In my morning prayer time I usually draw from an old book, “My Prayer Book”, originally published in 1908. While chock full of prayers and devotions, the first quarter of it contains 98 meditations useful to get the contemplative time of prayer going. The entry I read today was of a word, a virtue, that I’d not heard of before: Eutrapelia.
There is a virtue, which may be new to the hearing of many of us. It was discovered and named by Aristotle; and he called it by the pretty Greek name of eutrapelia. Eutrapelia may be defined “playfulness in good taste.” Aristotle himself defines it: “a chastened love of putting out one’s strength upon others.”
There is in every ordinary boy a disposition to romp, to play the fool, and to destroy property; a disposition which ought to be sternly repressed, subdued, and kept under by those responsible for the boy’s education, beginning with himself. Otherwise the boy can have no place in civilized society: he will turn out a young savage. But though repressed, the disposition should not be killed within him and extirpated altogether. It is a defect of character to have no playfulness, no drollery, no love of witnessing or even creating a ridiculous situation.
Eutrapelia knows exactly when and how to be funny, and where and when to stop. All things have their season, says Ecclesiastes (iii. I, 4); a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A proud and quarrelsome man is never a funny man. Many a difficulty, many an incipient quarrel, many a dark temptation, is dissipated, the moment one catches sight of some humorous side to the matter. A humble man makes merry over his own misadventures; and when he is inclined to storm and rage listens to a good angel whispering in his ear: “John, don’t make a fool of yourself.” A merry boy is seldom a bad boy.
Life is not all play: indeed it is a very serious thing: but on account of its very seriousness we require some play to set it off. That is why you find excellent men and great doers of good with an extraordinary faculty, which they use at times, of talking nonsense and playing the fool.
Eutrapelia is a blend of playfulness and earnestness. Without earnestness, playfulness degenerates into frivolity. “O Lord, give me not over to an irreverent and frivolous mind” (Eccles. xxiii.6).
We generally wear our lighter clothing underneath, and our heavier clothing above it; and perhaps that is the best way for a man, to veil his eutrapelia under a serious exterior. But for a boy the other way about is the better fashion; he should be playful and mirthful to the eye, but have seriousness and earnestness underneath, known only to those who know him well.
In the earliest days of the Society of Jesus, there was a novice much given to laughing. One day he met Father Ignatius, and thought that he was in for a scolding. But St. Ignatius said to him: “Child, I want you to laugh and be joyful in the Lord. A Religious has no cause for sadness, but many reasons for rejoicing; and that you may always be glad and joyful, be humble always and always obedient” – Fr. Joseph Rickaby, S.J., in Ye are Christ’s.
Like so many things in the Faith it shows a nice “both-and” balance. We have serious things to do in life, but this doesn’t mean our dispositions should be gloomy, especially in this Easter Season.