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Penn Baccalaureate 2011

May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34

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Penn Baccalaureate Address given Sunday, May 15, 2011 by the Rev. James Martin, S.J., author and culture editor of America, a Catholic magazine.

The Value of Joy, Humor and Laughter


Thank you very much. And thanks to President Amy Gutmann, to Provost Vincent Price, to the Board of Trustees and to Rev. Charles Howard for inviting me here. And congratulations to the Class of 2011! I know what a difficult road it is.

What an honor to be with you all, my fellow Quakers. And something of a strange experience, as well. As you heard, I am a proud Penn grad. As you didn’t hear, during those four years, I spent way too much time at Smokey Joe’s (or Smoke’s, as I hope it’s still called). And at the late-lamented Doc Watson’s pub, which has gone to whatever heaven that dive bars go to. In fact, the last time I was in Irvine Auditorium, as I dimly recall, I was freaking out over an Accounting exam and really high, too.

Happily, today I am neither.

Actually, I used to be on the staff of Punchbowl, and the editor during that time, still a good friend, told me I should say, “Happily, today I am only one of the two.” But then another Penn friend said, “If you say that, President Gutmann will never invite you back!”

But this is a religious event so let me begin with a parable: There’s an interfaith gathering at Penn, taking place in College Hall, and all the participants—Catholics, Protestant, Jewish, Muslims, Buddhists, even agnostics and atheists—are on lunch break. They go to a food truck on 38th Street—my favorite, which we called Ptomaine Tony’s—and they all get food poisoning and die. So they arrive at the gates of heaven, bummed out because, you know, they’re dead, but happy because they’re in heaven. And St. Peter comes out to take care of business. So he turns to the Protestants and says, “Hey, thanks for all that great work you did in helping people learn the Bible and all those great hymns. So welcome to heaven. Why don’t you go to Room Five, but make sure not to look in Room One.” Off they go. Then Peter says to the Jewish crowd, “Hey, thanks for keeping the Covenant faithfully, and following all the Commandments that God asked of you. So Mazel tov! Welcome to heaven. Go to Room Four, but don’t look into Room One.” Then he turns to the Muslims and says, “Thanks for all daily prayers and your devout observances of the Quran. Welcome to heaven! Go to Room Three, but make sure not to look into Room One.”

Finally, one of the agnostics, who’s rather surprised to be there at all, says to St. Peter, “What’s in Room One?”And St. Peter says, “Oh, that’s the Catholics. They think they’re the only ones up here.”

Now, you’re now probably wondering why you’re spending your final hours of undergraduate-hood listening to cheesy religion jokes. You’re probably thinking that if you’re going to go to the baccalaureate address, then at least there should be a point to this talk. Well, that is the point. Which is this: My fellow Quakers, Lighten up. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Or, since this is the baccalaureate at Universitas Pennsylvaniensis, and I should frame things more elegantly, how about this: Joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated values in the spiritual life and represent an essential element in one’s own relationship with God.

It’s not clear why humor and laughter have been deemed as inappropriate in so many religious settings. But I’m sure you’ve all met people who seem to think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time. But, as the saying goes, when you’re deadly serious, you’re probably seriously dead. In Christian circles these people are known as the “frozen chosen.”

There are a host of reasons—sociological, theological and even psychological—why humor is downplayed within religious circles. Take American Christianity, for example.

Many Christians still have a hard time imagining Jesus as someone who laughed and who had—God forbid—fun. But he surely did. Anyone who told clever stories and amusing parables must have had a sense of humor. But why don’t we see this more in the Bible? Why isn’t Jesus seen as a funny guy?

Well, one reason is that because we live in a different culture and time we don’t “get” some of the intentionally funny parts. Humor, as you know from living in a multicultural environment like Penn, is culture-bound. It often doesn’t translate from culture to culture. It is also time-bound. Check out a movie from the 1940s and you’ll see that some of the jokes simply fall flat. So if humor is culture-bound and time-bound, imagine how hard it is for 21st-century Americans to appreciate jokes from first-century Palestine. We miss a lot of the inherent humor.

Moreover, we’ve heard the funny stories so many times that they cease to amuse. In one Gospel story, for example, a fellow named Nathanael is told that the Messiah is from Nazareth. And Nathanael says memorably, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That’s a little dig at Jesus’s hometown, which was a real backwater. It’s kind of like saying, “Can anything good come from Wharton?” It’s a dig. But Christians have heard that story so many times about Nathanael, that they miss the humor.

