Between Heaven and Mirth, Excerpt 4: Humor and the Saints

Between Heaven and Mirth, Excerpt 4: Humor and the Saints December 6, 2011

The Between Heaven and Mirth Twitter Book Club continues today with our fourth excerpt, below.  Join the conversation by reading the excerpt and tweeting a response, or a question for author Father Jim Martin – and don’t forget to include the #patheosmirth hashtag!  You can follow the whole Twitter conversation here:!/search/%23patheosmirth

Between Heaven and Mirth, by James Martin, SJ

Excerpt 4: Humor and the Saints (pp. 70-71)

Reprinted with permission from HarperOne Publishers

When I first began reading the lives of the saints, nothing surprised me more than the frequent stories of their lightheartedness, playfulness, or sheer sense of joy.  Open up almost any contemporary life of a saint and you will find not a gloomy, depressive character, but someone blessed with a zestful spirit. Even those saints traditionally thought to have been overly pious are often revealed to have had a surprising joie de vivre.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, often described as an austere ascetic, used to cheer up sad Jesuits by spontaneously performing dances from the Basque country in Spain, his homeland. St. Bernadette Soubirous, the famous nineteenth-century visionary (whose visions of the Virgin Mary in the French town of Lourdes inspired the book and the movie The Song of Bernadette), is typically protrayed in both statuary and portraiture as grim-faced.  Perhaps because of the conventions of her time, even photographs show her as an unsmiling prude. But biographies of the former shepherdess reveal a charming, down-to-earth woman with a delightful sense of humor.  Toward the end of her life, suffering from a fatal illness, she took to embroidery, favoring heart-shaped patterns.  One day, she joked with one of the sisters in her convent, “If anyone tells you I don’t have a heart, tell them I make them all day!”

Humor seems almost a prerequisite for sanctity. The saints knew to take the long view of things, were quick to laugh at life’s absurdities (and at themselves), and always placed their trust in God. They were also, for the most part, remarkably self-aware men and women who had often faced severe difficulties in life, undergone a dramatic conversion (which gave them a realistic sense of their own flaws and foibles), and came into contact with people who themselves were facing great suffering. Thus the saints had a clear-eyed outlook on life, which meant that they took the serious things seriously and the not-so-serious things not so seriously. Overall, their healthy perspective led to a healthy sense of humor.

Un saint triste est un triste saint.

(“A sad saint is a sad sort of saint.”)

–St. Francis De Sales

So why does the popular imagination overwhelmingly think of the saints as grumpy, or at least overly serious? Well, if all traces of humor have been removed from our understanding of Jesus’s personality, and if the Christian tradition has had a good deal of its natural humor leeched out, and if “real” religion is supposed to be serious, then the saints, the models par excellence of Christian life, are, not surprisingly, portrayed as the most serious Christians of all. In short, if religion is supposed to be gloomy, then the saints must be depicted as the gloomiest of all men and women.

Take a look at the many marble, stained-glass, and mosaic portrayals of saints, and see if you can find any who look cheerful. Typically, they appear with their hands folded, eyes downcast, and a morose look on their faces. Or they are pictured gazing piously heavenward, far removed from the vanities of this world. In my years of perusing the statues of saints in churches across the world, I have seen none smiling. Mary and the angels may smile occasionally,* but never the saints.

Now it’s your turn… tweet your response to this excerpt. Are you surprised the Saints were joyful people?  Are the religious people you know serious or joyful? Does it make a difference?  What can you do, like dear St. Ignatius of Loyola dancing for his friends, to bring joy into someone else’s life?  You can also tweet a question for Fr. Martin to respond to.  Don’t forget to include the #patheosmirth hashtag so we can collect all the twitter responses together.



Browse Our Archives

Close Ad