Goodness And Gayety by Agnes Repplier

Story type: Essay

“Can surly Virtue hope to find a friend?”–DR. JOHNSON.

Sir Leslie Stephen has recorded his conviction that a sense of humour, being irreconcilable with some of the cardinal virtues, is lacking in most good men. Father Faber asserted, on the contrary, that a sense of humour is a great help in the religious life, and emphasized this somewhat unusual point of view with the decisive statement: “Perhaps nature does not contribute a greater help to grace than this.”

Here are conflicting verdicts to be well considered. Sir Leslie Stephen knew more about humour than did Father Faber; Father Faber knew more about “grace” than did Sir Leslie Stephen; and both disputants were widely acquainted with their fellow men. Sir Leslie Stephen had a pretty wit of his own, but it may have lacked the qualities which make for holiness. There was in it the element of denial. He seldom entered the shrine where we worship our ideals in secret. He stood outside, remarks Mr. Birrell cheerily, “with a pail of cold water.” Father Faber also possessed a vein of irony which was the outcome of a priestly experience with the cherished foibles of the world. He entered unbidden into the shrine where we worship our illusions in secret, and chilled us with unwelcome truths. I know of no harder experience than this. It takes time and trouble to persuade ourselves that the things we want to do are the things we ought to do. We balance our spiritual accounts with care. We insert glib phrases about duty into all our reckonings. There is nothing, or next to nothing, which cannot, if adroitly catalogued, be considered a duty; and it is this delicate mental adjustment which is disturbed by Father Faber’s ridicule. “Self-deceit,” he caustically observes, “seems to thrive on prayer, and to grow fat on contemplation.”

If a sense of humour forces us to be candid with ourselves, then it can be reconciled, not only with the cardinal virtues–which are but a chilly quartette–but with the flaming charities which have consumed the souls of saints. The true humourist, objects Sir Leslie Stephen, sees the world as a tragi-comedy, a Vanity Fair, in which enthusiasm is out of place. But if the true humourist also sees himself presiding, in the sacred name of duty, over a booth in Vanity Fair, he may yet reach perfection. What Father Faber opposed so strenuously were, not the vanities of the profane, of the openly and cheerfully unregenerate; but the vanities of a devout and fashionable congregation, making especial terms–by virtue of its exalted station–with Providence. These were the people whom he regarded all his priestly life with whimsical dismay. “Their voluntary social arrangements,” he wrote in “Spiritual Conferences,” “are the tyranny of circumstance, claiming our tenderest pity, and to be managed like the work of a Xavier, or a Vincent of Paul, which hardly left the saints time to pray. Their sheer worldliness is to be considered as an interior trial, with all manner of cloudy grand things to be said about it. They must avoid uneasiness, for such great graces as theirs can grow only in calmness and tranquillity.”

This is irony rather than humour, but it implies a capacity to see the tragi-comedy of the world, without necessarily losing the power of enthusiasm. It also explains why Father Faber regarded an honest sense of the ridiculous as a help to goodness. The man or woman who is impervious to the absurd cannot well be stripped of self-delusion. For him, for her, there is no shaft which wounds. The admirable advice of Thomas a Kempis to keep away from people whom we desire to please, and the quiet perfection of his warning to the censorious, “In judging others, a man toileth in vain; for the most part he is mistaken, and he easily sinneth; but in judging and scrutinizing himself, he always laboureth with profit,” can make their just appeal only to the humorous sense. So, too, the counsel of Saint Francis de Sales to the nuns who wanted to go barefooted, “Keep your shoes and change your brains”; the cautious query of Pope Gregory the First, concerning John the Faster, “Does he abstain even from the truth?” Cardinal Newman’s axiom, “It is never worth while to call whity-brown white, for the sake of avoiding scandal”; and Father Faber’s own felicitous comment on religious “hedgers,” “A moderation which consists in taking immoderate liberties with God is hardly what the Fathers of the Desert meant when they preached their crusade in favour of discretion”;–are all spoken to those hardy and humorous souls who can bear to be honest with themselves.

