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.


Walking the Walk or Talking the Talk

Goethe once observed that all humor is based on truth and tragedy.  Apt line.

My friend Gerry e-mailed me this joke.  After I read it, I told him it would be cute but for the truth behind it.  He acknowledged that we probably all recognize parts of some people we know in that joke (including ourselves). I’m sure this one has made its way around the blogosphere before, but here it is:

A man was being tailgated by a stressed-out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman was furious and honked her horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, dropping her cell phone and makeup.

As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious state trooper.  The trooper ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.  He took her to the barracks where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a trooper approached the cell and opened the door.  She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting trooper was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, “I’m very sorry for this mistake.  You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him.  I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’  license plate holder, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday-School’ bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. 

“Naturally….. I assumed you had stolen the car.”