Reaching even further back, the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with good humor, even laughter. When Abraham and Sarah, age 100 and 90 respectively, are visited by three strangers who tell them that Sarah is going to have a baby, Abraham, according to the Book of Genesis, “falls on his face laughing.” And when Sarah overhears the news of her superannuated pregnancy, she laughs, as well.

“Why did you laugh?” says God. “I did not laugh,” Sarah says. “Yes you did,” says God. And when they have a son, they name him Isaac, or in the Hebrew, Yitzakh, which means, “He laughs.” Then Sarah says in a wonderful line, “God has brought laughter into my life and all will laugh with me.” There’s a story at the beginning of the three great monotheistic religions that combines humor and holiness.

Stories about the humor of the Christian saints reaches a far back as the early Roman martyrs. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a gridiron over hot coals, famously called out to his executioners, “Turn me over and take a bite, I’m done on this side!” (And in flawless Latin, no doubt—perfectly conjugated.) A century later St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, give me chastity…but not yet.” (No comment.) And to give this a more ecumenical twist, there’s a whole book of jokes and asides called the Wit of Martin Luther. I wonder if he told knock-knock jokes.

Saintly humor continues right up until modern times. The most well-known contemporary example may be Pope John XXIII, who served as pope from 1958-1963. The Italian-born pontiff, who described himself as “just a peasant,” had an earthy sense of humor. In the 1940s, when John was still an archbishop and the Vatican ambassador to France, he was at an elegant dinner party in Paris, seated across from a woman wearing a low-cut dress that exposed a lot of cleavage. His secretary turned to him and whispered, “Quel scandal!” And John said, “What’s the scandal?” And his secretary said, “That woman! Everyone is looking at her!” And John, said, “No one is looking at her. Everyone is looking at me to see if I am looking at her!”

“Joy is not incidental to the spiritual quest. It is vital.” That’s not me talking, nor is it Benjamin Franklin. That’s the Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, writing in the 18th century. And have you ever seen a talk by the Dalai Lama? His lectures are filled with laughter, something anathema to too many serious-minded religious folks today.

Now I’m not advocating a mindless, idiotic happiness. You would be a robot if you weren’t sad during times of tragedy or pain or struggle. As the Book of Ecclesiastes said, “There is a time to mourn,” (or maybe it was “The Birds”). But Ecclesiastes also says, “There is a time to laugh.” In the religious sphere we forget this truth at our peril.

In short, the great spiritual masters from every tradition knew the value of humor and laughter. Let me give you just three brief reasons why.

First, humor is a tool for humility. We can tell jokes about ourselves to deflate our egos, which is a good thing for everyone. Look, you’re about to graduate from Penn, an Ivy League school, the best in the country—okay, one of the best. Certainly one of the best in West Philadelphia. Kidding: the best in the country! I’m a Penn grad, it’s easy to get stuck up. It’s just as easy in religious circles. Sometimes on the way out of church people kiss my hand. The other day a woman said to me, “Seeing you celebrate Mass is like seeing Jesus celebrate Mass.” I didn’t ask her when the last time she saw Jesus saying Mass was.

For example, that Catholic joke I told at the beginning is fun to tell. But it reminds me that Catholics need to be careful about assuming they have all the answers to every question. Self-deprecatory jokes remind us not to take ourselves so seriously. They remind us of our essential humanity, what Jesus called our “poverty of spirit.” Our fundamental  limitations, our basic humanity, our shared reliance on God. As a Penn grad you’ll probably go on to positions of prominence, and you will be tempted to think you’re better than everyone else: Don’t.

We are all human beings, from the guy who cleans up the vomit in the toilets in the Quad on Sunday mornings to that demi-god Denzel Washington. We’re all beloved children of God; none of us better than the others. Laughing at ourselves helps to remind us of that.

A second reason for humor in religious spheres: Humor speaks truth to power. A witty remark is a time-honored way to challenge the pompous and the powerful. Jesus deployed humor in this way, challenging some of the authorities of his time. Humor is a weapon against the arrogance and pride that infects all human beings, and therefore infects religious institutions, because they are made up of human beings.

The mother of a friend of mine, for example, was once in the hospital at the same time as a local bishop, who was recovering from some minor surgery. The bishop took it on himself to go from room to room and visit all the patients. He came into my friend’s mother’s room and said to her, “Well, dear I know just how you feel.” And she said, “Really? When was your hysterectomy?” Later they became friends and, years later, he presided at her funeral Mass, where he told that joke on himself. He learned not to take himself with deadly seriousness.

