In his Christmas message to the Curia, Pope Francis worried about those who suffer from “la malattia della faccia funerea”—the malady of the funeral face. Symptoms include brusqueness, arrogance, and a “sterile pessimism.” His suggested remedy? A dose of prayerful humor in the form of St. Thomas More’s plea for good digestion and calm life: “Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke and to discover in life a bit of joy…”
I am reminded of Margaret Guenther’s exploration of the relationship between prayer and play in her grace-filled book on spiritual direction, Holy Listening. In it she quotes the anonymous 14th-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing mocking the stiff and overpious: “Sometimes their eyes look like the eyes of wounded sheep near death…Far better a modest countenance, a calm, composed bearing, and a merry candor.” Six centuries later Pope Francis echoes that advice to the funeral-faced: “An apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes. A heart filled with God is a happy heart which radiates an infectious joy.”
Guenther suggests a touch of playfulness in prayer grounds us and reminds us that God is in the everyday as much as in the spiritual heights. I love the impish way Thomas More’s prayer begins, with a request to the Lord for good digestion, and, oh, by the way, some food to digest would not go amiss. It reminds me of the way my college-aged sons banter with me in the kitchen, certain enough of my love for them, and theirs for me, to playfully tease me. In his Exercises, St. Ignatius encourages us to speak to Jesus as one friend to another. Do I love God enough to banter with him, as my sons do with me? Or perhaps I should ask if I’m certain enough of God’s love for me that I would risk bantering with God in my prayer?
There is a joyful persistence in play as well that I might do well to bring into my prayer. Children at play can be hard to budge (Ask any parent of a three-year-old!), not because they know longer is “better,” but because they are caught up in the joy of the work at hand, be it messy or even risky.
When I was young, we lived behind the convent and parish school. I loved to walk over after school on a crisp fall day and swing on the swings. I can still remember the delight when I figured out how to pump and could go higher and higher without anyone pushing me. It felt like flying. And there was the heady risk of it all. Would I bounce out of the swing? Would I go so high I would fly over the top bar? Could I stop without ruining the tops of my shoes? There is a wild joy to this sort of play.
Am I willing, I wonder, to abandon myself to such wild joy in prayer, to live with such a wild love of God that it infects those I meet? Pope Francis suggests I might pray for the grace.