Seriously Funny Spirituality

Q&A with Father Jim Martin

by Stacy Smith

Father James Martin is best known as the official chaplain of the Colbert Nation, a virtual country inhabited by fans of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, the satirical late-night news show hosted by Stephen Colbert. But while Fr. Jim is funny, this Jesuit is no joke. He’s the editor-at-large of America Magazine and the author of several best sellers, including the seriously fun Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. Stacy Smith spoke with Fr. Jim about funny saints, joyous grief, and why a TV comedy show needs a priest.

Stacy Smith: Why a book on joy, humor and laughter as the heart of spiritual life?

Jim Martin: First, when I was traveling the country giving talks on the saints, what really seemed to strike people in the audience were the stories about the saints’ humor. They were shocked by it, and kept asking for more and more information. It dawned on me there might be some need for a book on the topic. Second, as a professionally religious person, I run into professionally religious people who themselves seem to be a little joy-challenged. That goes for all denominations! There are grumpy Catholic priests, morose Protestant pastors, and unhappy rabbis. It seemed time to explore how joy and laughter are essential parts of the spiritual life.

Thinking about health and healing, why is laughter important in both physical and spiritual healing?

Physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists know that laughter helps the human body physically. It increases blood circulation and it reduces the stress hormone known as cortisol, so when you are laughing you are actually healing yourself. It also gives you some perspective when you are in the midst of difficult times. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it does give you some perspective, and it gives people a little break from time to time, even in a terrible tragedy. You can’t always be serious and keep up such intensity throughout a crisis. You need a break.

I recall Ambassador Andrew Young talking about his time with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. Young said that when a member of group would become fearful about his own death, MLK would give a rousing fake eulogy in which he would list off all the surreptitious, scandalous things this person had done, just to lighten the mood in an otherwise tense atmosphere.

That’s terrific! It shows that one of the great religious leaders of our time had a great sense of humor. In particular, a self-deprecating sense of humor reminds us that we are not the center of things and that we are human, fallible and flawed, but that God is charge of us. That reminds me of a joke: There is good news, and there is better news. The good news is that there is a Messiah, and the better news is that it is not you.

You say there is good humor and bad humor, or humor that can build up and humor that can tear down. I imagine that can be external, directed towards others, but it can also be internal. How can we have a healthy humor about ourselves?

 As in all elements of a Christian life, you need to strike a balance. Yes, there is good humor that builds people up, nourishes the soul and supports the community. There is also bad humor that is terribly shaming or mocking. Having a good humor about ourselves means not taking ourselves too seriously. It means realizing that we are not perfect, that we depend on God, and that we may be wrong from time to time. Internally, there is a light-hearted way of laughing at the things you do wrong. Being able to laugh at yourself encourages a positive spirit, which ultimately aligns with God.

 That “aligning with God” brings us to joy. You say that the secular world sees joy as happiness, but to the religious world, joy is happiness in God. How did you come to understand joy?

When I started the book, I thought more along the lines of the secular definition. But the more I researched and prayed about it, the more I found evidence that joy really is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, a spiritual dimension that happiness does not fully encompass. So happiness, although wonderful, can be fleeting. We can be happy that a store has our favorite ice cream or that our favorite TV show is on or that we got in to see the movie we wanted to see. Joy goes a lot deeper. Joy is about a relationship, and that relationship is with God. Joy has an object. That’s why a person can still be joyful, even in the most difficult of times.

At my father’s funeral, for example, I certainly was not happy, but there was a sense of deep joy in the resurrection. Having Christian joy in the midst of grief is very important. We must try to align the thought of death with the message that Christ is risen—which is good news. And on a more practical level, jokes, humor and laughter are even important in those times. They give you a perspective that this grief is not the only reality. Suffering is not the only reality; there is still joy in the world.

So just for fun, what is your favorite funny passage in Scripture?

It is a toss-up. The first is Abraham and Sarah, when Abraham overhears that Sarah is pregnant and he falls on his face laughing, and then Sarah laughs. I would say in the beginning there was a laugh—because that’s the beginning of our Jewish and Christian religions.

Second, I like Nathanael hearing that the Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth and he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Remember, Nazareth has between 200 and 400 people. It’s a tiny backwater town. So Nathanael is making fun of Jesus’s hometown, and Jesus is delighted by that! Jesus says, “Now, there’s an Israelite without guile,” or in other words, “There’s a person I can trust.” Rather than kicking Nathanael out for being a little sarcastic, Jesus invites him to join the apostles. To me, it is a really clear sign of Jesus’ sense of humor.

And what about the funniest saint?

It’s between St. Philip Neri and the newly canonized St. John the XXIII St. Philip Neri is an Italian saint who used to go around Rome with half his beard shaved—so that people wouldn’t take him so seriously-and who had a sign above his door that said, “The House of Christian Mirth.” And of course the most famous joke of St. John XXIII came when a journalist asked how many people worked in the Vatican and he said, “About half of them.”

 And now because I am a fan: you have been named the official chaplain of the Colbert Nation. Why do you think it is important that there be a priest on a show like The Colbert Report?

Perhaps the better question is, why does Stephen Colbert think it’s important? But let me say that it’s a great opportunity. He reaches millions of twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, college students. So going on that show even for a few minutes to talk about God or Jesus or Catholicism is always worthwhile. Stephen really cares about what the Vatican calls the “New Evangelization,” or using new means to reach new people. Plus, it’s fun.

Finally, I solicited some questions for you from my fellow members of the Colbert Nation. One person asked, “Does Stephen Colbert see himself as a demi-god, a god, or a capital G God?”

I think something transcending all those categories.

And a friend asked, “There’s a chaplain on Colbert! How can I apply?”

They’ll have to wait until I retire.


This article was awarded the 2014 Award of Merit for Reporting and Writing: Interview by Associated Church Press.

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