“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” — G. K. Chesterton
Long before I came along with a story about a bishop who smoked cheroots and played poker, G. K. Chesterton confronted a nuisance, and true to form found a bit of practical wisdom in it. He noticed the aggravating tendency of printers to mistake the word comic for cosmic. Upon further reflection, he found something profoundly agreeable about this common misprint plaguing journalists of his day.
Chesterton surely sensed that the absence of the comic from the cosmic is the cause of a lot that is haywire with the world. He intended as much when suggesting that God conceals his mirth from humankind, perhaps hoping that discovering it on our own is the better way. This conviction is ever so evident in his wondrous and wandering biographies of St. Francis, St. Thomas, and Charles Dickens. Its spirit permeates The Ball and the Cross, The Man Who Was Thursday, and practically everything he wrote. It also has something to do with my card-playing bishop and a vexing question.
Why is Catholicism so often mirthless today, in an age absorbed in a great revival of interest in Chesterton’s thought? Why is a genial G. K. smiling beneath a processional cross while his followers resemble what novelist Sinclair Lewis described as men of measured merriment –the woefully self-absorbed; the furtive looking both ways at every cultural crossing; the nervously giggling careerists; the pop-theologians more and more sounding like sportscasters with their earnest post-game analysis of the latest theological dust-up?
It was not always this way. There was a time when writers and artists of all sorts felt free to find whimsy in religion and the foibles of religious folk. No better place to explore this than in the great cycles of medieval religious drama, the Miracle and Mystery Plays celebrated as part of festivals in the English cities of York, Wakefield, and Chester until snuffed out in a puritanical backlash against pious tomfoolery. That Chesterton knew about the comic mingling with the cosmic in medieval religious drama is clear in his extensive writings about Shakespeare (see The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on Shakespeare, edited and with an introduction by Dale Ahlquist).
It might be said of medieval religious drama that it made the men and women of Bible stories more laughable, and that in doing so made them more believable, and that this in turn inspired faith in Christianity. It may be that instead of pondering what a particular prelate thinks, we would better off knowing what he eats for breakfast or whether he has a comic book collection. I can well imagine Chesterton thinking so. It is the sometimes whimsical incidentals of our lives that define us as human beings and invite us to be taken seriously.
And so it is with wondrous medieval dramatizations featuring, for example, Noah perplexed by a nagging wife as he builds his ark; and St. Joseph, an old man, being ribbed for marrying a young woman heavy with child. Of course, a fifteenth century audience knew the Annunciation story. Those heckling St. Joseph suggested Christ’s true paternity lay elsewhere. This was precisely the point. Thus a simple fifteenth century play became an amusing New Testament lesson about the Holy Spirit, the Virgin birth, and the patient stoicism of St. Joseph.
Chesterton could not have failed to admire the ‘Wakefield Master’, an anonymous fifteenth century playwright who penned perhaps as many as forty short plays including the greatest of them all, The Second Shepherds’ Play.
Lucky anyone who has seen a performance of The Second Shepherds’ Play, notably absent from Christmas programs, and yet so simple that school children could perform it: Three shepherds despair of a reprieve from nagging, cruel taxation, and thievery, all the while tending their flocks near Bethlehem. Their raucous litany of universal, timeless complaints, both comic and cosmic, takes place the very evening Christ is born. Later, that same night, the infant Christ becomes symbolically confused with a stolen lamb, and a likable rogue thief gets tossed in a blanket. The whole world laughs and worships beneath a chorus of angels and the promise of a world made better. This masterpiece, as transcendent as Christmas itself, can be seen reenacted all over the world on Christmas Eve where over glasses of beer and cups of mulled wine people echo the shepherds’ complaints while choirs rehearse for Midnight Mass.
Chesterton might have speculated that the world will end with a poor man’s mirth rather than his whimper. In his words, “Whatever is cosmic is comic.” The last trumpet call may begin a joyous parade. I have no idea whether G.K. ever witnessed an enactment of any of the majestically merry, and yet somehow devotional, Miracle and Mystery plays. Their performance revival is almost strangely recent, for example, in the Cathedral City of York.
There, an evening many years ago, I sat shivering with a crowd of locals, assembled in a sort of makeshift amphitheater with an ancient monastery ruins part of it. It helped little that hot air balloons faded from view as the sun went down and chill moonlight replaced it. A stage set version of the fires of hell burnt beneath a platform holding some ragtag shepherd sorts attempting to keep warm while discussing St. Joseph’s paternity problem.
The playful irony was as rich as the wine we sipped from paper cups, spellbound and quiet with heaven and hell above and beneath. We clapped to keep our hands warm while envying the actors assigned to play devils, nearest a warming blaze of course.
Where and when did seriousness and mirth part company in matters religious? It’s tempting to think of it as a notably post-Reformation development, the banishment of tomfoolery along with popery given the toxic blending of politics and spirituality. Beheadings, stake-burnings, and witch trials are sufficiently serious to wipe smiles off anyone’s face.
Nevertheless, we know that it was once okay to smile while praying in this vale of tears where people sometimes laugh until they cry. It is evident in stained glass windows, tapestries, and altar screens. It can be seen in cathedrals throughout England and Europe where comical critters peer from the folds of pious drapery.
In noting the presence of the comic in the cosmic, G.K. was affirming something that had long existed, the pearl of laughter in the oyster shell of seriousness.
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