You really can’t say much that is positive about sanctity until you first get rid of the odd-ball ideas in circulation. So let’s deal with some of these absurdities first.
It’s hard to tell who could have first dreamed up the idea that the saints were overserious, morbid people, not laughing or smiling much, because life looked too glum from where they sat. Someone did dream it up, though, and the calumny persists, so that people who are bubbling over with youth and good spirits are naturally revolted by the idea of such “sanctity.”
And they should be. I wouldn’t say there has never been a saint who didn’t have his gloomy moments because, since they’re human beings, there have probably been as many types of saints as there are types of human beings. For the most part, though, the saints as a class are the least gloomy of people, because sanctity leads to happiness and joy, and only those on the road to hell have a right to be gloomy.
– Joseph T. McGloin, SJ, Burn a Little! (or, what’s LOVE all about?) (1961)
My latest reflection was posted today for Loyola Press’s 3-Minute Retreat! You can view the retreat on the 3-Minute Retreat web site or Facebook page. (It really does only take three minutes!)
There are some memories that never fail to make me smile: playing board games in a lake cabin with my friends, my mom’s surprise 60th birthday party, the birth of my children. Memory has a powerful effect on our emotions and can make friends and family long gone seem as if they are in the room with us. Jesus must have known about this effect, for why else would he ask us to celebrate in his memory? By coming together to share his Body and Blood, we are reminded not only of the events of Jesus’ life, but of the joy we have in the promises he has made to us. By keeping that joy in our hearts we can become beacons of light in the world, drawing others closer to him whom we remember.
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.