Lent (Day 3)

James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth, ch. 1: “The Infallible Sign: Joy and the Spiritual Life”

With the first chapter, we get a sense of how Martin will proceed in this book — with jokes and reflections on the jokes as to deeper truths contained within, or on the significance to openness to jokes for one’s spiritual practice and spiritual life. This reminds me that there is another book out there on philosophy called Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein that uses this as a means to get at philosophical musings and truth.  

My takeaway from the first half of chapter 1 is that the concepts of joy, humor and laughter should be differentiated.  Quoting Teihard de Chardin (and it is unclear if Teihard actually said this): “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God,” Martin suggests that joy is what we’ll feel on entering heaven, on seeing God, that joy is a transcendent feeling of bliss, and one that can also be felt in gratitude at God’s blessings.  Humor and laughter, he suggests, are two-edged concepts — there is good or positive humor and laughter, and bad or negative humor or laughter.  A cynical humor, one that uses joking and teasing to hurt, is negative, as is laughing at the misfortune of others.  From what I can tell, Martin sees a self-deprecating humor, one in which the teller laughs at himself, as a particularly high form of humor.  This certainly is in keeping with the idea of humility being a key virtue in Catholic thought.  It is humility, I think, more than anything else, that Pope Francis is trying to awaken in the church system.  And it is worth noting that the current pope does seem to have a sense of humor.  And an ability to laugh at oneself, along with the humility it signifies, is an antidote to the sin of pride, a major sin (one of the “seven deadly sins”).  If I were to rephrase this idea, I think I’d say that pride convinces us that we are the center of the universe (and, as our POV is our own, it is almost impossible to avoid a mecentric view of the world), but that humor which is somewhat eccentric (off-center) gives us a different perspective.  It keeps us from becoming so bound by our own strictures and rules, where we take them as equivalent to life or reality, that we no longer see the world, but only our view of it, a path that can lead to atrocities.  A good humor, gently poking fun at such pride, can help to defuse that situation, and bring us back from the brink. In discussing laughter, Martin brings up the figure of Jorge de Burgos from The Name of the Rose, the blind monk who hates the idea of laughter, viewing it as something that makes men as if hyenas.  Of course, he misses the point of laughter as a release, as something potentially generous and inclusive, and is “blinded” by his own view about what humanity is (a cesspool of sin).  

When I think of humor, and laughter, especially, I tend to think of a key scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters — at one point, Allen’s character, so afraid of death, and so angst-filled at the sadness and difficulties of life, is driven to consider suicide.  He fails miserably (and quite comically) at his suicide attempt and then goes walking around the streets of Manhattan for hours.  Finally, tired, he enters a movie theater which happens to be playing Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers.  As he watches this movie, which he’s seen many times before, he finds himself laughing, and he becomes aware of the laughter filling the theater.  There is no great purpose to the silliness on the screen, he opines — it’s just celebratory silliness, but that silliness and the laughter ensuing breaks him free from his own system, and frees him from the prison of his own head, and he becomes aware of himself as part of a community.  It’s a moment of revelation, and it frees him to get a wider view of things.  As a Unitarian-Universalist, a denomination marked by rationality, I have been known to introduce myself by giving my name, and adding, “and I live for revelation.”  And for me, that revelation is often like what Allen depicts in Hannah — it ends up being something that philosophy alone (at least not philosophy presented seriously by some guy with a beard) cannot get at, but which a well-placed joke or choreographed silliness can reveal (but only for a moment), but, as people often say when retelling jokes badly, “you had (have) to be there.”

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