Saints Who Laugh

Gazing [on God] … there springs up in a soul susceptible of such impressions, an intense inward jubilee … a joy which no tongue can tell. —Bl. Henry Suso (1300-1365)

There are saints who follow the Way of the Cross with exterior sufferings and prolonged dark nights of the soul. Others swing between spiritual heights and dark depths, while a third company of the holy march toward heaven, placid lambs behind the Good Shepherd, in steady peacefulness. Rarest—but potent signs of the eternal joy to which we are all called—are those saints whose unwavering openness to divine love leads them by way of jubilation.

Look at Christ’s twelve disciples. Vascilating Peter is at times strongly rebuked, abandons Christ out of fear, and knows the bitterness of repented sin before he accepts Christ’s forgiveness and goes on to wear a martyr’s crown. Thomas also pursues a rocky road to sanctity. John, on the other hand, rests on Jesus’s heart and is graced not only to stand stalwartly at the foot of the Cross but to be given guardianship of the Blessed Mother. Where the other eleven are martyred, this saint—whose gospel and epistle are canticles of love—dies naturally in old age.

Often born cheerful, saints who follow John’s rare road of jubilation are individuals who, converted, only become merrier—like 19th century martyr St. Theophane Venard who insisted “the life of a true Christian should be a perpetual jubilee, a prelude to the festivals of eternity.” This French missionary to Indochina followed his call to “be merry, really merry,” so well that, from the Mandarin to the lowliest guard, his captors regretted Venard’s legally-mandated beheading on Feb. 2, 1861.

Of these saints for whom life is perpetual jubilee, there is no greater example than St. Philip Neri (b. July 22, 1515). The same biographer who says of the Florence-born Philip, “No temperament could have been sunnier than his” also cites Philip as “one of the greatest ecstatics who ever lived.” Known for his jests, well-thumbed joke book, and a buffoonery that recalls Russian Orthodox and Hasidic traditions of “the holy fool,” in Philip the acquired joy of the mystic blends seamlessly with the innate “lightness of being” that all his life gave him extraordinary power to attract others.

Merry-dispositioned, early in life the Florentine still made the sober decision to live radically for God. Giving up his chance for a rich inheritance, Philip headed for Rome, where he knew almost no one. There he spent his first seventeen years praying—repeatedly making a twelve-mile circuit of seven churches as a personal pilgrimage or holing up for hours in a hidden catacomb.

Apparently needing no purification that could not be achieved through ecstatic love, Philip knew only “a life of radiant happiness” with never an arid prayer period or dark night. By the saint’s own account, his mystical joy often reached such a pitch that he cried to God, “No more! No more or I shall die!” Burning with rapturous divine love, he would rip off his shirt and sometimes collapse on the ground.

On a night just before Pentecost 1544, Philip was praying in the catacomb of San Sebastiano. A ball of fire—like the flames of the first Pentecost or those seen hovering over the bodies of other saints—entered Philip’s mouth and lodged in his breast. It hurled him to the floor. When he could think again, he realized his whole body was shaking, while on the left side of his chest protruded a swelling the size of a man’s fist.

No transient phenomenon, the swelling lasted the remaining fifty years of Neri’s life. Upon the saint’s death, an autopsy showed ribs had actually broken when his heart and pulmonary artery enlarged. Arching over this huge heart, Philip’s cracked ribs formed the external protuberance. As for the shaking, whenever the love between Philip and God was stirred, jubilation made his abnormally-enlarged heart pound so that Philip’s chair, bed, or sometimes a whole room shook. Miraculously, his broken ribs produced no pain but, with the spasms, were linked to ineffable joy.

Experiencing that “a cheerful and glad spirit attains to perfection much more readily than a melancholy [one]….” Philip led his many devoted disciples to God by his own twofold path— humility and cheerfulness.

As years passed Philip’s jests and buffoonery deliberately increased. For instance, Philip rooted his disciples in humility in 16th century Rome’s status conscious society by harmless pranks. A disciple who asked to wear a hair shirt was told to wear it outside his finery. As Philip anticipated, people stared—and laughed. And when a young priest disciple preached such a moving sermon that he was tempted to pride, Philip ordered he preach it, word for word, six more times. Soon when people saw obedient Fr. Agostino Manni coming, they groaned “Oh no, not the Father-who-only-has-one-sermon” and Manni was safe from vainglory’s grasp.

Philip himself acted “God’s fool” so successfully that foreign dignitaries anxious to meet a “saint” stalked out in disgust. This suited Philip, who found splintering egotism this way steeped him in “the joy of the Lord.”

