By Father James Martin - OSV Newsweekly, 9/25/2011
Is there such a thing as a “Catholic” sense of humor? That is, beyond simply appreciating Catholic jokes? Or chuckling over funny comments by famous Catholics?
I think there is.
Not long ago, a somewhat academic distinction was proposed between the Protestant imagination and the Catholic imagination. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, drawing on the work of the Catholic theologian David Tracy, noted that while in classic Protestant theology God was radically absent from the world (and reveals himself only at rare occasions, for example, in Christ) for Catholics God is always and everywhere present. Plus, in the Catholic worldview, God makes himself known through the sacraments, which use everyday things like bread, wine, water and oil to reveal God’s presence.
Too theological for you? Try this: Catholics believe that God is everywhere. As a result, it’s easy to make the leap that if we want to experience Christian joy, to use humor as the saints did, and to view laughter as an element of a healthy spiritual life, then there are many opportunities to develop a sense of humor just by looking around. If God wants us to experience himself in the entire world, and part of that experience is of joy, humor and laughter, then the world reveals itself as a more lighthearted place. In other words, the Catholic imagination can find humor in a great many aspects of life.
So, how do you develop that sense of humor? First of all, by laughing at yourself. Catholics have a tendency to take themselves far too seriously, and to see Catholicism as something that is always and everywhere serious, even gloomy. Why do I say that? Because I’ve met far too many “professional Catholics” (i.e., bishops, priests, sisters and brother, as well as chancery officials, directors of religious education and pastoral associates) who rarely crack a smile. Some of this, I believe, comes from people taking themselves way too seriously. Reminding ourselves to laugh at our own foibles brings us down to earth, grounds us in our common humanity, and reminds us who’s in charge: God. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Second, remember that Christ is risen. That may sound obvious, but the central belief of our faith (besides, say, the Incarnation) is that Christ is risen. And in case you haven’t not noticed, that’s a joyful message! On Easter Sunday, don’t you think that the disciples were filled with joy? Grounding ourselves not only in faith, hope and charity, but in joy, helps us to see life with a good deal more lightheartedness. As St. Paul said, “Rejoice always!”
Following Jesus’ example
Third, remember that Jesus laughed. For he surely did. Jesus of Nazareth was not just the Son of God; he was “fully human.” And how could someone be “fully human” without a sense of humor? There are also plenty of indications of Jesus’ sense of humor in the Gospels. For one thing, anyone who told clever parables and funny stories must have laughed. In fact, at one point Jesus is even criticized for not being as serious as John the Baptist. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Lk 7:34). Jesus is being critiqued for living it up. Here was a man who could enjoy life and enjoy laughter. Thinking about Jesus’ sense of humor can help us value our own sense of humor and enjoy life.
So, looking for a Catholic sense of humor? Laugh at yourself. Believe in the Resurrection. And remember that Jesus laughed. Once you do all that, you may find yourself smiling a great deal more — even in prayer, with God, the source of all joy.
Jesuit Father James Martin is the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” (HarperOne, $25.99).