Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Saint Louis University welcomed Fr. James Martin, S.J. as the commencement speaker for the spring graduating Class of 2012. He received a standing ovation for his speech, in which he urged graduates to see the important role humor plays in religion and in life. Here is the final portion of his Commencement address:
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 the best in the country! It's easy to get a 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, 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 sakes.
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...priest. And the rabbi 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 priest, 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 priest, 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 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, she 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 priest in years."
Thank you very much. And: Go Billikens!