Joy, humor and laughter are constant threads through the lives of many saints, disproving the stereotype of the dour, depressed, grumpy saint.
Traditionally, there are two ways that Christians relate to the saints: as patron and as companion. The patron model may be the one with which most people are familiar. Christians, especially Catholics, ask for the saint’s help, for his or her prayers in heaven, in the same way that you would ask for a friend’s prayer here on earth. Many Catholics regularly ask for a saint’s prayers, also called their “intercession.”
But the model more prevalent in the early church, and the model that has been of greatest influence in my own life, was the saint as companion. Elizabeth Johnson, a Catholic theologian, makes this point, and dilates on the traditional double model of “patron” and “companion” in her marvelous book on the saints Friends of God and Prophets.
The saint was seen as our fellow traveler along the way to God; by following his or her example the saint provides us with a model of Christian life. In other words, they serve as our models. So we can look to the saints as examples of those who not only lead joyful, laughter-filled lives, but often worked against the kind of deadly seriousness that infects religion.
St. Teresa of Ávila, the 16th-century Carmelite nun and reformer, herself spoke out against that kind of deadly serious Catholicism. “A sad nun is a bad nun,” she said. “I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits….What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.” Here is a woman whom the Catholic church has designated as “Doctor of the Church,” an eminent teacher of the faith, recommending a sense of humor.
Humor suffuses the writings of St. Teresa, an intelligent, capable and strong-willed woman. Indeed the first line of her autobiography is famously lighthearted. She begins, “Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.”
Later on, after a lengthy description about the nature of prayer, Teresa writes, “It seems to me I have explained this matter, but perhaps I’ve made it clear only to myself.” It is a charmingly self-deprecating remark, which instantly invokes the reader’s sympathy and friendship. And throughout her writings she regularly addresses God in the most familiar, even playful terms. Susan M. Garthwaite, Ph.D., refers to the saint’s “playful teasing of God” in an article in Spiritual Life (Spring 2009) entitled “The Humor of St. Teresa of Avila in The Life.”
And one of her most famous lines, though probably apocryphal, is also apposite: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”
This quotation of Teresa’s is one of the most well known of the saint’s, and is quoted in many popular books on her spirituality, not to mention its appearance all over the Internet. And it is certainly in keeping with her zestful and joyful approach to the spiritual life. There’s only one problem: it seems to appear nowhere in her writings.
Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., a Catholic scholar, a translator of her works, and a member of the male branch of the Carmelite Order, told me that he could not find it in any of her writings, though he pointed me to other places where she speaks about joy and lightheartedness in the spiritual life. “That doesn’t mean that she didn’t say it,” Father Kavanaugh told me, “only that it’s not written down.” In any event, it’s a great little prayer.
And while Teresa’s spirituality was a deeply reverential one, her humor also evinces a kind of playfulness in her relationship with God. Once, when she was travelling to one of her convents, St. Teresa of Ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. “Lord,” she said, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?”
And the response in prayer that she heard was, “That is how I treat my friends.”
Teresa answered, “And that is why you have so few of them!”
This story, one of the most well known about St. Teresa, is often told as a way of demonstrating the abundant humor of the saint. But it shows something else: her playful way of addressing God. Moreover, it shows her assumption of God’s playfulness with her.
Excerpted with the author’s permission from Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by James Martin, S.J. (HarperOne)