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The ardent reformer, intolerant of the ordinary processes of life, the ardent philanthropist, intolerant of an imperfect civilization, the ardent zealot, intolerant of man’s unspiritual nature, are seldom disposed to gayety. A noble impatience of spirit inclines them to anger or to sadness. John Wesley, reformer, philanthropist, zealot, and surpassingly great in all three characters, strangled within his own breast the simple desire to be gay. He was a young man when he formed the resolution, “to labour after continual seriousness, not willingly indulging myself in the least levity of behaviour, or in laughter,–no, not for a moment”; and for more than fifty years he kept–probably with no great difficulty–this stern resolve. The mediaeval saying, that laughter has sin for a father and folly for a mother, would have meant to Wesley more than a figure of speech. Nothing could rob him of a dry and bitter humour (“They won’t let me go to Bedlam,” he wrote, “because they say I make the inmates mad, nor into Newgate, because I make them wicked”); but there was little in his creed or in the scenes of his labours to promote cheerfulness of spirit.

This disciplining of nature, honest, erring human nature, which could, if permitted, make out a fair case for itself, is not an essential element of the evangelist’s code. In the hands of men less great than Wesley, it has been known to nullify the work of a lifetime. The Lincolnshire farmer who, after listening to a sermon on Hell, said to his wife, “Noa, Sally, it woant do. Noa constitootion could stand it,” expressed in his own fashion the healthy limit of endurance. Our spiritual constitutions break under a pitiless strain. When we read in the diary of Henry Alline, quoted by Dr. William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” “On Wednesday the twelfth I preached at a wedding, and had the happiness thereby to be the means of excluding carnal mirth,” we are not merely sorry for the wedding guests, but beset by doubts as to their moral gain.

Why should Henry Martyn, that fervent young missionary who gave his life for his cause with the straight-forward simplicity of a soldier, have regretted so bitterly an occasional lapse into good spirits? He was inhumanly serious, and he prayed by night and day to be saved from his “besetting sin” of levity. He was consumed by the flame of religious zeal, and he bewailed at grievous length, in his diary, his “light, worldly spirit.” He toiled unrestingly, taking no heed of his own physical weakness, and he asked himself (when he had a minute to spare) what would become of his soul, should he be struck dead in a “careless mood.” We have Mr. Birrell’s word for it that once, in an old book about India, he came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn’s; but the idea was so incongruous that the startled essayist was disposed to doubt the evidence of his senses. “There must have been a mistake somewhere.”

To such a man the world is not, and never can be, a tragi-comedy, and laughter seems forever out of place. When a Madeira negress, a good Christian after her benighted fashion, asked Martyn if the English were ever baptized, he did not think the innocent question funny, he thought it horrible. He found Saint Basil’s writings unsatisfactory, as lacking “evangelical truth”; and, could he have heard this great doctor of the Church fling back a witticism in the court of an angry magistrate, he would probably have felt more doubtful than ever concerning the status of the early Fathers. It is a relief to turn from the letters of Martyn, with their aloofness from the cheerful currents of earth, to the letters of Bishop Heber, who, albeit a missionary and a keen one, had always a laugh for the absurdities which beset his wandering life. He could even tell with relish the story of the drunken pedlar whom he met in Wales, and who confided to him that, having sold all his wares, he was trying to drink up the proceeds before he got home, lest his wife should take the money away from him. Heber, using the argument which he felt would be of most avail, tried to frighten the man into soberness by picturing his wife’s wrath; whereupon the adroit scamp replied that he knew what that would be, and had taken the precaution to have his hair cut short, so that she could not get a grip on it. Martyn could no more have chuckled over this depravity than he could have chuckled over the fallen angels; but Saint Teresa could have laughed outright, her wonderful, merry, infectious laugh; and have then proceeded to plead, to scold, to threaten, to persuade, until a chastened and repentant pedlar, money in hand, and some dim promptings to goodness tugging at his heart, would have tramped bravely and soberly home.

