It may have been Providential or coincidental, but a few minutes before I sat down to write this review, I heard a song from the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain in which Donald O’Connor sang the words, ‘Make 'em laugh. Don't you know everyone wants to laugh?’ Fr James Martin might have said exactly the same thing about his latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. For a start, I cannot think of any other book which has on its dustcover pictures of Pope John XXIII, Saints Julie Billiart, Teresa of Avila and Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa laughing!
Fr Martin says of Between Heaven and Mirth that it contains jokes but is not a book of jokes. That is a very important distinction, because the humour throughout its pages is serious insofar as it conveys meaning and, frequently, a moral. He goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of humour, joy and rejoicing if we are to appreciate, not only life, but God who calls us to happiness. He offers examples from scripture which show that Jesus himself used humour in his teaching, admitting that our over-familiarity with the parables and different cultural context mean that we do not recognise that some of his words were meant to raise a smile or even a laugh – and yet it makes sense. If Jesus did not know how to laugh, he would not have been very human in his relationships with others. As Fr Martin points out in the first sentence of his second paragraph, ‘Holy people are joyful people’. He could scarcely make his stance more clear or place it earlier.
Fr Martin is at pains to explain why, during the course of history, people began to equate holiness with solemnity and a lack of humour whilst also talking about rejoicing and celebration. It is almost as if they did not notice the contradiction in terms. There is nothing wrong with laughing in church: we all know that a good joke from the pulpit can convey the most important meaning. Between Heaven and Mirth stresses carefully the value of joy and laughter even in liturgical settings. (I am reminded of seeing a little boy at our village church help his mother take up the gifts in the offertory procession. When he had given the water and wine to the priest, he turned to the congregation and, with a mischievous grin, bowed to them all. The unexpectedness of his action made everybody laugh – and it was beautiful.)
Neither is holiness and humour limited to the Church. Between Heaven and Mirth is written carefully, not only for Christians of any denomination, but also for non-Christians. Fr Martin includes examples of humour from many religious sources, including the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther just as much as from his Jesuit companions. The readiness of all religious traditions to appreciate humour and sensible writing about it is highlighted in the number of footnotes which explain Catholic words and ideas to those who might be unfamiliar with their usage. These are themselves written in simple, non-patronising language which will not deter readers from continuing deeper into the book.
Significantly, Between Heaven and Mirth is not merely a lesson in the spirituality of joy, humour and laughter. It also contains valuable guidance for those whose lives are not particularly happy and joyful and for those who find themselves in a joyless environment (it was pleasing to see that the book lightened the heart of someone in my community who had been bereaved just a couple of days earlier – she had picked up the book having been attracted by its cover). At the same time, Fr Martin leads the reader towards gratitude to God for the moments of laughter that have lightened the darkest moments and brightened those which were already full of sunshine. ‘God has brought joy into your life. Share yours with God’. Humour, laughter and joy are two-way processes which increase through being shared. ‘Why couldn’t earthly joy, humour and laughter be a way of preparing for a lifetime of happiness? Why not enjoy a little of heaven upon earth?’
Between Heaven and Mirth is a pleasure to read. It is unusual and intentionally so. Few spiritual books are written on such a theme; perhaps it is a pity that this is the case. However, here is one volume in which an author ‘thinks outside the box’ to produce something which carries its important message so light-heartedly.
For me, this book was a birthday present and there surely can be no more cheerful accompaniment to a celebration than something so positive, uplifting and humorous! Of course it is a book which promises to present some serious food for thought, but the great St Teresa of Avila herself exclaimed, ‘God preserve us from serious saints!’
The reviewer, Sr Janet Fearns FMDM, is Communications Coordinator for Missio.