Those who know me best know how much I like to joke around and laugh. I’m what you might call a jokester or a goofball, one who enjoys cracking up and cracking others up in the process. Some people, though, are not particularly fond of my sense of humor. For example, when I was in college and worked as a staff photographer and then photo editor at the college newspaper. Each semester we’d have a banquet to celebrate another season’s published work. It was a time to relax, a time to be proud of our hard work and a time to tease one another for our idiosyncrasies. This last part of the event came through in the awards that the editorial board would give to each other (think “The Dundies” from NBC’s The Office). Well, for several semesters in a row, I was the proud recipient of the “Beating a Dead Horse Award” for my frequent over-use of jokes and repeating (ad nauseum it would appear) things I thought were hilarious. I just can’t let a funny time go unacknowledged or celebrated (some things never change!).
Some people find it bizarre that a Franciscan friar would enjoy laughing and joking so much (and, by the way, there are many religious and priests who fall into this category). Many folks just think that religion is “too serious” and, rather literally, “no laughing matter.”
This is where Fr. James Martin, SJ, enters the scene. The best-selling author of many books, including the highly acclaimed My Life with the Saints (Loyola, 2006) also in translation Mi Vida Con Los Santos, and Culture Editor at America magazine, Martin has written a book that seeks to challenge this misconception about the place of joy, humor and laughter in the spiritual life. His new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne, 2011), is a must-read!
I’ve been meaning to read this book for a few weeks now and I’m delighted to have had the chance to finally get to it. Martin’s writing style is, as always, approachable, humorous and entertaining. In many ways I couldn’t help seeing this book as something as the “next in a series” to My Life with the Saints (hence the pun title of this post) — Martin suggests as much in explaining the origin of this project.
This book had its genesis a few years ago when I began to give talks based on a book called My Life with the Saints, a memoir telling the story of twenty saints who had been influential in my spiritual life. In a short while I noticed something surprising. Wherever I spoke — whether in parishes, colleges, conference, or retreat centers — what people want to hear about most was the way the saints were joyful people, joyed lives full of laughter, and how their holiness led inevitably to joy. To a degree that astonished me, people seemed fascinated by joy. It was almost as if they’d been waiting to be told that it’s okay to be religious and enjoy themselves, to be joyful believers. (2)
He goes on to explain that part of this hesitance toward embracing the joy of faith and spirituality might stem from the fact that so many religious leaders, what Martin calls “professional religious people,” are dour, somber, serious-looking (and acting) people. Yet, Martin points out, there is this abundance of history and material from our Christian tradition that contradicts this perception of the inappropriateness of joy, humor and laughter in the spiritual life.
Drawing on the wisdom of many voices (a very welcome feature of the book), Martin presents sound scholarly and historical evidence, exegesis and interpretation about the place of levity and joy in Scripture and prayer. One of my favorite examples of this occurs early in the book when Martin (hilariously) retells the story of the Prophet Jonah. I remember taking a graduate exegesis seminar course at the Washington Theological Union four years ago during which the Scripture professor highlighted exactly what Martin brings out so well — nearly every movement in the Jonah narrative is ridiculously funny! Yet, so many people overlook the humor of the inspired Word of God in how Scripture conveys Revelation. It’s ok to laugh!
This carries over to our models of Christian living, the Saints. Martin asks the question: “So why does the popular imagination overwhelmingly think of the saints as grumpy, or at least overly serious?” To which he responds:
Well, if all traces of humor have been removed from our understanding of Jesus’s personality, and if the Christian tradition has had a good deal of its natural humor leeched out, and if “real” religion is supposed to be serious, then the saints, the models par excellence of Christian life, are, not surprisingly, portrayed as the most serious Christians of all. In short, if religion is supposed to be gloomy, then the saints must be depicted as the gloomiest of all men and women. (71)
Yet, as Martin keenly highlights at every turn, religion is not supposed to be gloomy and therefore the models of how to live Christian life to the fullest really shouldn’t be portrayed that way. To illustrate this truth, Martin uses the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He highlights Francis’s at-times bizarre behavior and the way in which he and his fellow Friars embodied the moniker “holy fool,” striving to live joyfully for Christ.
In one chapter, Martin develops a list of “11 1/2 reasons for good humor,” among these are counted evangelization, humility, recognition of reality, prophetic speech, courage, healing and others. Each of these sections helps build the case for the value of humor in religious life. For me, it seems so obvious: who doesn’t like a funny person? Humor indeed attracts and religion should be attractive. This doesn’t ever mean that one should make fun of religion, but it does mean that religion and spirituality are not intended to be vacuums of joy, humor and laughter.
One of the things about this book that keeps the attention of the reader so well is the variety of chapter styles. While some of the early chapters are more traditionally structured, others, including the last few, take unique and creative shapes. Chapter Seven, for example, is a series of questions and answer (the last of which is: “Father Martin, Do you Want to hear a joke?” — “Only if it’s a good one!”). The book also contains lots of sidebars throughout that offer stories and jokes to both illustrate and entertain.
As with his The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010), Martin has made a real effort to make this book as accessible to all people — not just your run-of-the-mill Roman Catholics or other practicing Christians — as possible. Included on many pages are footnotes that clarify and explain terms and ideas that might not be all-that familiar to many readers. While at times it gets a bit distracting for those who already know, the effort to reach a wider audience and help spread the word that religion isn’t supposed to be a sad affair quickly makes up for any inconvenience of minor distraction. One of the greatest assets of this book is the very thorough index at the back, which includes all the entries you’ll ever need to find this or that Scripture passage or author reference.
This is a book I highly recommend. For those who are already familiar with Fr. James Martin’s work, you will not be surprised by the quality of this text. For those who aren’t yet familiar with his writing, pick up Between Heaven and Mirth — I’m sure it won’t be the last one of his books you read.
There were several times when I laughed out loud reading the book. The rest of the time I must have just had this smirk on my face, because it’s that sort of entertaining.
The last three lines of the book are well-worth quoting, because I think it’s advice that all should follow very closely: “So be joyful. Use your sense of humor. And laugh with the God who smiles when seeing you, rejoices over your very existence, and takes delight in you, all the days of your life” (236).