"Between Heaven and Mirth" – Review

Sometimes you’ll find a book written by precisely the right person. When you see such a book you know that the author was born to write it. For instance, with all of its beauty and intelligence, Catholicism had to be written by Fr. Robert Barron. Likewise, nobody else could have compiled The Future Church like expert journalist John Allen, Jr.. And only a dreaming philologist like J.R.R. Tolkien was capable of producing The Lord of the Rings.

While these books are rare, one new title fits the mold. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (Harper One, hardcover, 263 pages) was written by Fr. James Martin, one of the funniest, joyous, most light-hearted religious figures in America and the perfect person to write it.

Martin is the rare priest who personifies levity. Whether writing articles in America Magazine or exchanging one-liners with Stephen Colbert—Martin is the official “Colbert Show chaplain”—he just exudes happiness wherever he is.

Between Heaven and Mirth captures this attitude and shares it with the rest of us. The pages are full of humor and the jokes roll one after another.

But the book isn’t just a collection of jokes. An early section, for instance, explores the humor of Jesus. Many people see Jesus as a joyless judge, a sober teacher unconcerned with humor and laughter. Part of this is because many of Jesus’ jokes are tinged with first-century Jewish wit and therefore fly right over our heads. To fix this misconception, Martin provides some context to many of Jesus’ stories and quips, making them much more lighthearted and, yes, even funny.

In another section, Martin turns to the saints. “A sad nun is a bad nun,” says St. Teresa of Avila and Martin provides plenty of alternatives. From St. Francis’ gleeful conversations to Pope John XXIII’s regular wisecracks many saints were full of mirth.

But how can we acquire a similar joy? Martin answers in the final chapter by explaining how we can integrate joy, humor, and laughter into our own spiritual life. Through practical tips and time-tested advice, Martin’s spiritual wisdom is on full display here.

Also, on a related note, while the book’s content is stellar from beginning to end, I can’t tell you how much I love its cover. The cover is full of smiling saints, which is strange since saints are rarely depicted as cheerful. Most statues, stained-glass windows, and mosaic portraits show saints with their hands folded, their eyes downcast, and their morose faces fending off a smile. But this cover beams with holy joy. Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, and more make sanctity seem less like penance and more like fun. If “joy is the infallible sign of the presence God”, these look like saints who understand the Divine.

G.K. Chesterton famously wrote that, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Like the angels, Martin floats through life with levity, making jokes, laughing regularly, and never taking himself too seriously. Between Heaven and Mirth shows us all how to live this way and is the perfect guide to spiritual joy.