Humor in Our Spiritual Lives

I just finished reading James Martin’s most recent book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I’ve experienced a few bouts of melancholy of late, and the book has been a great antidote to that.

There are so many things I love about this book. Like many great spiritual writers, Martin has the ability to convey profound truths in an accessible manner. (He is also not afraid to poke a little fun at himself…something we all could benefit from doing now and then.)

In one of the chapters in his book, Martin explains several reasons “why we need humor in our spiritual lives, in our daily relationship with God.” The first is that humor leads to poverty of spirit, which Johannes Baptist Metz calls the ground of every theological virtue. The second is that humor reminds us that we are not in control. The third is that levity is a sign of God’s presence on our lives.

It is the third that resonated deeply with me. What came to my mind when reading Martin’s text here was my experience during my first directed retreat after returning to Catholicism. I had approached that retreat with some trepidation, not at all sure of where things stood between me and God. It is fair to say that I lacked trust both in God and in myself and wasn’t at all sure where God and I were with each other and where we this relationship between us was going.

On the fourth day of the retreat, during the times I spent walking out of doors, I had a frequent sense of God being playful with me. The incidents themselves were silly…nothing worth writing about (and I suspect they would lose something in the telling). The notes I wrote in my journal for that day are cryptic, but they refer to several different experiences that conveyed a sense of God being playful and laughing, not at, but with me.

What finally struck me after a number of these experiences that day was the insight that if God and I could be playful together, we must be on good terms. I realized one cannot really be playful with another person unless the two people have a level of comfort that allows them to let go. And what I remember most clearly is that absolute delight I felt at that realization, at knowing that God and I were doing OK with each other.

Those moments of humor accomplished something profound in me, in a few moments conveying something that hours of more “serious” conversation between me and God might not have conveyed so effectively. God was there. And God and I were happy to be with each other. And we were going to be just fine.