Behold, my reader, this scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:
I was reminded of this of this scene on reading Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, SJ. Just a few days ago I learned about that books existence from a review at Leah Libresco’s Unequally Yoked.
Wishful thinker that I am, I ignored both the book’s official description and the review, jumped to the conclusion that this must be mainly a collection of Catholic jokes, and immediately bought the Kindle edition.
Now imagine, if you can, me, in my pajamas, Kindle in one hand, nice cup of tea in the other, lying down for some light bedtime entertainment. And the first thing I read is an extensive explanation of how humor has a legitimate place in Christian spirituality.
I couldn’t agree more! We could indulge in Catholic jokes anytime we wanted! That’s what being a Catholic is all about! That’s why it’s the Church for me! That’s why it’s the Church for anyone who respects the individual and the individual right to decide for him- or herself! And Catholicism doesn’t stop at a simple joke, I can read irreverent and biting jokes if I want. I can go down the road, anytime I want, and walk into the next book store, and hold my head up high, and say in a loud, steady voice: “Sir, I want you to sell me a joke collection! In fact today I’ll have it all sarcastic. For I am a Catholic!”
Now to be clear, it’s all my fault that I ended up playing both roles in that video. Only my own lewd fantasy tricked me into expecting a book different from the one both promised and delivered. Also, the book does contain some good jokes, it’s just that they are not the main focus. So it’s probably about time to stop the self-pity.
Anyway, having read a book about it and now being all informed on the relation of joy, humor and spirituality, I suddenly feel qualified to offer my own profound thoughts both on the book and the question. You get my opinion on the book in this here post and my additional thoughts on humor and religion in two upcoming ones.
A bit more than one third of the book is spent on an argument that humor has a rightful place in spirituality. This is done in the way we Catholics argue for basically anything we argue for: An intro chapter catches our attention and explores both everyday and spiritual connections of humor. Then follows a chapter explaining away the humor-hostile parts of our tradition. Next is some scriptural support for humor (actually the first of three scriptural “studies in joy” interspersed between the chapters), followed by a chapter on humor in tradition as seen through the saints and a chapter listing some practical advantages of humor, which is not too far from an argument from natural law and general revelation. Don’t let my jestful description of our standard argumentative pattern mislead you, I actually find this kind of argument pretty darn convincing. And while I didn’t need any convincing in the first place, Father Martin’s argument surely could have done the job.
There is however one detail I’d like to grumble about. He never really says so, but to me it read like humor was an obligatory part of spiritual life. I don’t believe that. Yes, God is funny, but God is also musical and I’m not. That lack of talent doesn’t separate me from god and a lack of humor wouldn’t either. Near the book’s beginning we hear the horror story of an old pre-councilar Jesuit reprehending one of Father Martin’s friends that “all levity is excessive”. Now to be honest, if you feel like that grump I probably don’t want to hang out with you. But I’m pretty sure Jesus does. And not just because he will fix you, but because that kind of sober and earnest obligation-discharging, too, is is a path to him.
Having established that humor and religion ought to be integrated Fr. Martin goes on to give us advice on how to do it. The theme broadens here. While the theoretical argument for humor was about humor specifically, the practical parts are about joy in a broader sense with humor as an important instance of it.
This advice part is where the book turns out to be – and I mean that the good way – profoundly Jesuitical. See, the question of how to be joyful is not all that different from the question of how to get closer to the source and perfection of all joy, which is God. And advice on humor and something is always to a large part advice on the something. So the discussion of joy, humor and various parts of life is quite naturally suffused with more general spiritual guidance.
For example chapter five is on “how vocation, service and love can lead to joy”. In answering that question it naturally also explains the Christian idea of vocation, service and love. Likewise chapter nine gives advice on how to pray joyfully, but in doing so it first of all gives advice on how to pray.
Sandwiched between these chapters on the “big” spiritual questions are three more on the plainer everyday business of how to live a joyful spiritual life individually (chapter eighth) and and as a church (chapter six) as well as on overcoming difficulties one might face in doing so (chapter seven). The subtext of spiritual guidance is weaker here, but still present.
So altogether there is a good Catholic argument for a joyful spiritual life, a how-to guide on doing it and some unobtrusive general spiritual guidance. I haven’t tried all the advice offered, but the parts I can judge are mainly good advice. And it’s an entertaining read, with some jokes, though not enough for a joke collection. Add it all up and I am quite satisfied with having cheated myself into buying this book.