Mike is one of the funniest people I know. A Catholic priest in his mid-sixties, he regales his friends with clever stories, boasts superb comic timing and has perfected an inimitable deadpan look. Today Mike is a popular professor at Fordham, a Catholic university in New York City, where his lighthearted sermons attract crowds of students to Sunday Masses. It's nearly impossible to be downhearted or discouraged in his presence.
But Mike's contagious humor wasn't always valued. And 40 years ago the Jesuits -- the Catholic religious order to which Mike and I belong -- had an odd custom that made this clear. At the time, the young Jesuits in training were required to publicly confess their "faults" to the men in their community as a way of fostering their humility. This had been a long-standing practice in many religious orders, especially in monastic orders.
(It sounds strange but, as the saying goes, the past is a different country. And the past in religious orders is a different world.)
So, for example, at a weekly gathering of the priests and brothers, a young Jesuit might confess that he hadn't said his evening prayers. Or that he had nodded off during a particularly dull homily. Or that he had said uncharitable things about another person in the community. This was supposed to help the young Jesuit become more humble, more attentive to his shortcomings and more eager to correct them. On top of that, each young Jesuit was supposed to confess things privately, to the head of the community.
One day Mike, who was known for his high spirits, felt guilty. Earlier in the day, during Mass, he couldn't stop laughing about something that struck him as hilarious. He felt he had been acting silly and undignified. So Mike walked into the office of the head of the Jesuit community, an elderly priest with a well-earned reputation for seriousness.
Mike took his seat and prepared for his admission of guilt.
"Father," he said, "I confess excessive levity."
The priest glowered at Mike, paused, and said, "All levity is excessive!"
In some religious circles joy, humor and laughter are viewed the same way the crabby priest saw levity: as excessive. Excessive, irrelevant, ridiculous, inappropriate and even scandalous. But a lighthearted spirit is none of those things. Rather, it is an essential element of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life in general. When we lose sight of this serious truth, we cease to live life fully, truly and wholly. Indeed, we fail to be holy.
My new book, "Between Heaven and Mirth," had its genesis a few years ago, when I began to give talks around the country on the influence of the Catholic saints in my life. In a short while I noticed something surprising. Wherever I spoke -- whether in parishes, colleges, conferences, or retreat centers -- what people wanted to hear about most was the way the saints were joyful people, enjoyed lives full of laughter, and how their holiness led inevitably to joy. To a degree that astonished me, people seemed fascinated by joy.
It was almost as if they'd been waiting to be told that it's okay to be religious and enjoy themselves, to be joyful believers.
Still, many professional religious people (priests, ministers, rabbis and the like) as well as some devout believers in general give the impression that being religious means being dour, serious or even grumpy -- like Mike's superior. But the lives of the saints, as well as those of great spiritual masters from almost every other religious tradition, show the opposite. Holy people are joyful. Why? Because holiness brings us closer to God, the source of all joy.
Why am I so concerned with joy, humor, and laughter from a spiritual point of view? The reaction of those crowds is not the only thing that encouraged me to take up this topic. There was another phenomenon, equally persuasive, that I continually ran across: these virtues -- yes, virtues -- are often sadly lacking in religious institutions and in the ideas that good religious people have about religion.
I've been a Catholic and a Christian my whole life, a Jesuit for over 20 years, and a priest for over 10. So I've spent a great deal of time living and working among those whom you could call "professionally religious." I've met men and women working in all manner of religious settings. And I have known, met, or spoken to thousands of religious people from almost every walk of life.
In the process I have come across a surprising number of spiritually aware people who are, in a word, grim.
But being joy-challenged is not just the province of Jesuit priests and brothers (most of whom are cheerful sorts). Joylessness is nondenominational and interfaith. "My minister is such a grump!" a Lutheran friend told me a few months ago, explaining what led her to search for another church. Last year I gave a talk to a large group of Catholics. After the talk someone said approvingly, "You know, I actually saw our bishop laugh during your talk. I've never seen that before." She had been working with the bishop for five years.
A certain element of such joylessness is probably related to personality types; some of us are naturally more cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat. But after encountering the same brand of dejection over and over for twenty years in a wide variety of settings, I've reached the unscientific (but I think accurate) conclusion that underlying this gloom is a lack of belief in this essential truth: faith leads to joy.
Adapted from "Between Heaven And Mirth" by James Martin, S.J. Copyright © 2011 by James Martin, S.J. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Follow Rev. James Martin, S.J. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