One of my favorite books is Between Heaven and Mirth, written by Father James Martin, S. J. Though he seems to have strayed from the strait and narrow path of Orthodoxy in the last few years, Heaven addresses something that has been sorely lacking in my perception of the Catholic faith and that is the innate ability of so many of its devout members to exude Joy for being bathed in God’s grace.
Humor is the progenitor of a great deal of inner joy. Father Martin’s book is adept at ferreting a rich lode of precious gems of humor that illustrate a correlation between sanctity and inner joy. He illustrates the fact that even though saints are on the doorstep of eternity, they often reveal a clever wit that belies their perilous circumstances.
If anyone has ever been to the Sistine Chapel, and I have twice, they could not have missed the artistic rendition of St. Lawrence who was roasted alive on a barbecue spit-like contraption. He asked his executioners to rotate him because, I’m done on this side. The Church has exalted him as the Patron Saint of Comedians and Chefs, a double dose of delicious irony if you think about it.
And of course, there was St. Thomas More, my favorite saint and oddly the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. His saintly life proves that at least one person from those harried professions made it to heaven. His reproach to his friend, Richard Rich, who betrayed him for a political appointment is priceless. Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales… After his conviction, after he had placed his head down on the block, he asked his executioner to be careful with his first strike because of his short neck. St. Thomas had the true Christian spirit of rejoicing in the love of God. Before his death, he advised his family to Be merry in God.
Without God — without the hope of another world beyond this one, for which this one is longing — there could be no true merriment. There could be only the shallow giggle of flippancy, or the hollow mockery of the cynic.
To be truly merry or joyful is to live lightly in this world, to be unburdened with cares about things that are quickly passing away. Oh, if we could all follow these words! We might say that for those who take God and His will with appropriate seriousness, nothing else need be taken seriously.
To be in the world but not of the world is, among other things, to laugh at the world.
This is precisely Father Martin’s point. He believes humor always seems to be a prerequisite for sanctity. The saints always seem to take the long view of things and were quick to laugh at life’s absurdities and their own personal foibles because they had always put their trust in God’s love for them.
I remember attending the 5:30 Mass for All Saints’ Day at a neighboring parish years ago. It is a special time in the Catholic Church when it honors the ultimate goal for each one of us…not just Catholics. That’s the final destination for all human beings and it is not wise to get off the train until you were there.
A long time friend, who used to be the assistant at Annunziata, Monsignor Vernon Gardin, is now the pastor of the Immacolata. We went specifically to hear his clear and well-organized sermon but were treated instead with one of the first public reflections of his Permanent Deacon.
Our disappointment quickly vanished as he started to talk about being a member of the Church Militant in hope of becoming a member of the Church Triumphant. While life is indeed a battle, it is not without its mirth and good humor.
Every time we dine with Monsignor, laughter usually rings louder than a number of Biblical clarion calls. My late wife was especially fond of him because he appears to be a very happy man who is very good at being God’s servant. He smiled when she said that and told us that yes, I am happy…but I do have my problems…like every one…My wife profoundly said, well that’s just life on planet earth. His sonorous laugh bellowed out the door when he heard that.
He promised to quote her in a sermon someday. We then started talking about how we were at a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1986 when Cardinal O’Connor introduced the congregation to a very special guest––Mother Teresa herself.
My wife had spied this little blue and white nun kneeling to the side of the altar as we came into the Cathedral and guessed that it was the famous missionary to India. She talked for about 15 minutes and finished by lamented about how terrible it was that mothers were killing their unwanted babies through abortion. Oh, my oh my, what has happened to the world so that mothers are killing their babies. That quote now resides on the backside of my wife’s tombstone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Ellisville, Missouri.
This is a statement, the now St. Teresa of Calcutta, has made to world leaders that support prenatal infanticide, like Bill and Hillary, who squirmed under her indictment. Monsignor said that we were in the presence of a living saint. I agreed because she actually lit up the Cathedral with her aura.
But according to Father Martin’s book, she had a quick humorous wit as well as her devoutly serious side. One of her sisters came to her and pleaded with her to tell her how she could become a saint. Mother Teresa was quoted as having said, well it would be a good time to die right now because the pope is making everyone a saint. Mother Teresa was tweaking Pope John Paul II’s penchant for canonizing nearly 500 people during his papacy. This was more than all his 263 predecessors had done in just under 2000 years.
Monsignor Gardin wondered if she had really said that. I believe she did because mirth is the road to heaven. My friend Bobby, whom I have known since First Grade, is a devout Catholic who is an expert on saints. I’ll bet he would agree with Father Martin. Since there is a saint for virtually every activity but massage therapists, I also want to ask him if St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers.
I think this would be a good time to share my thoughts about my second wife, Anna Maria Bommarito. I was smitten with her bright Sicilian smile the first seconds I laid eyes on her from across the room, as she approached our table with the rest of our party in a post Italian restaurant in St. Louis. Yes, we met the old fashioned way at a blind date but I can honestly say that she gave new meaning to that hackneyed phrase because I was figuratively blinded by the bright aura, emanating from her entire being.
However given our dual zest for living—she had widowed 18 years prior to our initial meeting and I about eight months, laughter has come to dominate our courtship of five months and our subsequent marriage on the Epiphany in 2018.