“Don’t take yourself too seriously.” It’s one of those bits of wisdom that many older, wiser people have offered to me at various points over the years, and it nearly always comes as a breath of liberating fresh air in a situation where I have been unwittingly acting on the assumption that the world depends on me.
To be sure, there are variants of this word of advice that are far from Christian. I remember one entry in the “favorite quote” section of my high school yearbook that read, “Don’t take yourself too seriously; no one gets out of life alive,” the implication being that since we’re all going to die, nothing we do really matters all that much (although I suppose you could give a Christian interpretation even to this variant: the only good Christian is a dead Christian, after all, as one of my teachers likes to say). But, this nihilistic reading of the line aside, I want to suggest that this simple word of advice, when understood in the proper tone, hits on a central truth of the gospel.
G.K. Chesterton, in his classic book, Orthodoxy, writes that:
… a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet …. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One settles down into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness (p. 125).
Chesterton is right. Some of the holiest people I know also have the most remarkable capacity for a levity that could rise to the heavens. Their laughter has an infectious purity that makes you know its coming from the depths of their soul. Their personality has a uniqueness – even a strangeness — so clearly of another world that they inevitably get into some wonderfully risible encounters when they enter into the normal dealings of the world here below. In them there is no guile, no pretence, but rather a playfulness that often makes you feel like you’ve entered into the presence of a roomful of laughing children.
We should firmly distinguish this lightness from the lightness of the nihilist. To the nihilist, nothing has weight because nothing matters. His lightness has a shadow over it, a levity that rises by the hot air of sarcasm and apathy. This is the levity of Seinfeld, of the adolescent “whatever.” This is a lightness without any real life or direction to it.
But the levity of the saints is a lightness that is bright with mirth, heavy with joy, thick with intention and devotion. It’s a levity that’s directed, that stretches up to the heavens in order that the heart might be enlarged.
This kind of levity by no means excludes the capacity for facing the darkness. If there’s any other nearly universal characteristic of the saints besides their power of levity, it’s the ability to be present without flinching to the most deadly serious suffering. More often than not it’s precisely the saint’s own first-hand immersion in such suffering that has brought him to his utter abandonment to divine grace. But often it’s the power of levity that enables a person to sit still in this suffering without trying to wiggle out of it in discomfort. There is an extraordinary grace that floods a room, for example, when, in the midst of a family’s bitter mourning for a death, someone inserts exactly the right bit of lightness, such as the perfectly timed one-liner that reminds everyone of some endearing eccentricity of the deceased, and therefore enables laughter to break for a moment through the sobs. It’s not exactly that it brightens the room; it’s more that it releases the mourners from the grip of a paralyzing sadness, and in that brief moment of mirth they can open their eyes to face the darkness with hope.
The levity of the saints isn’t accidental, and I think the integral relation between humor and holiness lies in the last word of that Chesterton passage above: “self-forgetfulness.” There is a long thread in Scripture and the Tradition that the holiest men and women are those who are most forgetful of themselves. You might even say that they are often “out of their minds,” if by that you mean quite literally that they are so preoccupied with something outside of themselves that they have no time left for the excruciating self-conscious introspection that most of us do most of the time.
Paul says to the Corinthians, “if we are beside ourselves, it is for God” (2 Cor. 5:13), and our Lord was at one point taken to be so “beside himself” that the scribes accused him of being possessed by Beelzebul (Mark 3:21-22). One word for this is “ecstasy,” and it’s perhaps St. Bernard, in his On Loving God, who gives the clearest and most beautiful description of this idea when he explains the “fourth degree of love: wherein man does not even love self save for God’s sake:”
When shall my soul, rapt with divine love and altogether self-forgetting, yea, become like a broken vessel, yearn wholly for God, and, joined unto the Lord, be one spirit with Him? … I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself, as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial (Chapter 10).
The saints, to put it simply, are so focused on God that they have gotten over themselves. They’re no longer plagued by a habitual need to refer everything, either subtly or overtly, either in their own minds or in their converse with others, to their own welfare or reputation. They’re freed from the urge to judge everything based on how it affects them, how it might make them happy or improve them or reflect well on them or advance them. The saints don’t take themselves too seriously because they’re too busy taking God seriously.
When you not only know that the world doesn’t depend on you, but also know the One on whom it does depend, the One who holds the entire fabric of existence together at every moment by a continuous act of pure, unmerited, utterly free and gratuitous love, you can let go. You can abandon the solemn seriousness that weighs you down with the (false) conviction that the fate of the world or even some little corner of it hangs on your shoulders. You can then simply enter into the current of grace that always goes before you, the very grace that enables all of your own feeble attempts to be faithful.
I once asked a mentor of mine to sum up the gospel in his own words. He said, “Jesus is Lord, and I am not.” That’s good news. It’s news that should release us from the habit of taking ourselves too seriously.
The featured image is Yue Minjun’s “Amaze-ing laughter.” The photo taken by Matthew Grapengieser is licensed under Creative Commons.