St. Dominic, Peeta Mellark, and Holy Laughter

St. Dominic, via WikiCommons, CC0.

St. Dominic, via WikiCommons, CC0.

One distinctive trait among Dominicans is their laughter. At the time of their founding 800 years ago, laughter was viewed with pious suspicion, per St. Benedict’s prohibition against laughter in his Rule.

But St. Dominic was known for always being cheerful and affable, and many of the early Dominicans, in particular Bl. Jordan of Saxony, were known for their playfulness and good-humored jokes. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that:

“A man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states” (ST II II, q.168 a.4).

That’s not to say the early Dominicans engaged in raucous or belittling behavior. When Dominic laughed, “he did so with the true delight of the Holy Spirit."

Cover image courtesy WikiCommons, CC0. Copyright belongs to publisher and cover artist.

Cover image courtesy WikiCommons, CC0. Copyright belongs to publisher and cover artist.

The ability to make a joke without hurting others or oneself is a gift and a virtue. And while our culture has mostly lost sight of the value of this gift, I am happy to see that one person, at least, hasn't. From Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay (Hunger Games Trilogy, Book 3):

The tube's cover's simple to unlatch. A wide ladder with rubber treads on the steps allows for a swift, easy descent into the bowels of the city [the Capitol]. We gather at the foot of the ladder, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dim strips of lights, breathing in the mixture of chemicals, mildew, and sewage.

Pollux, pale and sweaty, reaches out and latches on to Castor's wrist. Like he might fall over if there isn't someone to steady him.

"My brother worked down here after he became an Avox," says Castor. Of course. Who else would they get to maintain these dank, evil-smelling passages mined with pods? "Took five years before we were able to buy his way up to the ground level. Didn't see the sun once."

Under better conditions, on a day with fewer horrors and more rest, someone would surely know what to say. Instead we all stand there for a long time trying to formulate a response.

Finally, Peeta turns to Pollux. "Well, then you just became our most valuable asset." Castor laughs and Pollux manages a smile.

We're halfway down the first tunnel when I realize what was so remarkable about the exchange. Peeta sounded like his old self, the one who could always think of the right thing to say when nobody else could. Ironic, encouraging, a little funny, but not at anyone's expense. I glance back at him as he trudges along under his guards, Gale and Jackson, his eyes fixed on the ground, his shoulders hunched forward. So dispirited. But for a moment, he was really here. (Ch. 21)

Peeta's comment proves the inverse of St. Thomas' description above: the humorless man is a burden to others, but Peeta's playful joke lightens the burden that Pollux and Castor are feeling and makes it possible for the entire group to escape into the sewers.

But also clear throughout the book series is that Peeta rarely makes a joke at another's expense, as Katniss says. The few times he does (I'm thinking of teasing Katniss after Johanna's antics in the elevator) only makes him the object of Katniss' resentment. Peeta is good at heart and making fun of others isn't his modus operandi.

So Suzanne Collins gets it. I'm glad.