Sense and Nonsense: The Preacher’s Wisecracks

In 1770, Boswell set down many pages of brief remembrances of what Samuel Johnson had said during that year. Johnson at one point, it seems, was speaking of “a certain Prelate.” This clerical gentleman evidently “exerted himself very laudably in building churches and parsonage-houses.” Johnson did not find him a man of much “professional learning,” nor much of its patron. Johnson, however, did not want to make too much of this. “Few have all kinds of merit belonging to their character. We must not examine matters too deeply — No, Sir, a fallible being will fail somewhere.”

For Christmas this year, an extremely kind soul gave me the Penguin translation of The Divine Comedy. I have been reading it diligently ever since. As I write this, I am at the Twenty-Ninth Canto of the Paradiso. Beatrice and Dante are in just about the highest circles of heaven, but Beatrice still takes time to tell Dante a thing or two about preachers and prelates who do not feed their flocks with sound doctrine. Beatrice is in fact rather blunt in those heavenly environs: “Christ did not say to his first company: ‘Go forth and preach garbage unto the world,’ but gave them, rather, truth to build upon.” I laughed to myself out loud when I read that passage, not totally unmindful of my own sermons . . .

Needless to say, here Dante is recalling that pas-sage in the Gospel of Mark where the risen Lord commissions the Eleven to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation” (16:15). Beatrice for her part rather wittily has substituted “garbage” for “Good News” as the purpose of these preachers she did not at all like. Once warmed up, she went on, “Now men go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes, and just so long as they can get a laugh to puff their cowls with pride — that’s all they want.”

No doubt, there are some of us who would be loathe to interpret this sharp jibe to mean that there never should be jokes in sermons. Wasn’t it our friend Aristotle, whom Luther did not much like, who pointed out that there was a close relation between wit and intelligence? And wasn’t it St. Thomas himself who rather baptized Aristotle, wit and all? St. Paul to be sure was always talking about the foolishness of the local philosophers, who seemed to give him both a lot of garbage and a good laugh. Maybe it was rather less dangerous to build “churches and parsonage-houses” than to give a homily full of wisecracks to the delight of all if we do not preach sound doctrine at the same time but just wish to puff up our cowls or get our names in the right press.

“No, Sir, a fallible being will fail somewhere.”

Scott Walter, one of my great benefactors, gave me a copy of The Parables of Peanuts for my birthday. In one sequence, Charles and Linus are walking down a path by a tree. Linus is in front speaking back over his shoulder: “When I grow up, I’d like to study about people.” Charlie, a bit puzzled, stops while Linus turns around with his arms stretched out wide to continue: “People interest me . . . I’d like to go to some big university and study all about people.” Charlie in turn asks a reflective Linus: “I see . . .  You want to learn about people so that with your knowledge you will be equipped to help them.” Finally, to a Charlie Brown, fists clenched, eyes closed, and gritting his teeth, Linus replies earnestly: “No, I’m just nosy.”

Of course, the cynic might ask whether Linus does not have a point, whether all the stuff you learn in some big university really will equip you much to help anybody. This was, of course, Beatrice’s point, wasn’t it? It all depends on what you learn. Being “nosy” may be rather harmless, after all.

In Sigrid Undset’s biography of Catherine of Siena which I have been reading, I found out that Catherine’s mother had the marvelous name of “Lapa.” She had 22 children when Catherine and her twin sister Giovanna came along. In fact, I believe she had another child after Giovanna had died as an infant. Sigrid Undset went on to depict the relations between the mother and daughter:

It was all too natural that Lapa, who was already advanced in years, came to love this child with a demanding and well-meaning mother-love which later, when the child grew up, made the relationship between the good-hearted, simple Lapa and her young eagle of a daughter one long series of heart-rending misunderstandings. Lapa loved her immeasurably and understood her not at all.

Somehow, I love that last sentence. “We must not examine things too deeply,” as Samuel Johnson said.

On the First Monday in August each year, Lord Emsworth was forced by his sister, Lady Constance, and local custom itself to turn over to underprivileged, screaming children from London his park and gardens which he cared for so lovingly. “The technical title of the orgy which broke out,” as Wodehouse put it, was “Blandings Parva School Treat.” Evidently, in Lord Emsworth’s eyes, it was ghastly in every way. “A function like the Blandings Parva School Treat blurred his conception of Man as Nature’s Final Word.”

Prelates should probably build churches and parsonage-houses and patronize professional learning, provided what they preach is not just “garbage,” as Beatrice put it in the Ninth Heaven. I think a few orthodox jokes and wisecracks can be tolerated for the folks in the pews if we do not get too fat-headed about it and if we point out with Linus that we are all probably a bit too “nosy” anyhow. Lapa did love Catherine immeasurably and understood her not at all. Many things besides Blandings Parva School Treat do blur our conception of Man as Nature’s Final Word. This is why we must not examine things too deeply lest we lose the sympathy for what indeed we are. The law, St. Thomas said, is made for those who are for the most part not perfect in virtue.

No, Sir, a fallible being will fail somewhere, even with Lord Emsworth at Blandings Castle, or in Lapa’s and Catherine’s Siena, or in the big universities where Linus will study people, or in the London where Boswell and Johnson conversed about prelates who build parsonage-houses, or finally in the Ninth Heaven where Beatrice warned the preachers not to exchange the Good News for “garbage.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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