My friend Alice recently gave me James Martin's latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth, as a birthday gift. Years ago, my friend Karen gave me his first book, In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. A Jesuit priest, editor at America magazine and frequent media commentator on religious and moral issues, he is a delightful writer and a pretty funny guy. His first book told the story of his life as a young corporate management trainee, his unhappiness in the midst of a yuppie good life and his discernment of a vocation to the Jesuits. The topic is serious. He talks about sad things, like the death of a college classmate and his parents' separation. But his wit and sense of humor come through, including his telephone conversation with American Express when he cancels his card just before entering the seminary or his description of a corporate boss mingling with the troops in an unconvincing way at a company picnic.
His most recent book is an exploration of "why joy, humor and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life."
One of the chapters is called, "I'm not funny and my life stinks". He relates the common experience of interacting with someone whose life is a series of misfortunes, big and small and being in places where "a culture of carping and general complaining predominates."
Then he provided an image that is resonating strongly with me this Thanksgiving season -- "searching for the drop of red paint in a white paint can. The red represents your one problem. You have an entire can of white paint -- let's say, a job, a roof over your head, a loving family -- and you choose instead to concentrate on the one tiny red drop -- the one thing wrong in your life" He goes on to explain how cognitive behavioral therapy can help us to choose thoughts that are more positive, enabling us to focus on what is good and what brings us joy.
There is a lot of Jesuit humor in the book. much of it self-deprecating. My favorite is his description of a visit by a Jesuit superior who explains an event from the life of St. Ignatius. It seems that he was riding on a mule and met a man on the road, also riding a mule. The man insulted the Virgin Mary. Ignatius was trying to decide if he should kill the man and let the mule he was riding make the decision as to whether he would take the road that would lead him to the man or away from him. The mule turned away, sparing the man and also Ignatius of his desire to murder. The superior concluded by remarking, "Ever since then, asses have been making decisions in the Jesuits."
A personal anecdote that demonstrates Jesuit humor: JB and I were making conversation with Fr. Jack, director of campus ministry at the university our son attended. JB was relating the story of our receipt of frequent solicitations by mail on behalf of a Jesuit school. First the roof was leaking and in need of repair. Then the van used to transport students broke down. Then a storm damaged the grounds, uprooting trees. Father Jack wryly commented that "perhaps they should fire the Development Director and hire a maintenance person."