Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life is the new book by Fr. James Martin S.J. Being that this is a subject close to my own heart I snapped at the offer to receive a review copy. I had previously read Fr. Martin’s “My Life with the Saints” a book I really enjoyed with some minor caveats. He is certainly a talented writer who uses much humor in his writing and some of the stories he wrote in his first book have stayed with me.
His new book looks at the use of humor in the spiritual life and how laughter and joy are components of it. He specifically did not set out to write the book totally from a theological point of view, but it is not without some theological points. Instead he has focused on several areas and questions involving these subjects. While humor and laugher can have expressions in joy, joy is something much deeper than simple mirth and a resulting happiness. I really like that he included St. Thomas Aquinas definition of joy as “happiness in God”. This is an important distinction to make in a book of this type.
Throughout the book he tells many humorous stories and many religious jokes. As you would expect when it comes to humor in the saints you see the roll call you would expect such as the famous lines of St. Lawrence and St. Teresa of Avila along with some funny quips of modern popes. I especially liked the quote about humor and mirth he provided from one of Pope Benedict’s books*. St. Thomas More was a man who could be quite funny on the way to getting his head chopped off. The quote in the book is “I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself” Though my favorite of his is since his beard was grown during his imprisonment that said it was completely innocent of any crime, and did not deserve the axe. Most of the examples his gives are certainly ones I would have chosen for inclusion in a book of this type. Though I am surprised he didn’t reference Blessed Miguel Pro a fellow Jesuit who was not only a practical joker, but quite a funny guy who was also fearless in death.
Another subject he addresses early on is humor in regards to Jesus. We have “Jesus wept”, but not “Jesus laughed.” I know that Jesus does have a great sense of humor, after all he made me Catholic. His discussion on this subject is mostly worthwhile and makes many points I would make myself. Mostly we don’t see Jesus’ sense of humor in that we can easily forget how what he said would have affected those he preached to. Absurdity and hyperbole is a playful use of language these were certainly tools that Jesus used in his preaching. The absurdity of giving a snake instead of a fish to your son is striking and also playful. The same goes for the calling of St. Bartholomew with “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” which plays on the story of Jacob/Israel and I also think the mysterious reference to calling him when he was under a fig tree had some humor involved lost to us. This whole section was quite good except for a caveat I will get to later.
I would also share with Fr. Martin a critique of so much Catholic art that seems to be missing the joy of the saints. He mentions the quote attributed to but not confirmed to have come from St. Teresa of Avila “From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” Unfortunately not much has changed on this front. One of my favorite parts of The Passion of the Christ was the scene with Jesus and Mary and their back and forth playfulness. This seemed to ring so true to me. Catholic statues of Mary seem to focus on her suffering and none of her joy. There is certainly a place for the fact of Mary’s sorrows for the sword that pierces her heart, but I would like to see more joyful ones with her holding the infant Jesus. Though attempts such as the infamous “Jesus laughing” poster show possibly a misstep in the right direction.
This is a book that provides a good look at this subject and provides much humor along the way. He is adept at telling humorous stories of his own life along with collection humorous quotes of others. This book also does not confine itself only to Catholics as he quotes from a wide range of people in other faiths as it touches on the subject. His writing style allows him to poke fun at himself while opening up a subject to a wider audience.
Now on to my caveats. While I pretty much liked both of Fr Martin’s books that I have read they also tingle my Spidey theological senses at times. For example in the chapter on humor in Jesus he references one person in regards to why there is no specific humor from Jesus in the Gospel. The theory was it was possibly redacted and that we just can’t know for sure if it was or wasn’t. He passes on this with no comment. This is pretty much Jesus Seminar territory or where some groups go in saying the early Church redacted what they didn’t agree with. This idea has so many problems that I was quite annoyed that it was mentioned without any comment. Another thing that annoyed me was the reference to the Virgin Mary and a common question in regard to Mary’s “How can this be” and Zachariah’s doubt and subsequent muteness until the birth of John the Baptist. He first contrasts the seeming reaction and then in the footnote gives a humorous explanation. If he was just setting up a joke fine, but there is no actual comparison since a doubt is totally different than a question asked with faith. You can totally believe something is going to occur and still wonder about the mechanism of how it was going to happen without doubting. I also could have done without the numerous quotes from Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. While the quotes themselves were not problematic, other readers might want to read more from this author and not know parts of his works were in part deemed ‘incompatible with the Catholic faith’ by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Okay maybe my Spidey theological senses are tweaked a bit high for a book of this type, but what is annoying for me might be annoying for others.
My complaints are fairly minor and overall there was much to like about this book both in the writing and the content. I can easily recommend this as a good book on the subject and this is an area that receives very little attention. It reminds me of the tagline of Creative Minority Report “We laugh because we believe”.
*”I believe [God ] has a great sense of humor. Sometimes he gives you something like a nudge and says “Don’t take yourself so seriously!” Humor is in fact an essential element in the mirth of creation. We can see how, in many matters in our lives, God wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly; to see the funny side of it; to get down off our pedestal and not to forget our sense of fun.” Pope Benedict XVI “God and the World”