For almost an hour I have been listening to a relentless assault on every kind of authority in turn, except his own. We are sitting over empty coffee cups outside a bar on via Cavour, in sight of the ruins of the Imperial Forum. Focusing beyond him on those gaunt skeletons of ancient Rome I wonder if the likes of us drank refreshments here two millennia ago, and made similar complaints about Emperors and their officials.
Kings in past centuries had jesters in their courts. A jester's job was to amuse the king, and he was allowed to take liberties that would cost other people their heads. It was a sign of great sanity in a society:they knew then that when kings are not regularly reminded of their human frailty and folly they end up by thinking that they are God. The Roman Emperors had no court jesters, and yes they ended up by being divinised. Countless Christians of the early Church were martyred for refusing to burn incense to those humourless dead Emperors.
Even Fool's Day has almost died out, and what a pity! In the Middle Ages it was called The Feast of Fools; it was a great festival. Kings and princes, cardinals and bishops:everyone in a position of authority was made rollicking fun of on that day. So many centuries later we are used to seeing authority mocked, but somehow we lack that earlier mirth and exuberance. Our mockery is usually rather bitter and mean. Being unsupported, it has to fight for its place, and this gives it a mean spirit. How badly we need jesters and Feasts of Fools in the Church! But my coffee companion should not apply; he needs these himself. No one has more urgent need of a jester than the man who is taking on his shoulders the divine attributes.
Is it just possible that we commit more sins out of humourlessness than from any other cause? Should we not have many more jesters in public life and in the inner court of our own life? They could do much good work there. They would prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously. They would prevent us from becoming so identified with our role that we cease to be fully human. And if we are in some position of power (even the impotent power of the alienated) they would prevent us from taking ourselves for God.
Our humour is the best part of us - the liveliest, the most intelligent, the most original. We underestimate the amount of intelligence it takes to understand a joke; and it takes still more to make one. A joke is a swift leap of intelligence: we are being carried along unsuspecting on the straight tracks of a story, when suddenly (on the play of a word or an image or an idea) we are hurled onto a different level of meaning. It is the human spirit at its best. It is by leaps similar in many ways to this that great saints have been able to contemplate God by looking around at the world.
It was a custom in the Eastern Church to sit around on the evening of Easter Sunday, telling jokes to one another. It was a way of celebrating the joke that God played on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. The devil had calculated everything and seen his plan succeed “at the opportune time,” but despite his best calculations and his timing, God snatched Jesus out of the tomb. There is a fresco in Florence by Beato Angelico that shows St Dominic witnessing the resurrection of Jesus, and smiling.
Yes, the devil is humourless. You can see it in the people who do his work. But God's saints are full of joy and laughter. They worship a God who is the greatest practical joker, who pulls life out of the grave.
From In A Fitful Light (1994) by Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, 42 Parnell Square, Dublin 1)