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Posted November 28, 2009

Joy an essential element
for good spiritual health, Jesuit says

Please refer to The Promise of Virtue
by Eugene Hemrick on the chapter on humor

By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service

MARYKNOLL, N.Y. (CNS) -- Joy is an essential element of good spiritual health and humor is a tool for evangelization, humility, welcoming and healing, according to Jesuit Father James Martin.

His address on "Laughing With God: Joy, Humor and Laughter in the Spiritual Life," kept more than 500 people grinning and nodding in amusement Nov. 15 at the Maryknoll Mission Center.

"Joy has a disreputable reputation in the church and that's a tragedy," Father Martin said. "Anyone truly in touch with God is joyful. When you're deadly serious, you're probably seriously dead."

Father Martin, an author and the culture editor of America magazine, illustrated his talk with jokes featuring Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Trappists and Maryknollers. His audience responded with peals of laughter that echoed throughout the high-ceilinged stone sanctuary of the Queen of Apostles Chapel.

Father Martin said humor may be undervalued in religious history because "what was funny to those in first-century Palestine is not so funny to us. Scripture scholars tell us that some of the parables were flat out funny" to those who heard them.

He said people miss the inherent humor in some of the Gospel stories because they are so familiar, like an old coin whose sharp edges have been worn smooth.

Father Martin said Jesus had a sense of humor and appreciated humor in others.

"Some of the natural humor of Jesus, of which we see certain residues, may have been toned down a bit by the Gospel writers," he said. They were writing for a Jewish culture that took the question of God very seriously, for Greeks who prized rationality and for Romans who prized "gravitas," he said. Later, church fathers saw their primary task as combating heresy and others later found humor subversive, because it poked fun at leaders.

"Today, humor seems to count almost as a strike against a church leader, when it should be a requirement," Father Martin said. He cited New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan as a church leader who uses humor effectively.

Preaching at a catechetical convocation in a sports arena, Archbishop Dolan reflected on the challenge of delivering a homily facing both a timer and a scoreboard. And when asked what he might be tempted to condemn as a new prelate in New York, the archbishop replied, "Light beer and instant mashed potatoes."

Father Martin said joy, humor and laughter are constant threads that run through the lives of the saints and make them attractive to others. He recounted when Blessed John XXIII visited Holy Spirit hospital in Rome and the religious sister in charge welcomed him, identifying herself as "the superior of the Holy Spirit." Pope John replied, "Well then, you outrank me. I'm only the vicar of Christ!"

Father Martin said humor is a tool for evangelization, because those with an essentially positive outlook reflect a belief in the Resurrection and the triumph of good over evil. He said former Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach's advice for increasing vocations was "Live your own vocation joyfully." Father Martin added, "Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people?"

He said humor can shock listeners into recognizing reality, and "self-deprecating humor deflates puffed-up egos."

"A witty remark is a time-honored way to challenge the pompous, the puffed-up and the powerful," Father Martin said. "Jesus deployed humor, exposing and defusing the arrogance of religious authority with clever parables."

Humor shows Christian courage, he said, recounting third-century martyr St. Lawrence who instructed the people who were roasting him to death, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." Father Martin said humor in the face of martyrdom articulates, "I do not fear death; I know that my Redeemer lives."

Father Martin said humor deepens our relationship with God, just as healthy human relationships include humor. He suggested that the surprising moments in life are signs of God's playfulness.

Humor is welcoming and shows hospitality, putting guests at ease, he said, and it is healing, both physically and spiritually.

"In the midst of some tough times in our church, the people of God could use a little laughter," he said. "It's not to say we laugh at one another, but laughter gives a much-needed break and helps us heal."