In the 1990s, "smile therapy" was briefly fashionable with a particular class of vindictive, alcoholic homewreckers. In America, you call these people "psychologists" and pay them $400 an hour. Throughout that decade, pampered Bostonian lawyers with confected daddy issues were told by mountebanks in Manolo Blahniks to keep smiling, even when they felt sad on the inside, because, eventually, happy feelings would catch up with their body language. I know, I know. It sounds mental. But patients with self-esteem low enough to actually try it kept reporting miraculous results. So it caught on.
Shrinks were immensely proud of stumbling across this phenomenon because, unlike literally everything else they believe and recommend, smile therapy actually works since it's congruent with human nature. Sadly, no one had the heart to tell them that "habits become character" is a deeply pedestrian insight — and that if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to Aristotle.
Speaking of annoying Greeks, I've been hanging out with a lot of Orthodox Christians recently. Until I made friends with "Orthobros," which is what the internet calls overly argumentative young male converts to that strand of the Faith, I didn't realize there were people who might actually benefit from smile therapy. Some of these guys really need to lighten up.
Don't pretend you don't know what I mean. I can't be the only one who's observed a friend converting to Orthodox Christianity and noticed them instantly, literally overnight, losing their sense of humor. This latest generation of Orthodox brothers is skidding straight past the usual giddiness and fervor of the fresh convert and lapsing instead into snobbishness, stubbornness, antisocial habits, fractiousness and general party-poopery. It's all part of some weird retreat into angry, ascetic mock-monasticism. And they take it with them everywhere they go, leaving the impression that in order to be an Orthodox Christian, you need some kind of developmental disorder.
I get the yearning for solemnity in a ratchet world, but turning your back on the joy of creation and the Incarnation makes no sense. It's especially baffling in this case because the medieval milieu these guys are yearning for — an aesthetic inclination that led them to the Orthodox church in the first place — wasn't, for the most part, quiet, clean and disciplined, but instead drenched in raucous, riotous, drunken working-class laughter and general tomfoolery. Yes, there was slavish religious devotion and some thrillingly potent infectious diseases. But the culture and the charm of medieval Europe were bawdy and Chaucerian. Early Christian Europe was full of singing, dancing and toe-curlingly disgusting jokes about effluent and body parts.
Have you seen what some of the gargoyles are doing on our greatest Gothic cathedrals? Let's just say, it's not their shotguns they're polishing. And that's how medieval Christians decorated places of worship — it's the safe-for-work version. We were spiritually healthier, I think, when we were more in touch with our physicality and less squeamish about genital humor. By contrast, there's something sinister and Chlorox-wipey and faintly Islamic about the fictitious and sterile imagined past many young religious reactionaries are trying to re-create.
It doesn't look fulfilling — or effective. They're all still single and "sperging out" online in the early hours of the morning. These young men haven't yet made the connection between a relentlessly serious demeanor and bleak marital prospects because they don't yet fully understand the joy at the heart of our Faith. Joy comes from Jesus Christ, and the further away you are from the light of the Lord, the more humorless, miserable and twisted you become, and the more likely you are to end up alone.
The good news for you, the reader, is that, as Catholics, we are naturally funny without even trying, although probably not for the reasons you think. Conservative Christians, Catholics especially, always stand out as the cleverest, funniest, most imaginative people in their circle of friends. No other tradition could have produced Belloc, Tolkien, Waugh, Greene, Percy and Chesterton, and then half the Supreme Court, too, just to remind people that we're intellectual heavyweights as well as sparkling conversationalists.
That's before we turn to Dante, the supreme comedian, or Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the preeminent comedic novel. There's some kind of magical formula Catholics inherit — some blend of good taste, literary habits, self-awareness and mild ridiculousness — that makes us endlessly fascinating to listen to and master storytellers.
I'm convinced that the reason for all those "Catholic Shakespeare" conspiracy theories is that he is so funny. No one can believe he was a Protestant but that he can leave us crying with laughter. Catholics are so relentlessly entertaining and interesting that even our reactionary Bible-thumpers are iconic cult figures, like the late Abp. Sheen, whose natural charisma was so intoxicating it was almost hypnotic. Hollywood has spent decades and billions of dollars trying to figure out the alchemical formula that wise-cracking Irish Catholic cops were born with.
