Monday, October 24, 2011

"I shall say it again: rejoice!" : Reviewing "Between Heaven and Mirth" by James Martin, SJ

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.
I can't tell you how many times I've had people ask me, "How can you be a Happy Catholic?" They then go on to cite the problems currently in the Church, how hard life is in general, and so on and so forth.

My answer is that happy does not mean cheerful. I'm not talking about a Pollyanna-ish insistence on always seeing the glass half full. I'm talking about a deep, underlying joy that comes from the peace of mind in knowing Jesus really has overcome the world, really is real, really does love me personally. Except in times of deep trouble or sorrow, when no one in their right mind would be able to say that they are happy, I have happiness as a foundation of my days. I must add that even in those times of trouble there is a peace lurking in the background reminding me that "all manner of things shall be well."

I suppose that I am asked that because even the best of us tend to think that faith and religion aren't real unless they are sober, serious, and definitely not amusing, humorous, or joyful. This never made sense to me because I have had too many times when God makes his point to me using a "virtual" nudge in the ribs and a chuckle. There is that stunning moment when I realize what I've gotten very wrong and then that hilarious moment when I realize just how ridiculously wrong I am ... and somehow, you know, I wind up howling with laughter and things just never seem too bad after that.

James Martin has written a book all about that very thing. He writes compellingly that holy people are joyful people, providing numerous examples of the people, their joy, and their levity ... up to and including Jesus. The main premise is that joy, humor, and laughter help us live more spiritual lives, relate to others better, and connect with God more easily.

Martin's examination of scripture and Jesus' humor will be especially valuable to those who hesitate to think that humor and playfulness have a place in faith. His case studies in scriptural joy look at a psalm, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, and 1 Thessalonians. It gives us a fresh look at the familiar passages and perspective on the way the hearers would have understood it when the scripture was new.

I also really appreciated the chapter where Martin addressed the problem of living joyfully when life is difficult. He discusses the fact that joy doesn't mean one is happy all the time, how to find joy during times of pain, what to do if you are not a funny person, and what to do when working or living in a joyless environment. This section is almost a primer on how to look at our lives with both gravity and lightheartedness. It is one that more people than Christians would benefit from.

Naturally in a book of this sort, anecdotes and jokes are larded throughout the text. They always are illustrations of the point that Martin is making and yet, in themselves, contribute to helping look at things just a touch less seriously or from a different point of view. My favorites were the ones that came from real life, as those are the sort that are most genuinely funny. Those are often the sort that help us in painful times, as Martin points out.
Then she recounted the story of two friends whose mutual friend had died. "They missed her terribly," said [Margaret] Silf. "They planted what they thought were daffodil bulbs on her grave and grieved all winter. In the spring they returned to the grave to pay their respects and discovered a wonderful crop of ... onions! They laughed until they cried--and they are convinced their friend was right in there laughing with them.
There were a few places where Martin was going so fast that he skimmed on providing all the information we needed for the book to be as solid as it could. The primary place I noticed this, and the one that kept bothering me, was his lack of distinction when he compared Zachariah's doubt at the promise of a son after many years of childlessness (who would become John the Baptist) and Mary's reasonable, straight-forward question about how she could become pregnant if she'd never "known" a man. Zachariah, the experienced priest who should have known better than to doubt, is struck mute by the angel. The simple question of the young girl, Mary, is answered. Martin's joke in the footnote that Gabriel is gentler with women was amusing but completely inaccurate and that made me a bit wary of other such confident assertions about Scripture when they came up.

Happily, there are not many instances of those problematic points. Those aside, this book is informative, engaging, and makes a solid argument for the case that joy and humor are integral parts of being human and the spiritual life. Certainly this book is much needed to help lighten the mood of those who believe that only serious attitudes will gain us the kingdom of Heaven. It most definitely is appreciated by those of us who occasionally must defend our faith because of our joy.

Highly recommended.


  1. I popped this open at the store and randomly read several different parts and found them all to be both interesting and entertaining. Cannot wait to read more. Nice review.

  2. "I suppose that I am asked that because even the best of us tend to think that faith and religion aren't real unless they are sober, serious, and definitely not amusing, humorous, or joyful." I definitely think this is true! But I think you make a good point that sometimes God makes his point by giving you a gentle ribbing. What an easy way to be let down or shown that you veered off the wrong path, with a little bit of humor!

    I could go on, but I'll stop here and thank you for such a great review. :)