June 26, 2024 // Perspective

A Man of Good Humor, Bar None

In a 2014 address to Vatican employees, Pope Francis suggested that “a bit of good humor is very good for us! It will do us much good to pray St. Thomas More’s prayer frequently. I pray it every day, and it helps me.”

St. Thomas More (1478-1535), patron saint of lawyers and politicians, was the former Lord High Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. St. Thomas refused to acknowledge the king as supreme head of the English church after Henry split his country from the Catholic Church because of a dispute about the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Marriage (specifically, the king’s own marriage).

For his refusal to sign the oath, St. Thomas was arrested, condemned, and executed at the Tower of London. He was canonized as a martyr by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and today he is honored in both the Catholic Church and the Anglican communion. His feast day of June 22 is shared with a fellow English martyr, the bishop and cardinal St. John Fisher. (By the way, a popular explanation of why the cardinals wear scarlet red is that it is a sign of their willingness to shed their blood for the sake of the Gospel; St. John Fisher is one of the few cardinals who has actually done so.)

St. Thomas was well educated in not just law but philosophy and theology, as well. He corresponded with many of the intellectual lights of his time, including the humanist philosopher Desderius Erasmus. He helped publish More’s most famous work – a fictional essay about an ideal land where all of the citizens were virtuous and there were no lawyers because the laws were perfectly understandable. This fictional place was named “Utopia,” a name that is a two-part pun in Greek meaning both “good place” and “no place,” which together accurately describe the existence of a perfect society on this side of heaven – a good idea, but one that will never happen.

On a side note, I’ve often heard it said that “the pun is the lowest form of humor.” And you’ve probably heard someone say, “no pun intended,” as if the speaker doesn’t want to be associated with such a “lowbrow” attempt at humor. This all seems quite judgmental to me, as puns are the very essence of the so-called “dad joke,” and are often my stock-in-trade. An example is in order, and in honor of the Summer Olympics in Paris next month, here’s a good one: “I used to have a fear of hurdles, but I got over it.”

But what about that prayer by St. Thomas that Pope Francis prays daily? Here it is:

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.

Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.

Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.

Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs, and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”

Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.

Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others. Amen.

This is a surprisingly simple prayer, not at all what one might expect from an eminent lawyer and statesman. St. Thomas incorporates his everyday life, his simple, perhaps even mundane, concerns into his familiar conversation with his Creator. The Lord High Chancellor, at the very pinnacle of worldly attainment, asks his God for health, food, courage, and “a simple soul.” The second-most powerful man in England asks for the grace of humility in the form of the strength to subdue his ego, “that obstructing thing called ‘I.’”

Those of us who aren’t politicians or CEOs may never know the stresses of leadership like St. Thomas More experienced, but along with him, we can ask for the grace of a sense of good humor, the ability to “discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.” These are the prayerful words of a man who has not lost touch with everyday life, despite having at hand all the honors and pleasures he could think to desire.

In praying this prayer daily and recommending it to everyone, Pope Francis, who has given us encyclicals about the joy of the Gospel, the joy of love, and the joy of everyday holiness, encourages us all, like St. Thomas More, to find the spark of joy and to share it with others as missionary disciples. As St. Peter wrote in his letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15). All joking aside, let us ask for the grace to do that with smiles on our faces.

St. Thomas More, pray for us!

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