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In his book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, Fr. James Martin talks about the role of humor in the life of the saints–though using “humor” and “saints” in the same sentence might seem counterintuitive to many of us.

He recounts the exploits of St. Philip Neri, a 16th c. Italian priest, who shaved half his beard off en route to a ceremony in his honor as a way of poking fun at himself (p. 77). He quotes Robert Ellsberg’s description of Neri in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time:

He was widely revered as a saint, and like all saints Neri disdained such acclaim, but he had his own way of coping with it. He liked to dress in comical outfits, assume outlandish disguises, go about with only one side of his face shaved, or indulge in elaborate practical jokes. This was part of a deliberate campaign to keep people from putting him on a pedestal. At the same time it reflected his genuine playfulness and the joy he discovered in the spiritual life (my emphasis; cited in Between Heaven and Mirth, pp. 77-78).

One of Martin’s main points in his book is that a sense of humor is a neglected dimension of a healthy spiritual life. That point is often lost on the faithful–and especially leaders who tend to go about their business with a persistent heaviness of purpose.

Yet for Martin,

There is something irresistible about a person in a position of authority with a self-depricating sense of humor. It instantly binds us to the person, perhaps because we see in him or her a reflection or what we could be, of what God wants us to be in the midst of our accomplishments: simple, humble, aware of our own limitations, and, of course, joyful (p. 81).

Maybe when picking a church, one thing to look out for is how much the leadership smiles and laughs, even at themselves.


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.