas Aquinas has somewhere a good word in favor of practical joking, and as we shall see, St. Philip was greatly attracted to the practice.

As has been remarked of St. Francis of Assisi, “The sense of humor salts all his escapades.” After lodging for a time at the house of Cardinal Leo, he was beaten by devils, and he declared that this was his punishment for consorting with cardinals. Legend relates that when he sought an interview with the Sultan of Egypt with the object of converting him, a trap was laid for him. The Sultan ordered a carpet covered with crosses to be spread on the floor of the tent. “If he walks on it, I shall accuse him of insulting his God; if he does not, I shall accuse him of insulting me.” Francis, of course, walked on the carpet, and on being charged with his impiety, he answered, “You must know our Lord died between two thieves who also hung on crosses. We Christians have the true Cross; but the crosses of the thieves we leave to you, and these I am not ashamed to tread on.” True or not, this story proves that St. Francis was commonly credited with a very nimble wit.

Playfulness of wit is a very striking feature of our own English martyrs. Indeed, it is surprising how full the Acts of their martyrdom are of the evidences of it. Of course, St. Thomas More is conspicuous among them all, and he has rather eclipsed the others. His sense of humor never deserted him, right up to the moment of his execution. “Assist me up,” he said to the Lieutenant of the Tower. “Coming down I will look after myself.”

Bl. Dominic Barberi, the Passionist who received Newman into the Church and who was in all things a most mortified man, permitted a very liberal indulgence to his sense of humor. His bi­ography records many of his witty sayings. When a certain pious lady consulted him about her nocturnal visions, he proceeded to cross-examine her about the kind and the quantity of wine she was in the habit of drinking at supper.

We have this in one of the letters of St. Madeleine Sophie: “Our Society has not been established to prove that women can become men, even though that may be less difficult in a country [France] where so many men become women.”

In a letter to Possidius, St. Augustine discusses the propriety of married women painting their faces. He is inclined to condemn it as being a form of deceit; and he adds, “I am quite certain that even their own husbands do not want to be so taken in.”

And there is St. Jane Frances de Chantal. A young man whose fiancée had entered her convent to become a nun came in a great rage and gave her a good “telling off.” When the stormy interview was over, St. Jane said, “I have never listened to a panegyric that gave me greater pleasure.”

There is plenty of delicate humor even in the autobiography of St. Thérèse the Little Flower; and there is evidence that had little Anne de Guigné lived, she would have developed along the same lines. We are told that when she was six, she received a beautiful doll as a compensation for losing her first tooth. Of course, her brother Jacques promptly broke the doll. Anne at first was very angry, and then, pulling herself together with an effort, she said to the governess, “It is better so. I can make the sacrifice of Abraham.”

Soon after his conversion St. Ignatius was imprisoned by the Inquisition and, on being examined, was accused of teaching nov­elties. “My Lord,” he answered, “I would not have thought it had been any novelty to speak of Christ to Christians.”

The same playful humor was characteristic of St. Francis de Sales. A religious complained to him that his new superior was even worse than the old. “Instead of a horse, we now have an ass.” “But,” said the saint, “was not Balaam well instructed by an ass?” He rebuked an acquaintance for making fun of a hunchback. “The works of God are perfect,” he said. “What! Perfect, and yet deformed?” replied the acquaintance. “Yes, perhaps he is a perfect hunchback.”

In conversation and even in the pulpit, he was fond of telling amusing stories. For example: “A certain woman who always made a point of contradicting her husband, fell into a river and was drowned. The husband, in dragging for the body, went upstream instead of down. When the bystanders pointed out to him that the current must surely have carried it lower down, his answer was: ‘Do you imagine that even her dead body could do anything except contradict me?’ ”

When busybodies took liberties with his good name, he would say, “I hear So-and-so has been clipping my beard for me; but still, God somehow seems to make it grow again.” This reminds us of the beard of St. Thomas More, which he protected from the axe, saying, “At any rate, my beard has committed no treason.”

During the preaching of the Lent at Annecy, one of the missionaries had been “letting himself go” in denunciation of the absentees. St. Francis never cared for that sort of thing, any more than he cared for long-winded sermons. “Whom was he aiming at?” he asked afterward. “He abused us for a fault that we had not committed, since we were present. Did he want us to split ourselves up into pieces to fill the seats that were empty?”

And this wit and humor of the saints is very instructive. It reminds us of what we are apt to forget, of what we sometimes do not even suspect: that there is more real joy in a saint’s life than there is in all the intoxication of worldliness. All that comes from God is joyous, and holiness comes straight from Him and is, in fact, the only attribute of His that man can imitate. Piety in the saints is blended with all that is lighthearted and exhilarating. Fulbert of Chartres described the monastic spirit as a blend of “natural simplicity and angelic hilarity”; that is to say, the saints have some of the liveliness of the angels.

The saints, at any rate, are always good advertisements for religion. They uphold and exhibit the “bright side” of devotion and preach the lesson of the joyful service of God. Where there is a great deal of faith, there will be always a great deal of laughter. England was “Merrie England” when she was full of faith; and Chesterton maintains that the English people have not laughed heartily since the Middle Ages. Humor has been called “the fountain of reconciliation and well-being which, smiling and indulgent, contemplates the world with a kindly eye.” It was the union in them of this natural gift with the supernatural gift of faith that produced the optimism of the saints.

Editor’s note: this article is from a chapter in Fr. Roche’s A Bedside Book of Saints, which is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

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Aloysius Roche (b. 1886) was a parish priest in Essex, England, where he was known for his great knowledge of the lives of the saints, his wise sermons and his simple, holy lifestyle.

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