Bishop Ralph – Between Heaven and Mirth – Sheffield Catholic Cathedral.
A Redemptorist confrere recently gave me a copy of a book entitled, Between Heaven and Mirth. Why Joy, Humour, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. The book is written by Fr. James Martin SJ. It is a very entertaining book but it has a serious message. It explores the idea of the importance of joy, humour and laughter in the Christian Life.
Martin tells the story of a regional superior in New York who was visiting the infirmary where the sick and elderly Jesuits were cared for. The superior spoke of how the Jesuits in the area were getting older and older. “ We have so many old Jesuits,” said the superior, “there really isn’t a place to put them. There isn’t really any room for anyone else in the infirmary.” To which one elderly Jesuit shouted out, “Father, we are dying as fast as we can!”
Sometimes silly humour can help calm potentially tense situation. But Martin’s argument is that humour can do much more. It is, he says, both a physical remedy and a tool for growth in the spiritual life.
Doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists have shown how laughter helps the healing process of the physical body. Laughter, we are told, releases powerful chemicals called endorphins that produce an overall feeling of well-being. Scientists have shown that these endorphins produce a natural analgesic, which acts as a barrier to pain. It has also been discovered that laughter causes enlargement of the inner lining of the blood vessels which increases blood- flow and a sense of well-being. So much so, that one health worker, for example, speaks of his use of the Marx Brothers films in the daily treatment of arthritis. However, I am not convinced that this might be a cure for all!
Martin argues that humour is equally important for our spiritual health. He gives a number of reasons for this but I would just like to highlight one. Humour, he says, deepens our relationship with God. He suggests that it is helpful to think of our relationship with God as a close and intimate friendship. In any friendship there are moments of humour and laughter. Often there are “in jokes” between friends that cement a friendship. So it is OK to be playful with God and accept that God might wish to be playful with us. We see this playful side of our relationship with God, from time to time, in the lives of the saints.
One of the best-known stories of St Teresa of Avila beautifully illustrates this. One day she was knocked off her donkey on the way to visit one of her convents. She fell into the mud and injured her leg. “Lord,” she said, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?” And the reply she heard in prayer was, “That is how I treat my friends.” Teresa answered, “And that is why you have so few of them!” It is a story that shows Teresa’s great sense of humour, her playful way of addressing God and her assumption of God’s own playfulness.
Finally, in chapter 62 of the Book of Isaiah we read, “The Lord delights in you.” Fr. Martin offers this insight on this word of scripture.
“God is the One who delights in your own sense of humour and surprises you with life’s funny moments. And in life’s unexpected moments may be found signs of God’s delight in your life.”