Even playing the fool, Philip could not help but draw the world to him by his inexhaustible capacity for affection and the light and warmth that flowed from him. To keep his humility when being called “the saint of Rome,” he tried ever harder to make himself a buffoon to be despised rather than revered. When a woman claimed she had seen him levitate, he cried “Hold your tongue!” but when she immediately added she thought he was possessed, he laughed heartily.

The jubilant holy man became ever more prone to ecstasies. At age thirty-six, just before his spiritual director ordered him to be ordained, Philip was running an enormously successful storefront church he called an Oratory. Here people flocked to first-class music as well as extemporaneous testimonies by Neri and other laymen in a prayer meeting lasting several hours a day. When Philip gave up public witnessing, he brushed it off by saying others were more capable. In fact, his jubilation was such that he could now rarely talk about God without risking ecstasy.

Saying Mass was a major problem. The saint literally had to keep his head in a joke book or engage in such apparently slapstick behavior as having his hair cut in the church in order to keep himself moored to reality enough not to levitate or go into many hours of ecstasy. Even in his bedroom he had the chagrin of levitating in jubilant ecstasy above his sickbed in front of a covey of doctors (that time he was seeing the Virgin Mary who healed him instantly).

In Philip’s last years Pope Gregory XIII, a close friend, let the jubilant ecstatic say Mass in private. The server would leave at the Agnus Dei, having drawn the shutters and put out the candles, leaving only a small lamp in the darkened room. A sign on the closed door “Silence—the Father is saying Mass” warned visitors away. Two hours later the server would return and knock. If Philip answered, the server would go in, light the candles, open the shutters, and the saint—returned from his swoon in the divine embrace— would go on with the Mass.

Philip’s legendary joy remained even in old age. Just four years before he died at almost eighty (on May 26, 1595), an observer spied the elderly priest alone by the corpse of a beloved friend. Covering the body with kisses, Philip was jubilantly “laughing in exultation.”

Jubilation is also found in modern saints. Fast forward to the dark, extremely severe winter that opens 1942. At the Nazi prison in Scheveningen, Holland (near The Hague), Dutch Resistanc prisoner Fogtelo is assigned to accompany the jail’s b arber on his rounds. At cell after cell, Fogtelo notes pal e faces drained of energy and marked by suicidal despair.

Then the door to solitary confinement cell 577 swings open. To Fogtelo’ s stupefaction, a small, older prisoner in a black suit steps forward with “a radiant smile on his face.”

Fogtelo will never forget that face during the next seven weeks. Each time he enters cell 577, he is met by “the same radiant greeting” and goes away astonished that in one of Scheveningen’s cells “there remained a happy man.”

Those who know that solitary confinement prisoner, sixty-one year old Titus Brandsma, professor of philosophy and ascetical theology at Nijmegen University, journalist, translator of St. Teresa of Avila into Dutch, and great-hearted Carmelite priest, would not be astonished.

Even four decade searlier, when Titus’s honest disagreement with an older superior on the future of their order permanently cancelled the young scholar’s hopes of studying in Rome (a ruling later reversed), those around the farm-born native of Friesland (Holland’s northernmost area) note in Titus an “inner peace and cheerfulness [that] seemed untouchable.”

In later years as a distinguished scholar, Father Titus repaid a visit by an Irish Carmelite. Father Malachy Lynch thought Titus was “the happiest person he had ever known, one who … spread happiness all round him ” Extremely reticent about his inner life, Titus only remarked once “it sometimes happens that I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.”

But others knew. The highest ranking Dutch Carmelite, Dr. Hubertus Driessen, told his provincial that when at the beginning of World War II rumor spread that St. Therese of Lisieux had appeared to Fr. Brandsma, Driessen at once believed it.

Titus’s own reaction? He burst out laughing.

Fellow Carmelites also recall the humor in the notes Titus sent even from Dachau. In one he wrote, “I don’t need to weep or to sigh. I even sing now and then, but not, of course, too loud.”

He knew this would elicit chuckles: for Titus’s jubilation during the Community Divine Office had tended to overflow into what confreres judged far too enthusiastic singing. More than once, they had asked him to tone it down—a suggestion he humbly followed until the next time joy carried him away.

Sacrificing himself to rally the Dutch Catholic press not to accept Nazi propaganda, Titus was not stifled by his imminent arrest. To a colleague, he remarked, “I’m about to get what … I’ve always wanted: a cell of my own!” Alone in that prison cell, he wrote in a memoir later given to the Carmelites, “I am alone, yes, but never has the good Lord been so near to me. I could shout for joy….”