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It is so much the custom to obliterate from religious memoirs all vigorous human traits, all incidents which do not tend to edification, and all contemporary criticism which cannot be smoothed into praise, that what is left seems to the disheartened reader only a pale shadow of life. It is hard to make any biography illustrate a theme, or prove an argument; and the process by which such results are obtained is so artificial as to be open to the charge of untruth. Because General Havelock was a good Baptist as well as a good soldier, because he expressed a belief in the efficacy of prayer (like Cromwell’s “Trust in God, and keep your powder dry “), and because he wrote to his wife, when sent to the relief of Lucknow, “May God give me wisdom and strength for the work!”–which, after all, was a natural enough thing for any man to say,–he was made the subject of a memoir determinedly and depressingly devout, in which his family letters were annotated as though they were the epistles of Saint Paul. Yet this was the man who, when Lucknow was relieved, behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to besiegers or besieged. “He shook hands with me,” wrote Lady Inglis in her journal, “and observed that he feared we had suffered a great deal.” That was all. He might have said as much had the little garrison been incommoded by a spell of unusual heat, or by an epidemic of measles.

As a matter of fact, piety is a by no means uncommon attribute of soldiers, and there was no need on the part of the Reverend Mr. Brock, who compiled these shadowy pages, to write as though General Havelock had been a rare species of the genius military. We know that what the English Puritans especially resented in Prince Rupert was his insistence on regimental prayers. They could pardon his raids, his breathless charges, his bewildering habit of appearing where he was least expected or desired; but that he should usurp their own especial prerogative of piety was more than they could bear. It is probable that Rupert’s own private petitions resembled the memorable prayer offered by Sir Jacob Astley (a hardy old Cavalier who was both devout and humorous) before the battle of Edgehill: “Oh, Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me. March on, boys!”

If it were not for a few illuminating anecdotes, and the thrice blessed custom of letter writing, we should never know what manner of thing human goodness, exalted human goodness, is; and so acquiesce ignorantly in Sir Leslie Stephen’s judgment. The sinners of the world stand out clear and distinct, full of vitality, and of an engaging candour. The saints of Heaven shine dimly through a nebulous haze of hagiology. They are embodiments of inaccessible virtues, as remote from us and from our neighbours as if they had lived on another planet. There is no more use in asking us to imitate these incomprehensible creatures than there would be in asking us to climb by easy stages to the moon. Without some common denominator, sinner and saint are as aloof from each other as sinner and archangel. Without some clue to the saint’s spiritual identity, the record of his labours and hardships, fasts, visions, and miracles, offers nothing more helpful than bewilderment. We may be edified or we may be sceptical, according to our temperament and training; but a profound unconcern devitalizes both scepticism and edification. What have we mortals in common with these perfected prodigies of grace?

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It was Cardinal Newman who first entered a protest against “minced” saints, against the pious and popular custom of chopping up human records into lessons for the devout. He took exception to the hagiological licence which assigns lofty motives to trivial actions. “The saint from humility made no reply.” “The saint was silent out of compassion for the ignorance of the speaker.” He invited us to approach the Fathers of the Church in their unguarded moments, in their ordinary avocations, in their moods of gayety and depression; and, when we accepted the invitation, these figures, lofty and remote, became imbued with life. It is one thing to know that Saint Chrysostom retired at twenty-three to a monastery near Antioch, and there spent six years in seclusion and study. It is another and more enlightening thing to be made aware, through the medium of his own letters, that he took this step with reasonable doubts and misgivings,–doubts which extended to the freshness of the monastery bread, misgivings which concerned themselves with the sweetness of the monastery oil. And when we read these candid expressions of anxiety, Saint Chrysostom, by virtue of his healthy young appetite, and his distaste (which any poor sinner can share) for rancid oil, becomes a man and a brother. It is yet more consoling to know that when well advanced in sainthood, when old, austere, exiled, and suffering many privations for conscience’ sake, Chrysostom was still disposed to be a trifle fastidious about his bread. He writes from Caesarea to Theodora that he has at last found clean water to drink, and bread which can be chewed. “Moreover, I no longer wash myself in broken crockery, but have contrived some sort of bath; also I have a bed to which I can confine myself.”

