Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and, I'm happy to say, the publication date of my book on joy, humor and laughter Between Heaven and Mirth . To celebrate both, an excerpt on the joy of St. Francis. (And that's him on the cover, holding the turtledoves and laughing, in between Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed John XXIII).
Jesus himself was seen as crazy in his day. Not just his message but him. Imagine how a shabbily dressed, itinerant preacher from a tiny backwater town in Galilee must have appeared in his day. We may be so accustomed to thinking of the Messiah, the exalted Son of God, the risen Christ in glory, that we often forget the impression that this thirtysomething carpenter must have given. But if we do forget, the Gospels remind us in the starkest ways. The Gospel of Mark has Jesus’s own family recoiling from his early preaching and miracle-working. “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mk 3:21). Both he and his message must have seemed ridiculous to many in his day.
Even more ridiculous is the fact that Jesus was right. This of course is the beginning of the tradition in Christian theology of the fool as the one who sees, the fool as the only one who knows the truth. Here is the intersection between the comic and the true.
This notion of the “fool for Christ” or the "holy fool" runs through the lives of many of the most well known saints, with St. Francis of Assisi being the most notable example. During his life in the 13th century, Francis engaged in what would be seen today as "crazy" actions. (In his time Francis was called pazzo, the Italian word for crazy.)
Immediately after his conversion, for example, in his youthful quest to divest himself of his worldly goods and sever his all ties to his wealthy father, Francis stripped naked in the town square of Assisi. When his brother Franciscans built themselves a house that Francis considered not in keeping with their simple lifestyle, the saint-to-be clambered to the rooftop and began pulling it apart, most likely to the horror of onlookers. When he preached in the nude, the townspeople in Assisi first laughed at him and then were won over by his words. Loving all of creation, even the lowliest creatures, Francis is said to have preached to the animals (and at one point scolded a group of swallows for chirping too loudly during the Mass).
Those last two stories come from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, a series of tales about the saint, some based in fact, some legendary, some clearly fictional, which nonetheless communicate what Gerald Arbuckle calls "prophetic humor."
Another fanciful story in the Little Flowers concerns one of St. Francis's brother Franciscans, St. Anthony of Padua, who preaches to the people of Rimini. But they, "hard of heart and obstinate" refuse to listen to him. So Anthony decides to take his message elsewhere.
He preaches to the fish. "Hear the word of God, you fishes of the sea and of the river," Anthony says, since the people of Rimini refuse to hear it. The fish, we are told, are quite attentive.
When he had said this, there came to him on the river bank so vast a multitude of fishes--big, little, and of middling size--that never in the sea or in that river had there been seen so many. All of them held their heads out of the water and gazed attentively on the face of St. Anthony, remaining there in great peace and gentleness and order. In the front rank and nearest to the shore were the tiny little fish; behind them were the moderately large fish; and farther out, where the water was deeper, the biggest fish.
The fish communicate their approval of Anthony’s words by nodding their fishy heads. Not surprisingly, the townspeople are amazed and begin to listen to Anthony. Clearly this is a legendary story, as are many of the stories about St. Francis. But it effectively communicates some of the sweet and gentle humor of St. Francis and his followers.
Perhaps the most enjoyable of all the tales in the Franciscan annals concern the lovable Brother Juniper, whose lavish generosity constantly exasperated his Franciscan brothers. Juniper, one of the early companions of Francis, thought nothing of giving everything away to the poor, and so his brothers were forced to forbid him from giving away his tunic to any beggars he encountered. Once, encountering a poor man, Juniper slyly told him that while he was forbidden from giving him his cloak there was nothing to say that the man couldn’t take it from him.
On another occasion, the guileless Franciscan was caring for a sick man who professed a craving for a special delicacy: pig’s feet. In response to the man’s need, Juniper went into a nearby field, spied a pig, cut a foot off of the unfortunate animal, cooked it up and served it to the man. The pig’s owner, predictably furious, berated Juniper’s superior, and called the Franciscans thieves.
Genuinely surprised that someone should be so upset by his act of charity, Juniper promptly returned to the man and told him the reasons behind his actions. The irate farmer called him, according to one translation, “a fantastical fool.” So Juniper simply repeated the story with even greater passion, wondering all the while how someone could misunderstand his intentions. Finally, the man, taken with Juniper’s sincerity and charity, had a change of heart. Ultimately, he gave the Franciscans the rest of the pig.
Upon hearing the story of this “holy fool” St. Francis exclaimed to his companions, “Would that I had a whole forest of Junipers!”