Most of the priests I’ve known have had great senses of humor. Some were more introverted than others, true, but it seems that a good sense of humor is a valuable tool for a parish priest – or anyone involved in ministry.
Fr. James Martin’s
latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life
, is a manifesto of sorts, calling us to joy in our spiritual life and humor even during times of trial. Fr. Martin takes his work seriously, including enough Jesuit jokes to please even the most discerning connoisseur of comedy. He takes us on a tour of humor in sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, and his own experiences ministering to people around the globe, and frequently shares stories of his own foibles that amuse and instruct us about the virtue of humility – and being able to laugh at oneself.
Fr. Martin’s books are “seeker-friendly” and so he includes stories and wisdom from various religious traditions. His writing is strongest when he talks about his own personal experiences, particularly his work in East Africa. I also enjoyed his discussion of how joy pervades Mary’s expression of faith in her Magnificat, and a chapter later in the book that explains that a joyful faith does not require that we constantly “put on a happy face” even amidst deep suffering:
1. Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time?
No. This is something I would like to underline, since it is a concept that is particularly important to understand in a book on joy. Sadness is a natural response to pain, suffering, and tragedy. It is human, natural, and even, in a way, desirable; sadness in response to a tragic event shows that you are emotionally alive. If you weren’t sad from time to time, you would be something less than human.
For those who struggle to find joy, or who consider themselves to be “just not funny,” Fr. Martin takes the innovative approach of leading us through the Jesuit tradition of the examen and showing how this daily look at our experiences and deeds can help us to grow in gratitude and, subsequently, joy.
The examination is a prayer of awareness of God, of seeing where God is already active in your daily life. But for the purposes of our discussion the most important aspect is gratitude. Gratitude reminds us of God’s gifts in our lives even during times of sadness and can reconnect us with a believing joy. Gratitude reminds us of the underlying joy in our lives.
The one thing I didn’t care for in the book was the inclusion of anecdotes about seemingly humorless religious figures – never mentioned by name, obviously, but apparently included to support Fr. Martin’s overall thesis that we are in need of revisiting the topic of humor in ministry. While I certainly agree with him about the value of humor, sometimes it felt a little like “thank you, God, that we are not dour and frowny like so many other religious people.” It came across to me as a little uncharitable.
But, then, it just hasn’t been my (admittedly more limited) experience that religious leaders are humorless, nor can I think of anyone in my circle of friends from various religious traditions who doesn’t appreciate a good sense of humor.
Fr. Martin does devote Chapter Two to “A Brief but 100 Percent Accurate Historical Examination of Religious Seriousness,” which was a very interesting examination of the earliest Christians’ attitudes towards humor and subsequent thinkers’ condemnation of mirth – particularly contrasted with the somewhat ridiculous scenarios Jesus employs in his parables. So, while I get that this is still an issue at times, I think the book would have worked just as well minus the “call to arms” tone he occasionally employs.