A Cure for Our Crankiness: Lighthearted Mirth

By Jim Tonkowich Published on June 9, 2024

In a recent conversation with my pastor, I confessed that I was feeling more than a little cranky — cranky about just about everything. “Well,” he said, “these days there’s plenty to be cranky about.” And while that’s true, for a Christian, it’s no excuse.

Like the culture around us, we’re all so serious these days. Crankiness inevitably comes with seriousness, which, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote, can metastasize into hatred — hatred that we actually enjoy. Our secular neighbors lack a healthy sense of humor, and so do we Christians. For the sake of our witness to those troubled neighbors — not to mention the health of the Church — that needs to stop.

It’s time to cheer up and make each of our homes “Schools of Christian Mirth,” making our neighbors wonder what exactly we know that they don’t.

Let me suggest that the way to do that comes partly from considering the example of Philip Neri (1515–1595) who is (drum-roll and rim-shot, please) the patron saint of humor and joy. Who knew there could be such a saint?

‘A Gleeful Spirit and Kind Demeanor’

I became aware of Neri while studying John Henry Newman (1801–1890). Newman — an Anglican priest, scholar, and theologian who became a Catholic priest, scholar, and theologian and was eventually made a cardinal — has always struck me as a rather serious sort of person. His most famous book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which discusses how he became a Catholic, is a serious book. (A book that has, let me add, what may be the world’s longest footnote explaining all that is, was, and ever shall be wrong with “progressive” or “liberal” Christianity.)

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It never occurred to me to read about Neri until last week, when I bumped into an article in the Spring 2021 issue of Evangelization & Culture. In it, author Rachel Bulman notes that a “gleeful spirit and kind demeanor” marked Neri from childhood. At about the age of 16, he began a career in business, but — unconvinced that this was God’s will for his life — spent his free time in prayer, seeking God’s direction.

At 18, he moved into a tiny room in Rome to read, pray, and study, making a meager living as a tutor. After five years, he was an expert on the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas. Then he sold all his books to give himself entirely to prayer — but not prayer alone in his room. His prayer life took him to people in the streets, businesses, marketplaces, and churches of Rome, encouraging them to moral and spiritual renewal in a somewhat degenerate era.

In Our Fallen World, Laughter is a Leap

Encouraging moral and spiritual renewal in a big city, whether in the sixteenth or the twenty-first, is a daunting task, and Neri’s ministry was beset with rejection, opposition, and danger at the hands of those who were, I suspect, more than a little cranky. Yet as scholar Holly Ordway writes,

He was by all accounts a cheerful and joyful man, who frequently played jokes on his friends — though usually with an underlying purpose: to encourage the development of humility and self-forgetfulness. What Philip offered to his spiritual children … was an emphasis on a light-hearted spirit, even when (indeed especially when) confronting the most serious of issues.

“Humility and self-forgetfulness” and “a light-hearted spirit” are hardly characteristic of most people today — myself included. It makes me think of G. K. Chesterton’s quip: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” He went on, “For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

Let’s face it, in this fallen world, there have always been good reasons to be cranky. The world and Church today are at least as corrupt and troubling as the world and Church Philip Neri confronted in the sixteenth century and the world John Henry Newman confronted in the mid-eighteenth century.

‘The School of Christian Mirth’

Yet in the midst of all that can make us cranky, Bulman adds, Neri’s “little room, where many would gather for teaching, stories, or to go to confession, became known as ‘the School of Christian mirth.’”

Ever since my family moved into our new house seven years ago, I’ve wanted to refer to our home as “Merry 460” (“Mirthful 460” sounds way too weird), but have hesitated. Too often, I’m not all that merry, so how can I operate a much-needed “School of Christian mirth”? Again, that needs to change. Jesus certainly said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! [that is, ‘cheer up’] I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

And if Jesus has overcome this world, if our sins are forgiven, if we’re adopted children of the Father and brothers of Jesus, if even the hairs of our heads are numbered, if we’ve been rescued from Hell and Heaven is our home, then it’s safe to say it’s time to cheer up and make each of our homes “Schools of Christian Mirth,” making our neighbors wonder what exactly we know that they don’t.

 

James Tonkowich is a freelance writer, speaker, and commentator on spirituality, religion, and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life and serves as director of distance learning at Wyoming Catholic College. He also hosts the college’s weekly podcast, The After Dinner Scholar.

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