Book Review: Between Heaven and Mirth

The nicest compliment I ever  received  came from a Catholic deacon at a parish in Iowa. My family and I were getting ready to move out of the area (my one-year fellowship at the local Catholic hospital was ending) and he was explaining why our family would be missed: “It’s been so nice having you here. You and your family live the faith joyfully.”

This compliment came back to me while reading Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,  which hits shelves today.  Fr. Martin has crafted a wonderful book highlighting the rich tradition of faithful humor and joyful spirituality. He takes dead aim on the gloomy, pessimistic side of Christianity, arguing that it is not only antithetical to the teachings of Christ, but hurtful to the Church’s mission of evangelization.

If you’re looking for a quick summary of Fr. Martin’s insights, skip to chapter four (helpfully entitled “Happiness Attracts: 11 1/2 Serious Reasons for Good Humor”). This is a similar list to the keynote talk I heard Fr. Martin give at the 2011 NCCL conference. At the top of the list is the fact that happiness and humor are ways to witness to our faith:

Joy, humor, and laughter show one’s faith in God. For Christians, an essentially hopeful outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death, and in the power of love over hatred. Don’t you think that after the Resurrection Jesus’s disciples were joyful? “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” as the fourteenth-century mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich said. For believers in general, humor shows your trust in God, who will ultimately make all things well. Joy reveals faith.

This may seem self-evident, but the number of dour and humorless Christians would seem to indicate that it bears repeating. Fr. Martin goes to on  extol  humor’s virtues in the area of health, spirituality, hospitality, play, and interpersonal relations.

What’s more, the book is funny. Fr. Martin sprinkles jokes and humor from the saints liberally throughout the text, including stories about Pope John XXIII; Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ; Dorothy Day; various Jesuit saints; and, of course, Jesus!

In fact, I think his look at humor in Sacred Scripture (both Old and New Testament) will be especially eye-opening for many people. As Fr. Martin points outs, it is easy to overlook the humor in the Bible:

We’ve simply heard the stories too many times, and they become stale, like overly repeated jokes. “The words seem to us like old coins,” [Elton Trueblood] writes, “in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable.” Trueblood recounts the tale of his four-year-old son, who, upon hearing the Gospel story about seeing the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye and ignoring the log in your own,laughed uproariously. The young boy readily saw the humor missed by those who have heard the story dozens of times.

Besides the Bible Fr. Martin recommends numerous books on humor and spirituality (he admits up front that his book is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject) and even gives a list of his favorite funny movies. I may be showing my hand, but I have to agree on his choice for the #1 spot:

A quick note about the book’s intended audience: some Catholics may wonder why a book about spirituality by a Catholic priest includes insights from other Christian traditions as well as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. Fr. Martin writes for a broad audience, and I hope that his Protestant and non-Christian fans from the Huffington Post and the Colbert Report will pick up the book; I think many would be surprised at the  relevance  of its subject.

I heartily recommend Between Heaven and Mirth  for anyone interested in furthering their own spiritual journey — or just looking for a few new jokes from their repertoire. The Church’s rich tradition of faithful joy is a treasure that deserves to be shared, for humor is a gift from God.

Or, as Hilaire Belloc so succinctly put it:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.

In Praise of Religious Chastity (by a Lay Man)

A few months ago I read  The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by Fr. James Martin, SJ. (A book I heartily recommend, BTW.) Fr. Martin has a gift for talking about the faith in a way that even non-Catholics can understand and appreciate.

I was especially taken with his discussion of the evangelical counsels, and this passage on chastity in particular:

One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining chastity negatively ”that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the church. Chastity is another way to love and, as such, has a great deal to teach everyone, not just members of religious orders.

Chastity also frees you to serve people more readily. We’re not attached to one person or to a family, so it’s easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit Constitutions says, chastity is “essentially apostolic.” It is supposed to help us become better “apostles.” Like all the vows, chastity helps Jesuits to be “available,” as Ignatius would say.

So chastity is about both love and freedom.

As a lay man working in the Church, this resonates deeply with me, even though  God did not call me to this kind of love. Instead he called me to love a particular woman and particular children in a way above and beyond anyone else. Of all my earthly concerns they come first. Period. Finite.

And that means having to say no to things that, if I had the freedom to love as a religious, I could say yes to; indeed, there have been times in my catechetical work that I wished I had taken a vow of chastity! Whenever an invitation to speak comes along or the notice of another interesting workshop to attend, part of me wishes I had the freedom to go without thought of my wife and kids. But that would be trying to live a different vocation — indeed, it would be a betrayal of my vows.

So I have a great appreciation for religious chastity and those who practice it, even though I was not called by God to be one of them. They live God’s love in a way I do not, with much more freedom to exercise that love. Without them, love would be diminished in the world. So thank God for chastity!