A Spoonful of SplendaJOHN ZMIRAK
Don't bring a gun to a rubber-chicken fight.
Lately I've taken to writing about the moral life, denouncing at once the Deadly Sins and the Neuroses that loom as their polar opposites (hence Lust and Frigidity, Vanity and Servility, Greed and Prodigality), in defense of the Virtues that stand in the Golden Mean. You'd think that the subject matter might sober me up, but invariably my illustrations tend to come from TV episodes, dog anecdotes, and oddments of Catholic history that feature impressive costumes and battle narratives. Someone once asked me why I'd dedicated myself to the study of "sacred ephemera." I quipped back, "Because I'm a very silly person, and we need the gospel, too."
How could it be otherwise, when the three major influences of my life, which struck me at the same time and with equally enduring force, were the catechesis of Rev. John Hardon, the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the skits of Monty Python? Somewhere in my 16-year-old brain I mashed it all together, till my dreams consisted of Jesuit hobbits doing silly walks while evangelizing China. That formation helped me keep my faith intact at a hostile college.
A better answer is that humor makes a thick and tasty sauce to flavor the rather pungent meat of Catholic metaphysics and morals – which is hearty, low-fat, and nutritious, but you must admit has kind of a "wild" taste, like deer meat or turtle. I'll never forget addressing a Catholic bookseller's conference over dinner, as the hundreds of gathered nuns and earnest, underpaid laymen finished a nice piece of chicken breast. I told them about the "theology of Mardi Gras," and suggested they mark the holiday by serving up "Smothered Squirrel." It would have taken a puny soul to resist the obvious punch line: "How do you like it? It tastes just like chicken, doesn't it?" Two hundred forks dropped at once. It is for such moments that I was born.
People don't usually lose their faith because they've slogged through 600-page books by Protestant fundamentalists, or even by Richard McBrien. Many more just slip-slide away after watching a hundred monologues by George Carlin or Ricky Gervais that make the Church seem silly. Not false – calling the Church's teachings false raises the squirmy question of Truth, which Screwtape rightly warned his tempters to stay away from. Just silly.
Now, there's plenty that's merely human about the Church (and therefore alternately sordid and ridiculous). Sometimes joking about such things is useful and truthful. A humorless Faith is stereotypically brittle or repulsive, raising the obvious question: "If believing all this stuff will make me a prig like you, do I even want to consider it?" In the South, our Protestant brethren warn of the scandal given by "dowdy Christians." So for Pentecost, I hope some earnest people I've seen distributing pamphlets attacking NFP will make a bonfire of their floor-length denim jumpers, shiny polyester suits, and patriotic neckties. I'd happily feed the flames with works by Garry Wills – and assure the good people at our bonfire of the drabberies, "This isn't a fashion purge – it's a book-burning!" I'd remind them that this practice was praised by Gregory XVI in Mirari Vos. And everybody'd be happy.
Humor can cut the other way as well, helping those who are tempted not by the world but by anti-worldly gnosticism come back out to God's free air and sunlight. I'll never forget the grimmest wedding I ever attended. Not irreverent or disrespectful – quite the contrary. A lovely Tridentine Mass, in a New England Gothic church that had somehow escaped the wreckovators and liturgists, the pedophiles and the plaintiffs. The choir sang well. The bride was glowing, the groom was gloating, and all seemed as it should be. Then the priest mounted the pulpit to give the homily. He took as his theme the unique value of suffering, and offered the theory (cribbed from Rev. Frederick Faber) that willfully accepted suffering is the only currency acceptable in Heaven. He spoke of the many and heavy crosses that married people must carry, and illustrated his message by pointing to the bride and then to the groom – explaining that each of them would serve for the other as the heaviest cross in life, the deepest and most enduring cause of suffering. "It is thus, as we embrace the Cross, that we work our way in fear and trembling along the narrow path to Heaven." Victim soul, embrace your cross. You may kiss the bride.
Given that the bride and groom had specially chosen this priest for his preaching, and in light of some things they'd said that left me feeling like Sebastian Flyte ("Is it nonsense? I wish it were"), it seemed some response was in order. So when the couple sent out the announcement that they'd got themselves with child during their honeymoon, I thought back to their wedding sermon, and sent them a note in a similar spirit:
They knew how to take a joke, and it had its intended effect. They didn't, in fact, name their kid Stigmatus.
John Zmirak. "A Spoonful of Splenda." Inside Catholic (March 30, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of InsideCatholic.com. The mission of InsideCatholic.com is to be a voice for authentic Catholicism in the public square.
artwork: Leslie Sealey
John Zmirak is the author of A Bad Catholicís Guide to Good Living, The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins: A Vital Look at Virtue and Vice, With Quizzes and Activities for Saintly Self-Improvement, and editor of All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith. He is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire and writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.
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