Finally, joy is an important part of our relationship with God. One of the best ways of thinking about our relationship to God is as a friendship. Like any friendship, for example, it requires time. What kind of friend would you be if you never spent any time one-on-one with your friend? That’s what prayer is: one-on-one time with God. Being in relation also requires you to listen—to God’s presence in your daily life and in prayer. It requires you to be willing to deal with rocky times, when you feel that your friend isn’t there for you as much as you’d like. All the things you can say about a good friendship you can say about prayer.

Now, you’re smart Penn grads, so you know where I’m going with this: Any good friendship is leavened with some joy, some humor and a lot of laughter. The same goes for our relationship with God. Consider incorporating lightheartedness into your spiritual life.

After all, the Book of Isaiah, says, “The Lord takes delight in his people.” Can you imagine God delighting in you? If that doesn’t work, how about this: How many times have you heard “God loves you”? You think, “Yeah, whatever. That’s just what God does.” It’s like wallpaper. But how about this: God likes you. That has a different energy to it, doesn’t it? Can you imagine God liking you?

And: can you allow yourself to think that the funny or unexpected things that happen to you just might be signs of God’s playfulness, especially things that cut you down to size? Can you think of God in a playful way? In one fifth-century Midrash, the rabbis tell the story of God braiding Eve’s hair in the Garden of Eden, like one who would help a bride. It is a charming and even playful image of a loving God.

So, if you’re a religious person, or a spiritual-but-not-religious person, or if you’re a seeker or a doubter or an agnostic or an atheist, here’s some baccalaureal advice: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Laugh at yourself. Use some humor to speak truth to power, especially on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. See what happens when you incorporate joy into your spiritual life, and try to locate God’s delight. Overall: be joyful; cultivate a sense of humor and laugh—for God’s sakes.

To that end, I’ll close with, what else, a joke. Why? Well, the better question is why not? So a Catholic priest and a rabbi are en route to an interfaith program at Penn’s Hillel Center and they get into this long discussion about whose job is harder, and they swerve off the road and hit a telephone pole on Chestnut Street and go straight to heaven. So they find themselves standing there in front of the gates of heaven.

The rabbi and priest wait outside for some time, until finally the golden gates open up. Just then a huge choir of angels starts singing and a long red carpet rolls out, all the way up to the foot of the…priest. And the rabbi stands back.

Suddenly there’s a big trumpet blast and out come hundreds of saints: St. Peter, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joan of Arc, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, and on and on. They all greet the priest and say, “Welcome to heaven, Father. Thank you so much for all of your hard work.” Then a long blue carpet rolls out and out comes Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The priest can’t believe his eyes! Mary strides up to the priest, gives him a kiss on his head, and says, “Welcome to heaven. Thank you for being such a good priest.” Finally, there is tremendous organ blast, a long white carpet rolls out and Jesus Christ himself comes out. The priest bursts into tears—he can’t believe it! Jesus comes up to the priest, hugs him and says, “Welcome to heaven! I’m so happy you’re here!” Then there’s another huge trumpet blast, the angels burst into song again, and the whole group hugs the priest and claps him on the back. They all go back into heaven, laughing and singing. The gates close and the rabbi is left standing there, just agog.

So now he’s pretty excited, wondering who’s going to welcome him. Maybe Moses or Aaron. Maybe Miriam. Maybe one of the great Prophets. Maybe one of the great rabbis. Maybe God himself. He starts to gather his thoughts and think about what he might want to say. After a half-hour passes, he starts to get antsy. An hour passes. Two hours pass and he starts to get annoyed. Finally, a little side door opens and a little man, who he doesn’t even recognize, but who must be a saint, calls out, “Hey you!”

The rabbi looks around for the carpets, or Moses, or the prophets, or the great rabbis, or somebody, and he walks up to the little saint. The saint says, “Oh yeah, so welcome to heaven.”

And the rabbi says, “Is that it?” And the little saint says, “What do you mean?”

And the rabbi says, “Oh come on! Is that the welcome I get? After working so hard on earth? I mean, the priest gets the carpets and the angels and the trumpets and the saints and Mary and Jesus, and all those nice words, and all I get is this?”

And the little saint says, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you have to remember something. We get rabbis up here everyday. We haven’t had a Catholic priest in years.”

Thank you very much.

And: Go Quakers!

Almanac - May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34