Book Review: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, S.J. (HarperOne, 272 pages, 2011)

How many times have you walked into a church and seen a smiling saint? How many times have you heard that Jesus used a little humor to get his point across? I bet the answer to those questions is “rarely” or maybe even “never.” I’ve long said that I think God has a sense of humor. The response from those around me is usually: “how could you say that?” or “Isn’t that a sin?” or, my favorite, “doesn’t that make you a bad Christian?” I think not. After all, doesn’t Philippians 4:4 remind us to “Rejoice in the Lord always?”

Between Heaven and Mirth, the fantastic new book by James Martin, S.J., reminds us that just as joy is a part of our everyday life it should also become a part of our spiritual life. Through page after page of jokes and anecdotes, Fr. Martin shows us how joy, humor, and laughter are some of God’s greatest gifts. Even after 13 years of hanging out with Jesuits, the included Jesuit jokes never do get old. But, Fr. Martin’s book is not just about jokes.

In Between Heaven and Mirth, offers stories of real saints who had a terrific sense of humor. I couldn’t help but laugh at the self-deprecating humor of Pope John XXIII or Saint Teresa of Avila’s brand of humor. Most importantly, Martin reminds us that Jesus was not the always serious boring fellow that some folks make him out to be. Jesus lived in joy and brought joy to the people he encountered. He was even a funny guy—using the humor of the day in his parables and responses. Much of Jesus’ subtle humor is lost on us in the 21st century, but 1st century followers of Jesus would have understood the humor and probably had a good laugh. Martin makes sure we understand the humor now and, I can assure you, knowing what it meant then sure makes it funny now (it puts the parable of the talents in a whole new light).

My favorite chapter of the book is Chapter 4: Happiness attracts. Martin quotes Isaiah 52:4, “The LORD delights in you”, to remind us that God not only loves us, but He delights in us too. God likes us. That means something. It means that God doesn’t only love us because He’s our creator and father; it also means that God wants to be with us and takes pleasure in us. Martin tells us that parents delight in their children and that the delight can turn into playfulness. So, too, can God be playful in order to show us how much he likes us and, more often than not, to help us not take ourselves so seriously. In those random funny moments in life, it is God who is right there.

Perhaps, the clearest personal example of this that I have is something that happened ten years ago while I was a freshman in college. It was the Spring semester after a very difficult Fall semester where my family experienced a tragic loss. I was working harder than ever academically and had started to live in a bubble that went from school to work to dorm to homework and back again. I wasn’t hanging out with my friends, watching television, or doing anything where I could truly say I was enjoying myself. On this particular Spring day, I was supposed to have my Biology final exam. It was a class that I was struggling in and that I studied the most for, but nothing seemed to help me regain the grade I had in the Fall. I remember that day clearly. I woke up at 11:30 am and realized that I was going to be late for my exam at 11:45 am. I quickly dressed up, chugged some orange juice and took a cookie on my way out. I was living clear across the campus and, only 3 months after a knee surgery, I found myself eating and running and panicking all the way to the building where the exam was going to take place. In my rush, I passed the Mission Church, uttered a super quick prayer, and ran up the stairs to the second floor. I opened the door of the classroom and not a single face looked familiar. I closed the door and looked at the exam schedule posted outside and saw that BIOLOGY 1 was scheduled for 1:45 pm not 11:45 am. I was upset with myself as I walked down the stairs and made my way out of the building. I started to make my way back to my dorm building and as I passed the Mission Church again, the bells rang for the Noontime mass. I laughed loud and I laughed hard. I’m pretty sure everyone that passed me thought I was crazy. An inexplicable joy rushed over me that day and I took pleasure in the bells of the Church. I know it was God’s sense of humor at work—the nudge I needed to start enjoying life and friendship a little more and, no doubt, the nudge I needed to remember that I wasn’t alone through anything.

Fr. Martin’s book is an excellent companion for our spiritual journey. Our lives can be filled with humor and still be spiritual and God can show us His love and friendship in life’s funny moments. This book can be laugh-out-loud funny at times, but can lead one to greater reflection too. It’s a keeper!

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