2012 SLU Commencement Speech - James Martin, S.J.
Spring 2012 Commencement Address: James Martin S.J.
Saint Louis University welcomed James Martin, S.J. as the commencement speaker for the spring graduating Class of 2012. He recieved a standing ovation for the following speech, in which he urged graduates to see the important role humor plays in religion and in life.
Congratulations to the Class of 2012!
Congratulations for your hard work, your determination and your perseverance. You know, by tradition, I'm now a member of your class, and that makes me proud -- or at least as proud as a Jesuit is allowed to be. You know the old joke: Jesuits are #1 in all things, including humility.
I also feel right at home at SLU, and not just because I'm a Jesuit, and because I have many Jesuit friends here, but because of the important place that your university holds in American Jesuit history.
As you know, SLU has been a magnet for Jesuit scholars of all sorts, particularly for Jesuits who work in philosophy, theology and spirituality. Without SLU's distinguished scholarship, the Church would be much poorer. And without, to take but one example, the Institute of Jesuit Sources, the Jesuit order would be much poorer. So I'm a big fan. Plus, I've also sung a fair number of St. Louis Jesuit songs over the years. So I'm honored to be part of such a distinguished university. And in keeping with the banners I saw around campus yesterday: This is my first commencement address west of the Mississippi.
Let me begin with a parable: There's an interfaith gathering at SLU, and all the participants -- Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, Muslims, Buddhists, even agnostics and atheists -- are on a lunch break. They go to Humphrey's, and they 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 greet them. 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 St. 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 all that the Quran taught. Welcome to heaven! Go to Room Three, but make sure not to look into Room One."
Finally, one of the agnostics, who's surprised to be there at all, says to St. Peter, "What's in Room One?" And he 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 at SLU listening to cheesy religion jokes. You're thinking that if you're going to go to the commencement address, then at least there should be a point to this talk. Well, that is the point. Which is this: Lighten up. Don't take yourself so seriously. Or, since this is a distinguished Jesuit university and I should frame things more elegantly, how about this: Joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated virtues in the spiritual life and represent an essential element in one's own relationship with God.
Now it's not clear why humor and laughter have been so underappreciated and deemed as inappropriate in so many religious settings. But I'm sure you've met people who seem to think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time. But when you're deadly serious, you're probably seriously dead. In Christian circles these are the "frozen chosen."
There are a host of reasons -- sociological, theological and even psychological -- why humor is downplayed within religious circles. And when it comes to Christianity, the reasons start at the beginning: with Jesus.
Many of us 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 Gospels? Why don't we see Jesus as a funny guy?
Well, one reason is that because we live in a different culture and time we simply don't "get" some of the intentionally funny parts of the New Testament. Humor, as you know from living in a multicultural environment, is culture-bound. If you're Anglo you may not get the humor from your Hispanic- or African-American or Asian-American friends. Humor 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're simply missing some of the inherent humor in the Bible.
Moreover, we've heard the funny stories so many times that they're not funny anymore. In one Gospel story, for example, a fellow named Nathanael is told that the Messiah is from Nazareth. And Nathanael says, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" That's a little dig at Jesus's hometown, which was a real backwater. It's a joke! It's kind of like saying, "Can anything good come from Chicago?" "Can anything good come from Webster Groves?"
That line in the New Testament was supposed to be funny. It's a dig. But Christians have heard that story so many times, that they miss the humor. So we're missing out on the humor of the New Testament and Jesus' humor; and that misunderstanding affects how Christians live out their spiritual lives.
Reaching farther back, the Old Testament is filled with good humor -- even laughter! When Abraham and Sarah, ages 100 and 99 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 pregnancy, she laughs, too.
"Why did you laugh?" says God. "I didn't 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." So Judaism and Christianity began with a laugh.
Stories about the humor of the saints reach as far back as the early Roman martyrs. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a gridiron over hot coals, called out to his executioners, "Turn me over and take a bite, I'm done on this side!" (And in Latin -- perfectly conjugated.) A century later St. Augustine prayed, "O Lord, give me chastity ... but not yet." (No comment.)
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. One day someone said, "Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?" And he said, "About half of them."
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, "What a 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!"
Now, my fellow graduates, I'm not advocating a mindless, idiotic happiness. I'm not saying that your life after SLU will be devoid of sadness or that you should be a grinning idiot all the time. 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." 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 quick 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 a Jesuit school, one of the best in the country! It's easy to get stuck up. It's just as easy in religious circles.
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. Self-deprecatory jokes remind us not to take ourselves so seriously. They remind us of our basic humanity, what Jesus called our "poverty of spirit." Our essential limitations, our basic humanity, our shared reliance on God. As a SLU grad you'll go on to positions of prominence, and may be tempted to think you're better than everyone else. Don't.
We are all limited, finite, imperfect human beings, from the guy who cleans up the dorms on Sunday mornings to president of the university. We're all beloved children of God, none of us better than the others. Laughing at ourselves helps to remember that.
A second reason for humor is this: 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 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 a local bishop was, 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. And any healthy friendship is leavened with some joy, some humor and a lot of laughter. The same goes for our relationship with God. Ever thought about incorporating joy into your spiritual life?
After all, the Book of Isaiah says, "The Lord takes delight in his people." So 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?
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 commencement advice: Don't take yourself so seriously. Laugh at yourself. Use some humor to speak truth to power, especially on behalf of the poor. 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 sake.
To that end, I'll close with, what else, a joke? Why? Well, the better question is: Why not?
So a Jesuit priest and Dominican priest are en route to a theology conference at SLU and they get into this long discussion about whose job is harder, and they swerve off the road and hit a telephone pole and go straight to heaven. So they find themselves standing there in front of the gates of heaven.
So the Jesuit and the Dominican 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 ... Jesuit. And the Dominican stands back.
Suddenly there's a big trumpet blast and out come all these saints: St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Louis, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, and on and on. They all greet the Jesuit and say, "Welcome to heaven! Thanks for being such a good Jesuit!" Then a long blue carpet rolls out and out comes Mary. The Jesuit can't believe his eyes! Mary strides up to the Jesuit and says, "Welcome to heaven. Thank you for being such a good Catholic." Finally, a long white carpet rolls out, and Jesus Christ himself comes out. Jesus comes up to the Jesuit, hugs him and says, "Welcome to heaven! Thanks for being a good Christian!"
Then the whole group hugs the priest and claps him on the back. They all go back into heaven, laughing and singing St. Louis Jesuits songs, which is what they sing in heaven. The gates close, and the Dominican is left standing there, just agog.
So now the Dominican is wondering who's going to welcome him. Maybe St. Dominic. Maybe St. Thomas Aquinas. 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 Dominican saint, who he doesn't even recognize, calls out, "Hey, you!"
The Dominican looks around for the carpets, or St. Dominic, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or Jesus or Mary, and he walks up to the little saint.
The saint says, "Oh yeah, so welcome to heaven." And the Dominican says, "Is that it?" And the little saint says, "What do you mean?" And the Dominican says, "Oh come on! Is that the welcome I get? After working so hard on earth? I mean, the Jesuit priest gets the carpets and the angels and the saints and Mary and Jesus, and all I get is this?"
And the little saint says, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you have to remember something. We get Dominicans up here every day. We haven't had a Jesuit in years."
Thank you very much. And: Go Billikens!
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest and contributing editor of America magazine. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. His latest book is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.