Are we funny merely because we're smart? Everyone knows that geniuses die Catholic. Mathematicians, astrophysicists and chess prodigies are notorious for discovering God in the twilight of their careers — and, when they do, they always come to Rome. In interviews, they all confess to a similar realization: God is the most persuasive explanation for the unfathomably complex, beautiful and mathematically unlikely universe we inhabit. I guess that means Catholics do have our fair share of boring nerds. But only the really successful ones with their names on buildings and stuff.
We're so funny and clever that even our women are funny and clever. I take my misogyny very seriously, yet I'm completely relaxed about being spotted on the beach, by some long-lensed paparazzo, reading books by Flannery O'Connor and Dorothy Sayers. I can't remember ever hearing an interesting opinion from a non-Christian woman, but I could read just O'Connor and Sayers for the rest of my life and be happy as a clam.
Because the demands of Heaven loom large for us, Catholics are much less deferential about earthly authorities, like the government, which rightly seem comically trivial by comparison. That definitely entertains other people. But the reason we're so funny, in that untutored, quick-witted and delightful way, is that we are living in full harmony with a Faith that actually celebrates joy. Ours might even be unique among the major religions in not frowning on fun, and this is a cultural norm specific to Catholicism. Even other Christians never quite seem to get the hang of inhabiting joy — really, truly living and luxuriating in it.
But how could we not be joyful? We know how it all pans out. We know the good guys win in the end. And we know what we have to do if we want to join them in the next life. If you sincerely believe in what the Church teaches and you're still miserable, you need a lot more than smile therapy. Because you're an insane person, insensible to logic and reason, and I'm not even sure the giant electroshock machine at Milo's Barely Legal Conversion Therapy Camp will do you any good. (For $50,000 and a stack of legal waivers, we can test the theory together. Applications to the usual address.)
Years ago, I lifted my personal motto, risus et bellum, from G. K. Chesterton's Heretics. It means "laughter and war." In one of my favorite passages in his best book, Orthodoxy, the same authority observes:
The gaiety of the best paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. ...
And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say "enlightened," they mean darkened with incurable despair. Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.
I know what you're thinking. You can never quote Chesterton briefly, can you? He's just too good. His insight is that the world wants us solemn, yet privately squirming: ashen-faced with seriousness on the outside; contorted by embarrassment and shame on the inside. I hate to think of new converts to Christ falling into this trap because so much of our Faith is about joy — and mischievous joy, too. Causing a ruckus! Being an incorrigible scamp. The irreverence of the saints originates with Christ, who confounded received Greek wisdom.
Speaking about Christ in the same book, Chesterton writes:
The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.
God wants us to express ourselves. He wants us smiling, not crippled with anxiety and misery from the Fall, or minding our tongues because we're hung up on America's demented and diabolical prestige culture and afraid of losing our jobs. People with battle scars know what I'm talking about when I say laughter is not only the best medicine but the best fuel for war. Nothing replenishes a man's fighting spirit like a drink and a song and a hearty laugh on the eve of battle. And yet, with the world slouching towards another war, followers of other religions, and even disciples of other Christianities, seem to be sprinting the other way, dissolving into earnestness and despair.
Yes, I'm talking about the Orthodox again, whom you almost never hear laughing. I mean, be honest. They barely smile, these new converts. It's all pouty obstreperousness, weapons-grade autism and petulant demands that you debate them on YouTube. Do we know for sure that Orthodox men can physically accomplish a smile? I only ask because, thanks to their ghastly competitive beard competitions — it's what they have instead of a literary tradition — we've no way of knowing for sure.
We are left to infer from the eyes, which are, of course, perpetually scrunched into scowls because someone in a chat room conflated causation with correlation or because the scowler in question found a typo in their pleather-bound Seraphim Rose. And it makes me sad. I'm watching someone squander their inheritance. Let this be my entreaty to them: Loosen up, brothers! You can be pious and still avoid the premature crow's feet that come with all that suffocating disapproval.