If Saint Chrysostom possessed, according to Newman, a cheerful temper, and “a sunniness of mind all his own,” Saint Gregory of Nazianzus was a fair humourist, and Saint Basil was a wit. “Pensive playfulness” is Newman’s phrase for Basil, but there was a speed about his retorts which did not always savour of pensiveness. When the furious governor of Pontus threatened to tear out his liver, Basil, a confirmed invalid, replied suavely, “It is a kind intention. My liver, as at present located, has given me nothing but uneasiness.”

To Gregory, Basil was not only guide, philosopher, and friend; but also a cherished target for his jests. It has been wisely said that we cannot really love anybody at whom we never laugh. Gregory loved Basil, revered him, and laughed at him. Does Basil complain, not unnaturally, that Tiberina is cold, damp, and muddy, Gregory writes to him unsympathetically that he is a “clean-footed, tip-toeing, capering man.” Does Basil promise a visit, Gregory sends word to Amphilochus that he must have some fine pot-herbs, “lest Basil should be hungry and cross.” Does Gregory visit Basil in his solitude at Pontus, he expresses in no measured terms his sense of the discomfort he endures. It would be hard to find, in all the annals of correspondence, a letter written with a more laudable and well-defined intention of teasing its recipient, than the one dispatched to Basil by Gregory after he has made good his escape from the austerities of his friend’s housekeeping.

“I have remembrance of the bread and of the broth,–so they were named,–and shall remember them; how my teeth stuck in your hunches, and lifted and heaved themselves as out of paste. You, indeed, will set it out in tragic style, taking a sublime tone from your own sufferings; but for me, unless that true Lady Bountiful, your mother, had rescued me quickly, showing herself in my need like a haven to the tempest-tossed, I had been dead long ago, getting myself little honour, though much pity, from Pontic hospitality.”

This is not precisely the tone in which the lives of the saints (of any saints of any creeds) are written. Therefore is it better to read what the saints say for themselves than what has been said about them. This is not precisely the point of view which is presented unctuously for our consideration, yet it makes all other points of view intelligible. It is contrary to human nature to court privations. We know that the saints did court them, and valued them as avenues to grace. It is in accord with human nature to meet privations cheerfully, and with a whimsical sense of discomfiture. When we hear the echo of a saint’s laughter ringing down the centuries, we have a clue to his identity; not to his whole and heroic self, but to that portion of him which we can best understand, and with which we claim some humble brotherhood. We ourselves are not hunting assiduously for hardships; but which one of us has not summoned up courage enough to laugh in the face of disaster?

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There is no reading less conducive to good spirits than the recitals of missionaries, or than such pitiless records as those compiled by Dr. Thomas William Marshall in his two portly volumes on “Christian Missions.” The heathen, as portrayed by Dr. Marshall, do not in the least resemble the heathen made familiar to us by the hymns and tracts of our infancy. So far from calling on us to deliver their land “from error’s chain,” they mete out prompt and cruel death to their deliverers. So far from thirsting for Gospel truths, they thirst for the blood of the intruders. This is frankly discouraging, and we could never read so many pages of disagreeable happenings, were it not for the gayety of the letters which Dr. Marshall quotes, and which deal less in heroics than in pleasantries. Such men as Bishop Berneux, the Abbe Retord, and Father Feron, missionaries in Cochin-China and Corea, all possessed that protective sense of humour which kept up their spirits and their enthusiasms. Father Feron, for example, hidden away in the “Valley of the Pines,” six hundred miles from safety, writes to his sister in the autumn of 1858:–

“I am lodged in one of the finest houses in the village, that of the catechist, an opulent man. It is considered to be worth a pound sterling. Do not laugh; there are some of the value of eightpence. My room has a sheet of paper for a door, the rain filters through my grass-covered roof as fast as it falls outside, and two large kettles barely suffice to receive it. … The Prophet Elisha, at the house of the Shunamite, had for furniture a bed, a table, a chair, and a candlestick,–four pieces in all. No superfluity there. Now if I search well, I can also find four articles in my room; a wooden candlestick, a trunk, a pair of shoes, and a pipe. Bed none, chairs none, table none. Am I, then, richer or poorer than the Prophet? It is not an easy question to answer, for, granting that his quarters were more comfortable than mine, yet none of the things belonged to him; while in my case, although the candlestick is borrowed from the chapel, and the trunk from Monseigneur Berneux, the shoes (worn only when I say Mass) and the pipe are my very own.”

