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Goodness And Gayety
by [?]

“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.