'Between Heaven and Mirth'

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

James Martin

Adapted from BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH by James Martin, S.J. Copyright © 2011 by James Martin, S.J.  Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

Mike is one of the funniest people I know. A Catholic priest in his mid-sixties, he regales his friends with clever stories, boasts superb comic timing, and has perfected an inimitable deadpan look. Today Mike is a popular professor at Fordham, a Catholic university in New York City, where his lighthearted sermons attract crowds of students to Sunday Masses. It’s nearly impossible to be downhearted or discouraged in his presence.

But Mike’s contagious humor wasn’t always valued. And forty years ago the Jesuits—the Catholic religious order to which Mike and I belong—had an odd custom that made this clear. At the time, the young Jesuits in training were required to publicly confess their “faults” to the men in their community as a way of fostering their humility. This had been a long-standing practice in many religious orders, especially in monastic orders. (It sounds strange but, as the saying goes, the past is a different country. And the past in religious orders is a different world.)

So, for example, at a weekly gathering of the priests and brothers, a young Jesuit might confess that he hadn’t said his evening prayers. Or that he had nodded off during a particularly dull homily. Or that he had said uncharitable things about another person in the community. This was supposed to help the young Jesuit become more humble, more attentive to his shortcomings, and more eager to correct them. On top of that, each young Jesuit was supposed to confess things privately, to the head of the community.

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One day Mike, who was known for his high spirits, felt guilty. Earlier in the day, during Mass, he couldn’t stop laughing about something that struck him as hilarious. He felt he had been acting silly and undignified. So Mike walked into the office of the head of the Jesuit community, an elderly priest with a well-earned reputation for seriousness.

Mike took his seat and prepared for his admission of guilt.

“Father,” he said, “I confess excessive levity.”

The priest glowered at Mike, paused, and said, “All levity is excessive!”

In some religious circles joy, humor, and laughter are viewed the same way the crabby priest saw levity: as excessive. Excessive, irrelevant, ridiculous, inappropriate, and even scandalous. But a lighthearted spirit is none of those things. Rather, it is an essential element of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life in general. When we lose sight of this serious truth, we cease to live life fully, truly, and wholly. Indeed, we fail to be holy. And that’s what my book Between Heaven and Mirth is about: the value of joy, humor, and laughter in the spiritual life.

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James Martin, S.J.
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