'Between Heaven and Mirth'

Excerpted from his latest book, a Jesuit priest searches for what's funny about faith

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The book had its genesis a few years ago when I began to give talks based on a book called My Life with the Saints, a memoir telling the story of twenty saints who had been influential in my spiritual life. In a short while I noticed something surprising. Wherever I spoke—whether in parishes, colleges, conferences, or retreat centers—what people wanted to hear about most was the way the saints were joyful people, enjoyed lives full of laughter, and how their holiness led inevitably to joy. To a degree that astonished me, people seemed fascinated by joy. It was almost as if they’d been waiting to be told that it’s okay to be religious and enjoy themselves, to be joyful believers.

Still, many professional religious people (priests, ministers, rabbis, and the like) as well as some devout believers in general give the impression that being religious means being dour, serious, or even grumpy—like Mike’s superior. But the lives of the saints, as well as those of great spiritual masters from almost every other religious tradition, show the opposite. Holy people are joyful. Why? Because holiness brings us closer to God, the source of all joy.

Why am I so concerned with joy, humor, and laughter from a spiritual point of view? Why have I written an entire book on the subject? The reaction of those crowds is not the only thing that encouraged me to take up this topic. There was another phenomenon, equally persuasive, that I continually ran across: these virtues—yes, virtues—are often sadly lacking in religious institutions and in the ideas that good religious people have about religion.

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A little background may be in order. I’ve been a Catholic and a Christian my whole life, a Jesuit for over twenty years, and a priest for over ten. So I’ve spent a great deal of time living and working among those whom you could call “professionally religious.” I’ve met men and women working in all manner of religious settings. And I have known, met, or spoken to thousands of religious people from almost every walk of life. In the process I have come across a surprising number of spiritually aware people who are, in a word, grim.

Being joy-challenged is not just the province of Jesuit priests and brothers (most of whom are cheerful sorts). Joylessness is nondenominational and interfaith. “My minister is such a grump!” a Lutheran friend told me a few months ago, explaining what led her to search for another church. Last year I gave a talk to a large group of Catholics. After the talk someone said approvingly, “You know, I actually saw our bishop laugh during your talk. I’ve never seen that before.” She had been working with the bishop for five years.

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James Martin, S.J.
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