On Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

Some of the anecdotes concerning St Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, whose feast we celebrate today, have always delighted me. He made one of his proudest penitents walk through the streets of Rome carrying his cat as a way of deflating him a little, and he himself stood on his head in front of a novice he deemd too serious. Of course, if one is a saint, one can do things like that and not be thought either crazy or censorious. For the rest of us, it is a little more difficult.

Exhortations not to take ourselves too seriously generally come as an implied criticism. We are serious about something that matters very much to us, then someone comes along and says, rather dismissively, ‘Oh, lighten up!’ Or we are troubled about something and looking grave when others want to be joyful and carefree and we are told that we are party-poopers or bubble-busters. I think the answer is to read the seventh chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, On Humility, which we begin again today. Benedict is clear that shifting our focus from self to God will change everything. We will have a just estimate of ourselves, and there will be no need for the kind of prickliness that often accompanies too great a seriousness about ourselves. In short, being serious about God will free us from the wrong kind of seriousness altogether, and it won’t matter what others say because we will be grounded in truth and humility. There is no surer foundation than that. (cf RB 7.1–4)