Surely if one chanced to be the sister of a missionary in Corea, and apprehensive, with good cause, of his personal safety, this is the kind of a letter one would be glad to receive. The comfort of finding one’s brother disinclined to take what Saint Gregory calls “a sublime tone” would tend–illogically, I own,–to ease the burden of anxiety. Even the remote reader, sick of discouraging details, experiences a renewal of confidence, and all because Father Feron’s good humour is of the common kind which we can best understand, and with which it befits every one of us to meet the vicissitudes of life.

I have said that the ardent reformer is seldom gay. Small wonder, when his eyes are turned upon the dark places of earth, and his whole strength is consumed in combat. Yet Saint Teresa, the most redoubtable reformer of her day, was gay. No other word expresses the quality of her gladness. She was not only spiritually serene, she was humanly gay, and this in the face of acute ill-health, and many profound discouragements. We have the evidence of all her contemporaries,–friends, nuns, patrons, and confessors; and we have the far more enduring testimony of her letters, in proof of this mirthfulness of spirit, which won its way into hearts, and lightened the austerities of her rule. “A very cheerful and gentle disposition, an excellent temper, and absolutely void of melancholy,” wrote Ribera. “So merry that when she laughed, every one laughed with her, but very grave when she was serious.”

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There is a strain of humour, a delicate and somewhat biting wit in the correspondence of Saint Teresa, and in her admonitions to her nuns. There is also an inspired common sense which we hardly expect to find in the writings of a religious and a mystic. But Teresa was not withdrawn from the world. She travelled incessantly from one end of Spain to the other, establishing new foundations, visiting her convents, and dealing with all classes of men, from the soldier to the priest, from the prince to the peasant. The severity of her discipline was tempered by a tolerant and half-amused insight into the pardonable foibles of humanity. She held back her nuns with one hand from “the frenzy of self-mortification,” which is the mainstay of spiritual vanity, and with the other hand from a too solicitous regard for their own comfort and convenience. They were not to consider that the fear of a headache,–a non-existent headache threatening the future–was sufficient excuse for absenting themselves from choir; and, if they were too ailing to practise any other austerities, the rule of silence, she reminded them, could do the feeblest no harm. “Do not contend wordily over matters of no consequence,” was her counsel of perfection. “Fly a thousand leagues from such observations as ‘You see I was right,’ or ‘They did me an injustice.’”

Small wonder that peace reigned among the discalced Carmelites so long as Teresa ruled. Practical and fearless (save when a lizard ran up her sleeve, on which occasion she confesses she nearly “died of fright,”) her much-sought advice was always on the side of reason. Asceticism she prized; dirt she abhorred. “For the love of Heaven,” she wrote to the Provincial, Gratian, then occupied with his first foundation of discalced friars, “let your fraternity be careful that they have clean beds and tablecloths, even though it be more expensive, for it is a terrible thing not to be cleanly.” No persuasion could induce her to retain a novice whom she believed to be unfitted for her rule:–“We women are not so easy to know,” was her scornful reply to the Jesuit, Olea, who held his judgment in such matters to be infallible; but nevertheless her practical soul yearned over a well-dowered nun. When an “excellent novice” with a fortune of six thousand ducats presented herself at the gates of the poverty-stricken convent in Seville, Teresa, then in Avila, was consumed with anxiety lest such an acquisition should, through some blunder, be lost. “For the love of God,” wrote the wise old saint to the prioress in Seville, “if she enters, bear with a few defects, for well does she deserve it.”

This is not the type of anecdote which looms large in the volumes of “minced saints” prepared for pious readers, and its absence has accustomed us to dissever humour from sanctity. But a candid soul is, as a rule, a humorous soul, awake to the tragi-comic aspect of life, and immaculately free from self-deception. And to such souls, cast like Teresa’s in heroic mould, comes the perception of great moral truths, together with the sturdy strength which supports enthusiasm in the face of human disabilities. They are the lantern-bearers of every age, of every race, of every creed, les ames bien nees whom it behooves us to approach fearlessly out of the darkness, for so only can we hope to understand.

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