The Comfort of St. Dymphna

July 16, 2012

For twenty years now I’ve cherished the St. Dymphna card that colleague John gave me when I left Friends University. John was a great teacher, and he kept such accurate and entertaining minutes of faculty meetings that we all insisted he continue that rare work. But even more, despite that he was more handsome and smarter than I, John was a great friend with a wonderful sense of humor.

My mostly Quaker upbringing left me clueless about the company of saints who might come to our aid, so to me Dymphna was a mystery woman. The prayer on the back of the card gave a hint: “Grant that… those who suffer from nervous and mental illness everywhere on earth may be helped and consoled.” “I recommend to You [Lord Jesus Christ] in particular (specific name, like mine)….” Dymphna turned out to be the saint who aids and comforts the mentally and emotionally ill, and when John thought of her, he thought of me. I’ve kept the card nearby all these years, hoping that she might indeed help. Without her, I might have been worse.

I thanked John, of course, not knowing for sure whether this was a joke or an act of love. Looking back, I think it was both. We shared a great laugh, but we also shared a bond. Humor can deliver a big hug instead of a sucker punch. Robust teasing and story-swapping, without sneaky sharp edges, can build friendships. Exaggerated praise can get laughs. I recently got to compliment a colleague for being the greatest institutional tech guy in the universe, more lavish acclaim than the award he had received, but warmly received. The playfulness of creating humor together through puns, trading laugh lines, and sharing funny cartoons or quotations helps deepens our life together.

For me, seeing youngsters learning to use humor reinforces the importance of modeling humor based on kindness and love. Sharp, destructive humor so dominates our culture that it easily misleads young people (and, frankly, all of us) about how to use humor to build friendships and to enjoy one another. Timely teaching and stellar examples can point them toward life-giving humor habits.

I thank God for friends like John. Sadly, I’ve lost track of him, though last I knew he’d left “The Pearl of the Plains” to work in Kansas City. By now he may have become the president of a Catholic university, or maybe he’s doing stand-up comedy on the Bingo circuit. Or both. If I’m lucky, someone will tell him I’m talking about him and we can reconnect. Is there a saint for that?



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