My dear readers, unfortunate gravity and perfectionism have seized and bound my pen of late. The desire to write well has stymied me from writing at all. As the Italian proverb has it, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” The only solution, since I cannot convince myself that I write well, lies in writing badly. After all, Theodore Roosevelt advises that the best thing to do in any situation is the right thing, the next best is the wrong thing, and the worst is to do nothing at all. This advice may actually be false in regard to politics, but in the realm of writing it bears certain truth. And so, I have proposed to myself to write one post per diem–not necessarily on this blog–for a fortnight.
The title of this post, “De Hilaritate,” is the closest I could translate “On Levity” into Latin. If I had written “De Levitate” instead, the present article would be praising fickleness or changeableness, which deserve no praise at all. When I speak of levity, I speak of that virtue related to cheerfulness and humility, which all the saints have and often reveal in the most dour of times–as when the martyr St. Lawrence, as he roasted alive over a grill, said: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over and eat!” At the same time, the excess of gravity, rooted in pride and despair, is shared by all the citizens of hell. This might strike many of you with surprise as many religious types, myself included, have a tendency to face life with a serious countenance, as seems reasonable considering an eternity of heaven or hell awaits us depending on how we have lived. However, the devout always carry joy in them–the joy of being united to Christ, and extra seriousness at the beginning of conversion must give way to levity as our faith in God’s goodness and salvific will increase.
The lives of the saints give examples of many lighthearted persons–even occasions of great silliness. Take St. Philip Neri, who once shaved only half his beard for the sake of gaining humility. On another occasion, hearing that he would be visited by certain devout persons, he instructed a friend to read to him from a joke book. His visitors found themselves rather nonplussed to find the saint guffawing and slapping his knee as he listened to the jokes. Padre Pio similarly loved telling jokes and even playing practical jokes, one of which included pulling the stops from a wagon his best friend was sleeping in and having it careen at breakneck speed down a hill. Needless to say, his friend was not hurt–just rather surprised. Then again, who is not amused by St. Augustine’s unabashed enthusiasm for magnets?
This is not to say that the saints were not serious. They were serious and funny, as G. K. Chesterton writes of himself. The virtue of reverence stands at the back of all true seriousness, which bids us respect what is worthy of respect and mock what is worthy of ridicule. Chesterton writes of many politicians that they are neither serious nor funny. Excessive concern for trying to please every fringe group has made them lose the virtue of reverence. When someone claims that deer should have lawyers or that banning swords would make society a safer place, the proper response is to laugh at them. This response holds much more charity than enforcing their erroneous judgement by treating absurd ideas with respect.
Most of all, we cannot take ourselves too seriously. Ernest Hemingway took himself very seriously and shot himself. (May God have had mercy on his soul! I want to discuss his books with him in paradise.) Excessive gravity sinks one into the grave while levity can lift one towards paradise. Humble levity causes one to soar like St. Joseph of Cupertino, while gravity drags many souls into hell–where all is grey, grim, and grave. “A lighthearted man has a continual feast” even in the midst of privation and suffering. St. Joseph of Cupertino stands as an excellent example with his “seven Lents a year,” when he ate only twice a week; yet, few men’s last words contain more joy: “Blessed be God! Praised be God! God’s Will be done!” With these words, the flying saint proved light enough to be lifted straight into heaven.