Of Saints and Clowns

Note: Our dear friend Father Murray reminds us today that we have to be ready to be mocked – in fact, should expect it – if we’re really being faithful to the Good News. At the same time, we need – like the great Malcolm Muggeridge – to inform and support one another in that vocation. That’s one of the central reasons why I’m grateful to those of you who have been responding to our fund drive. One donor described himself to me yesterday as “not a very generous person,” but sent $50 anyway, because he believed in our work. I’m quite willing to classify that as generous. We all have many demands on our resources, but if you value the content and community you find here, please help us keep alive our proper part in the great Catholic thing. – Robert Royal

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times on April 23, 1978 entitled “25 Propositions on a 75th Birthday.” That he was invited to do so, and allowed to publish proposition 23, is sign of how relatively better things were back then: “Alas, the terrible inhumanity of the humane! Herod’s slaughter of the innocents was negligible compared with the millions of babies being slaughtered under the legalized abortion procedures now existing almost everywhere. Again, as legalized euthanasia gets under way the Nazi performance in this field pales into insignificance. At Nuremberg the Nazi practice of legalized euthanasia was condemned as a war crime. So, it takes 30 years to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.” I doubt that would survive scrutiny by today’s guardians of “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Back in 1978 I was a student at Dartmouth College and had the privilege of hearing Muggeridge speak twice there. I read his magnificent book Something Beautiful for God, which revealed the holiness and love of the soon-to-be-canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The book was the fruit of a TV program Muggeridge did on the saintly friend of the poor. Mother Teresa told him that she wanted to be present at his First Holy Communion when he became a Catholic. That is probably what he was expecting to hear from her.

I reviewed his Jesus: The Man who Lives for the campus newspaper at the time of his second visit and told him how much I enjoyed reading the book. He responded that he never read a book he was going to review; he simply found out what period of history the book dealt with and told some stories he knew about that time. I took this remark as partly a joke, but not entirely false.

Humor and holiness give joy to life in this vale of tears. Muggeridge wrote in proposition 10: “Mystical ecstasy and laughter are the two great delights of living, and saints and clowns, their purveyors, the only two categories of human beings who can be relied on to tell the truth. Hence, steeples and gargoyles side by side on the great cathedrals.” The imagery is striking. Man raises his sights towards Heaven as the spires ascend, while the gargoyles cast their derisive gaze upon men busy about many things, often forgetting that only one thing is necessary: to find the One who is sought by those whose searching is guided by the direction of the spires.

Opponents may have dismissed Muggeridge as a fool or a dreamy mystic. I am sure he was not offended. Such is the price to be paid for telling the truth. Who but the court jester or the saintly royal Father Confessor could tell the badly deluded king, showing off his newest fashion statement at court, that he was actually totally disrobed, while other self-interested attendants stood by in terrified and culpable silence?

 Malcolm Muggeridge [© Penny Tweedie/CORBIS]
Malcolm Muggeridge [© Penny Tweedie/CORBIS]
            The saints and clowns know how to laugh because they see things for what they are, and thus spot the inevitable incongruities of human behavior in a fallen world. Laughter and tears both open the possibility of change in our lives. It is the fanatic who cannot laugh, or cry. The saints do both, frequently.

Saints and clowns are not afraid to tell the truth because they know that only the truth sets men free from themselves, the usual source of their most common miseries. Truth liberates us from illusions and unexamined presumptions. The saint commands our attention; the clown’s promise to entertain always draws an audience. When we hear the truth from either of them, we are given the chance to do something different with our lives.

The hunger for truth is always present in honest men. They know that learning the truth is the necessary prelude to acting truthfully. Love for the truth is the motive for embracing whatever sacrifices are needed to live our lives in accordance with the truth.

Political correctness is a humorless attempt to suppress the truth by imposing on society a set of slogans, never to be questioned, but designed to advance various questionable agendas. Those who have no confidence that they can prevail in the open forum of ideas have to claim that their positions are unassailable and hence mandatory. Dialogue is replaced by monologue, and unconvinced dissenters are invited to submit or be ostracized.

Hence the need for a healthy society to listen to the saints and clowns who tend to make the powerful uncomfortable by going beyond the acceptable boundaries, beyond which lies only darkness. Or so the powerful claim. Muggeridge’s proposition 14 offers another view: “There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see.”

The truth is always there for the finding. It takes hard work at times, and requires a willingness to be surprised, even devastated. As with St. Paul, intently traveling on the wrong mission, God will sometimes knock us down and take away our sight – our former way of seeing things – only to open our eyes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, when we have said yes to Him.

In proposition 25 Muggeridge wrote: “St. Thomas Aquinas in old age got stuck in his Summa theologica on the matter of penance, and felt his courage failing. So, an old biographer records, he hung his harp on the willows by the river because he had caught a glimpse of heaven. I should like this to happen to me.” The glimpse of Heaven is what keeps us both grounded and hopeful about this life and the next.

Four years after writing that article, Muggeridge and his wife Kitty were received into the Catholic Church. He received Jesus in Holy Communion at that moment (without Mother Teresa being present, however) and for eight more years. His prayer was granted. His joy was complete. Saints and clowns have the most fun.


The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.