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The unexpected humor of St. Teresa of Avila

Alonso del Arco (1635–1704)
Sainte Thérèse d'Avila

Medieval nuns weren't usually this funny.

If we were to picture a medieval cloistered nun, we’d probably think of a woman kneeling in a church, head bowed and hands folded in prayer. Someone with a great sense of humor wouldn’t quickly come to mind.

That’s why it is delightfully refreshing to hear about the good humor of the 16th-century saint and Doctor of the Church Teresa of Avila.

A famous story perfectly sums up her spirited character.

As St. Teresa … made her way to her convent during a fierce rainstorm, she slipped down an embankment and fell squarely into the mud. The irrepressible nun looked up to heaven and admonished her Maker, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!”

When teaching her nuns what it meant to be a faithful religious, Teresa put an emphasis on having a good sense of humor. She wrote, “A sad nun is a bad nun … I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits … What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.”

Her sense of humor also allowed her to recognize her own faults and need for grace. She writes at the beginning of her autobiography, “Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.”

But Teresa wasn’t just a good jokester. She also was a fierce reformer, who didn’t have any time for false piety. She once said, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!”

Teresa remind us that sometimes laughter really is the “best medicine.” A healthy sense of humor will keep our head on straight, and make us able to see the beauty of the world. God never said we need to be “sour-faced” to be holy. So if you want to become a saint, maybe the first step is to lighten up!

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