Lighten Up! Spiritual Advice for College Grads

This weekend I was honored to be invited to deliver the Baccalaureate Address at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater.  So I decided to tell the Class of 2011 a little about not taking themselves so seriously. 

This is is a religious event so let me begin with a parable: There's an interfaith gathering at Penn and all the participants -- Catholics, Protestant, Jewish, Muslims, Buddhists, even agnostics and atheists -- are on lunch break. They go to a local food truck (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 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 of undergraduate-hood listening to cheesy religion jokes. You're 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: 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 virtues 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 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.

Read the full address here.

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Vince Killoran
7 years 10 months ago
Well done Fr. Martin-it's a real challenge to deliver an effective commencement or baccalaureate address but you got the balance just right.
7 years 10 months ago
Required reading  for all who blog here, especially those who blog multiple times in one thread.
Also, should be delivered to the USCCCb, before they ''deliberate.''
7 years 10 months ago
Amen to Robert! Image the revelation that you can be joyful and Christian at the same time. How could anyone be otherwise?
Carolyn Disco
7 years 10 months ago
A true gift. Thank you, Jim Martin!
Bill Collier
7 years 10 months ago
I'm sure your speech was very well-received, Fr. Martin, but I wish you had included the joke about the priest, the minister, and the rabbi who go into a bar .....    ;)
david power
7 years 10 months ago
Bravo Fr Martin.

There are many jokes in the bible and the Lord himself has a humorous touch.
Human beings naturally tense up. The words "Lighten up" could be given as daily medicine to anyone. Humour indicates philosophy and a way of seeing reality. A million curses on those who robbed Christianity of the joyful look at life.

Pope Benedict is said to laugh at the jokes people tell about him.
My favourite is the one that parodied the famous words of Pope John when he told the crowds to "go home and give your kids a caress and tell them this is from the Pope". The new version was "go home and give your kids a slap and tell them it is from Cardinal Ratzinger".He chuckled when he heard this ,aware of the malice intended but knowing that there is a genius involved.
The ability to laugh at oneself or not take oneself so seriously could only be possible based on something deeper though.A genuine pessimism towards all human acts or else a faith that it is all in His hands.That I did not see in the address.
Anyway and either way thanks for the reminder.      
7 years 10 months ago
Fr. Martin in my previous comment I failed to thank you for what I consider to be a very profound message-I would expect nothing less from a Jesuit. That is, from the old Baltimore Catechism, the theology of baptism of desire and blood, in addition to water. We can ALL be reminded of Christ's joyful embrace of all humankind. Thank you.


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