Chatting with Fr. James Martin

I love his latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth almost as much as I loved My Life With the Saints (which is to say, a lot) but “Mirth” strikes me as a particularly great Christmas gift, because what heavy-lifting it requires comes with a ready-hand of diversionary wit and humor.

It is not scary. You can give it to someone who already has faith — any faith; the book does not speak exclusively to Catholics — and they will enjoy it immensely. You can give it to someone who doesn’t have faith, but has a sense of humor, and he or she will equally enjoy it, without feeling like you’re getting all pushy-and-proselytizing. And, having encountered religion laced with a bit of humor and humanity — which was, incidentally, how the saints often served it up — your giftees may be more amenable to future conversations exploring issues from a faith-perspective.

That’s always a good thing.

Best of all, you can give it to a generally agreeable sort who nevertheless thinks religion is a downer, or who is mushy in their faith, and who knows how the Holy Spirit may take over?

Since the Patheos Book Club will begin December by celebrating and discussing Between Heaven and Mirth, I’m very happy to be kicking it off by featuring a quick, chatty interview with Father Jim:

So, Between Heaven and Mirth is not exactly a pie in the face, but it reminds us—as did Chesterton—that “angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” Does that mean people have to be happy all the time, or they’re earthbound?

Not at all. One point I make in the book several times in the book is that being joyful does not mean being happy all the time. Sadness is a natural and human—and healthy—response to suffering or tragedy. You would be a robot if you weren’t sad from time to time. It’s an indication of emotional health actually.

But overall faith should lead to joy, because joy is happiness in God. Happiness is an emotion about what life gives you; joy is deeper, for it comes from a relationship with God. So you can live a joyful life and still move between happiness and sadness.

I’m not arguing that we should be grinning idiots 24/7 but that too much in our understanding of religion says that we need to be unsmiling and serious. And I think that some of this, as I say in the book, comes from an overemphasis on Jesus as the “Man of Sorrows.” He was a “Man of Joys,” too.

On the surface, this book would appear to be feather-light reading—it contains a number of very funny jokes and humorous anecdotes—and yet it presents some very deep lessons. I was surprised at how often, while reading, I was moved to sincere prayer. But if the Holy Spirit moves on the air, it should not surprise us that laughter can lead us to prayer.

It shouldn’t but it does! We’re so used to thinking of prayer as serious—not simply in the sense of serious-important but serious-somber—that your observation can seem shocking. The other day someone asked, “How am I supposed to be contemplative if I’m not serious?” And I thought that this was a fascinating question, because it revealed the person’s conflation of contemplation with an overriding seriousness. So I said, “Well, have you ever contemplated God’s creation on a beach or in a sunrise?”

When he nodded, I said, “And were you doing it with a frown on your face?” We both laughed!

There is, you say, both the “good” laughter, which is joyful, warm and self-aware, and then there is the “bad” laughter, which is ungenerous and involves laughing at others—mockery and jeering, and such. Is there an idea worth exploring here, of good laughter opening us up—physically, emotionally and spiritual—to good influences and bad laughter doing the opposite?

That’s an interesting question. Good laughter definitely opens us up—physically (by releasing endorphins); emotionally (by lightening our spirits) and spiritually (but enabling us to share in a God-given gift). And yes, bad laughter would do something of the opposite—it closes us down to other people, it moves us further away from God and it belittles someone. It’s sinful, I believe.

Do read the whole interview here, and as ever, with the book club, you will be able to read a free excerpt here, and overviews, reviews, roundtable bits, discussion questions and more, over the course of the next two weeks. Look for give-aways and Twitter discussion groups in the coming days, as well!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Victor

    (((It’s sinful, I believe.)))

    Yes when someone is using laughter with evil intention in our heart sure is sinful but then again sin will produce sins but who can safely look into the hearts of “MEN” when they say “Lord, Lord”?

    I hear ya! Victor, let’s just let GOD (Good Old Dad) be the judge of “IT”! :)

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    I loved this book and am awaiting hearing about the publication date of my own review of it in our diocesan paper. Looking forward to checking out your links!

    [Fran, when it shows up in your paper, let me know. I'll link if possible -admin]