That joy was not because he never suffered. Degenerative disease already reared its head before his arrest. And in the concentration camp where a Jesuit survivor recalls Titus as “happy,” the Carmelite scholar was repeatedly singled out by a sadistic guard, for if jubilation attracts those hungry for

God and goodness, evil souls draw near too—burning to stamp out Divine light and love.

One day other prisoners—helpless, agonizing—watched Titus beaten and kicked by this guard as if the tormenter had gone mad. But afterwards Titus needed no consoling. Smiling at the Dutch friar who helped him up, he said happily— waving his spectacle case in which was a consecrated host—”I knew whom I had with me!”

During a brief period in May 1942 Titus was returned to Scheveningen for interrogation. There another guard who hated Catholics began to spy on the Carmelite through the cell’s peep hole. Obsessed in his own darkness with Brandsma’s joyous light, the guard told another prisoner that he wouldn’t want to be in the front lines “if that man Brandsma were opposite.”

“He’s the sort,” the guard snarled, “who starts praying until a ruddy cross appears in the sky and wins battles for him.” This dark soul, Kirzig, became so fixated on Titus that one evening he brought the Carmelite out of his cell to the guardroom and kept him there, talking, far into the night.

After Titus departed, Kirzig astonished prisoners by commenting, “That man was a saint.”

Titus’s inner joy held out to the end. We know this because in his final days, used in cruel and humiliating experiments as a “lab rat” in Dachau’s “medical” facility, Brandsma set in motion the conversion of the nurse who killed him by lethal injection. Her sworn testimony of Titus’ loving concern for her includes his statement—which she verified he lived out—that he was glad to suffer for God’s sake.

But then jubilation is found among many martyrs. In 258 A.D. Deacon St. Lawrence jubilantly led a crowd of the poorest of the poor before Roman officials in response to their order to turn over “the treasures of your Church.” Bound to a red-hot griddle for such defiance of Imperial power, Lawrence gleefully joked with his torturers, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.”

Arrested in 1610 after eight years as a secret missionary to England, Welsh Benedictine St. John Roberts—condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn— faced this barbarous death with transports of joy. The night before his death, the jailer having been bribed, Fr. Roberts had dinner with twenty other imprisoned confessors of the faith and a Spanish laywoman who was a spiritual mother to the Tyburn martyrs. To this Dona Luisa, Fr. Roberts expressed the hope that his irrepressible “great glee” would not scandalize anyone.

Consumed by leprosy, Bl. Damien de Veuster—whose path was definitely not that of jubilation—entered this blessed state in his last days. Bl. Suso, in the quotation opening this article, says that to experience jubilation one must be susceptible to it, and some, it appears, become susceptible in their spiritual maturity through experiences the world would expect to plunge them instead into despair, such as torture, a death sentence, or horrific illness like Bl. Damien’s leprosy. As it did Suso, jubilation— whether a saint’s lifelong way or acquired—may give superhuman courage to bear sufferings or reduce them to insignificance (some tortured for Christ—among them Bl. Titus and St. Perpetua—witness they literally felt no discomfort).

An example of jubilation as an acquired grace in a saint whose spiritual path had been more that of frustration than joy is the little known Italian Passionist who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. Look at Father (today Blessed) Dominic Barberi in the village of Stone, England in 1842: Wearing a big black mantle against the English winter rain and snow, but with his feet, misshapen by arthritis, bare in their black sandals, the aged priest walks serenely, saying his rosary, down the lane of this English village. His destination: the Crown Inn, where a small group of Catholics wait for confession, Mass, and instruction. When the first rock hits and the blood begins to flow from Father Dominic’s forehead, he flinches but remains silent. More stones, mud, and dung are flung at him. If he hears the obscene jibes and blasphemies, he says nothing, nor does he thrust away the urchin, emboldened by his parent, who rushes out to tear at the old priest’s clothing.

This way of the Cross made three times a week lasts for two years until the old Catholic priest’s seeming indifference to pain and insult exhausts his torturers.

Yet Newman witnesses: “When his form came into sight, I was moved to the depths in the strangest way … [by] the gaiety and affability of his manner….”

And Dominic himself admits that, in spite of his human frustration and even sorrow over all his rejections in England, often when most afflicted “he felt like singing in the depths of [his] soul.”

Author

  • Patricia Treece

    Patricia is a convert to Catholicism who writes for "the human family." She is the author of critically-acclaimed books on saints and related topics, such as mysticism, healing God gives through the prayer intercession of saints, and supranatural phenomena.

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