I received a copy of Fr. James Martin’s newest book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life from Patheos where it is this month’s featured book club selection. His central premise is that in our churches we often act very grim and forget that humor is a gift of the Spirit.
I would go even further to suggest that our capacity to experience deep emotion of any kind has been stunted in our culture in general, but also in our faith communities. We shy away from genuine experiences of lament and deep grief as much as the kind of ecstasy profound joy can bring. The Psalms which counsel us to sing a new song to God or to let God carry our tears in a vial have gone largely unheeded. We are often too busy to let ourselves feel things, or it is too threatening to let ourselves surrender into the flow of an emotion.
In monastic tradition there is an emphasis on humility. The root of the word is humus which means earthiness and is the same root for humor. Humility is about taking ourselves less seriously and remembering our earthiness. To be a monk in the world means to participate actively in the joy that is our birthright.
I think what I enjoyed most about his book were the jokes peppered throughout, they reinforced that just talking about being more joyful doesn’t actually get us there. We have to lose ourselves in moments, cast aside our seriousness.
Reading Fr. Martin’s book, I am reminded of a favorite quote from Thomas Merton which closes his book New Seeds of Contemplation:
What is serious to man is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in the mysterious cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch the echoes of that game, and of that dancing. . . The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join the general dance.
This book is a great precaution against the religious hazard of taking oneself too seriously. I would love to see churches as places that created the space for genuine emotion to be experienced. I believe that our capacity for grief and sorrow is in proportion to our capacity for real joy and delight. We must cultivate both for the fullness of our human experience.
Perhaps, as Merton suggests, we have it all backwards and what we take most seriously is not of concern for God. Maybe God’s call to play and the cosmic dance are truly at the heart of the world. How might I live differently I believed this?