Between Heaven and Mirth, by James Martin, SJ (A Book Review)

Folks who have been visiting this space know that I have a soft spot in my heart for the writings of Fr. James Martin. You see, the very first post written here, by Webster Bull, he mentioned his book “My Life With The Saints.” I also read that book and enjoyed it immensely. Fr. Jim, see, has what I like to think of as a unique, folksy style, that appeals to many. Stephen Colbert has noticed,

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Perhaps it’s because Martin is so effortless to read. The words just seem to pour off of the page and directly into your subconscious, and before you know it, you’re on the next chapter. In the particular case of this book, the subject matter is appealing because, and bear with the rhetorical question, how many of us have met the bane of St. Teresa of Avila during our journey along the Way? I’m referring to the “sour faced saints” that she begged God to spare us from. If you can find a way to give them this book surreptitiously, it would do them a world of good.

But forgetting about the speck in the eyes of others, and turning to the planks in our own, which Fr. Jim uses as an example of the tomfoolery of Our Lord, this latest book will help you along the narrow path with a lighter step. You see, the subtitle of this slim volume is Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, and though there are plenty of sour moments through this vail of tears, Martin’s book reminds us to remember that there is a time and place for everything, which he assiduously goes about pointing out for us through both biblical passages (Ecclesiastes in this case) and numerous other citations gleaned from the lives of the saints and other real world examples of lived, not just theoretical, faith.

He takes the reader through patterns of joy from other faith traditions as well as from theological, psychological, and the views of academic experts from various fields who reflect on historic and anecdotal examples of humor and the Faith. And I have to add that he does so without burying the reader in a sea of footnotes or involving us in long winded academic discussions, which as I recall from my experience in college, serve only to kill joy with the mercilessness of pedantic proofs that can put chronic insomniacs to sleep in 30 seconds. Instead, Martin shares with us some of the best research on this subject matter, jokes that he has heard over the years, and biblical passages that many of us have read, and summarily forgotten, that remind us of the joy we should take in our very personal faith journeys.

On top of all of this, Fr. Jim effortlessly recalls episodes in his own life where a Christian sense of humor has saved the day for him personally, as well as for others he was ministering too. Often times, the humor that “saved the day” was generated by a friend, or colleague, or even a stranger who, by being in the right place, and at the right time, was able, through the skillful application of humor, to make an unbearable situation bearable.

For example, I liked learning that right before his ordination, Fr. Jim became ill and had to be taken to the emergency room. Accompanying him was a 70 year old priest, whom Fr. Jim turned to for, as he called it, “emergency spiritual counseling” along the lines of “Why is God doing this to me?” The answer he got was unexpected, and therapeutic, for in a deeply serious voice (think of that voice-over artist in movie trailers) the priest answered, God is punishing you for all of your wicked sins!, which caused them both to burst out in laughter.

There is much enjoyment and practical knowledge that is gained from spending time with this book. Because there is enough bad news out there in the world to bring us all to the brink of mental collapse, if we allow ourselves to focus only on what is wrong with the world. But to do so is to miss the point of our lives as witnesses to joy. Fr. Jim reminds readers gently and subtly that God loves us, wants us to be happy, and that making a joyful noise to the Lord is nothing to be ashamed of. He even has an answer for those of you who may believe that “I’m not funny, and my life stinks.” Buy this book and find out why that self-assessment is not true. Here, I’ll let him tell you himself,

Run on over to Harper-Collins and browse through it for yourself. Then go buy this book. You’ll be glad you did.

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