From Tolkien to Turtledove

Coincidences occur when reading, thinking and writing. Several weeks ago my fellow Jim Keane, S.J. launched a discussion on what history would have been like if John F. Kennedy had not been elected president. For several years, I’ve begun to read an occasional book from the genre of alternative history--literature examining the “what ifs” occurring when you assume particularly pivotal historic event or series of events didn’t take place. Classifiers of literature see alternative history as a subgenre of literary fiction, science fiction and historical fiction.

Last week's posting by Tim Reidy talked about World War II in Great Britain. This is where I have been immersed for the past few weeks, reading Harry Turtledove’s four-part series: World War: In the Balance; Tilting the Balance; Upsetting the Balance; and Striking the Balance. Turtledove has a Ph.D. in Byzantine History and during the past 20 years he has garnered a reputation as perhaps the leading writer of alternate history through books on the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the emergence of the USA as a world power (imperialism), the Emperor Constantine, and trilogies of fantasy that take a long time to describe.


Like all World War II histories, Turtledove begins with hostilities among world powers including Germany, Russia, Great Britain, Japan, the United States. However, the entire Earth quickly unites when a 100,000 year-old civilization (calling themselves “The Race”) enters our solar system after traveling from a planet 10 light years away. They are imperialists in the galactic sense of the word and hope to enslave humankind, whom they call Tosevites.

I’m now on about page 1400 of about 2400 pages. The five major powers have formed an alliance and land battles are occurring in Chicago, Eastern France, China, and other assorted locales. Germany and Japan are temporarily immobilized--the Germans have blown up much of their nation by letting a nuclear chain reaction run away unimpeded and Tokyo has just been leveled by The Race. The portrayals of leaders such as Frankilin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Stalin and others come across as historically accurate but their discussions about events you never would imagine are captivating.

The best part for me are the ordinary people on all five continents who rise to become heroes. Turtledove has a knack for making them real and believable but also incongruent, even hilarious, at the same time. The major protagonist is Sam Yeager, utility outfielder for minor league teams ranging from Decatur, Illinois to the Deep South; he marries Barbara Larrsen, a medieval scholar with stunning academic credentials. Sam will slowly rise to become the most important person on the planet. On each continent you meet similarly ordinary people who have found themselves in crazy situations in this fight for humanity’s survival. Comic relief occurs frequently, as when a nuclear physicist pedals his way up the Continental Divide on a bicycle after learning he has acquired a particularly nasty and painful social disease. Surprisingly, the invaders from space become likable in their own way and you start to think some interesting resolution to this war may occur someday, and it does, in a second series, 4 more books and 2500 more pages. (I read the second set first last summer.)

Turtledove’s epic here and his other alternate historical stories contain the captivating allure of beach mysteries, but they are much than just casual reading and they evoke real history and keep me going, usually for a hundred or more pages at a time. Turtledove holds a respectable literary position on a continuum of alternate history including works by literary heavyweights such as Vladimir Nabokov (“Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle”-- a novel of incest occurring in an alternate North America that has been settled by Czarist Russians; or Philip Roth (“Plot Against America;” the story of Charles Lindberg’s ascension to the presidency after defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt).

Reading Harry Turtledove, enjoying his characters, and learning about a world that might have been--these delights of the mind, mental journeys that they are, connect me once again to that highway engineered by J.R.R. Tolkien: “Roads go ever on and on/ And through the merry flowers of June/ Over grass and over stone/ And under mountains on the moon.”

William Van Ornum

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Stanley Kopacz
8 years 6 months ago
The be-all and end-all site for alternate history is  You can even look up divergences by time. 

I read the Turtledove's first Worldwar series, too.   I liked how the lizards essentially had a finite amount of modern military technology (laser rangefinders, ballistic computers, layered armor) pit against a much larger quantity of 1940's military hardware.  The biggest pitfall for the lizards was discovering that ginger was crack cocaine for them.
8 years 6 months ago
Other alternate histories - The Man in the High Castle by PK Dick, and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I haven't read Turtledove - must give him a try - thanks.  I wonder how this  fits with our own personal histories and the desire to change our  timelines for the better.
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Hi Crystal,

I've read 1942, by Robert Conroy; he seems to have an especially good knowledge of the Japanese culture at the time and of individual admirals. The jacket says he's written 1901, 1862, and 1945, might try them. S.M Stirling has written a gigantic series on "The Change", longer than Turtledove. I read the first one last summer but don't know how far I will get. Unlike Turtledove, it goes inot lots of fantasy after the historical beginning. I will put your recommendations on my reading list. thanks. bill
Tom Maher
8 years 6 months ago
This sounds very much like the authors assisting people in denying reality and its real pain and stress but at the same time denying real hope and opportunities.

Isn't altrenative history a  companion to dispair?  Isn't this A kind of fatalism and defeatism of a very young person who is not able to cope with the complexity of modern society pr figure out their own possibilities so they start to invent their own world and deny reality rather than cope with reality and struggle to figure out what is going on? 

It is amazing how many PhD beleive 9/11 was created by the government to advance some agenda.  It is completely fantastic implying that either people did not really die in massive numbers or if they did die their families are working with the goverenment.  It is alarming that upward of 20% of the  public are "truthers" who believe the governement caused 9/11 to happen and it was an elaborate plot to decieve and manipulate the public.   Their argumentation to evidence this belief is fantastic in its incompletness and inaccuracy of basic logic, facts  and science.  Yet degreed engineers have elaborate conspriracy theories based on minor facts they regard as sinister discrepancies while ignoring the wider inconsistant implications of their theories.  They jsut abandon rationality and have a self-satifying story to tell and beleive in.    There is an eagerness to deny reality here.  The country is not only devided in beliefs and values , it is devided in what is real and what is not real.  This is a complete loss of common sense reference.   Alternate realities are very disturbing.
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Tom.....the authors, and the readers, are having FUN! Whimsy and playfulness are pleasant.

Perhaps try reading The J.R.R. Tolkien. BTW, Tolkien was fiercely grounded to reality and the Faith: he is one of the small group of translators of The New Jerusalem Bible.

There's a neat science fiction trilogy by C.S. Lewis. (He served in the trenches in WW I and rallied the Brits at home over the radio during WW II.) His autobriography: "Surprised by Joy."

Read some of these authors and let me know what you think.

Better about this...

Laughing with the Saints: Joy, Humor, and Laughter in the Spiritual Life
Laughing with the Saints
Joy, Humor and Laughter, in the Spiritual Life
by James Martin, SJ

So there's this barber in a small town. One day he's sitting in his barbershop and a man walks in wearing a pair of sandals, and a long brown robe with a hood. The man sits down in the barber's chair. "Excuse me," says the barber. "I was wondering: why are you dressed like that?"
"Well," says the man. "I'm a Franciscan friar. I'm here to help my brother Franciscans start a soup kitchen in town."

And the barber says, "The Franciscans? Oh, I love the Franciscans! I love the story of St. Francis of Assisi, and I so love all the work you do for the poor, and for peace, and for the environment. And it's just great that the Franciscans live so simply! You guys are wonderful! This haircut is free!"

And the Franciscan says, "Oh no, no, no. We live simply and take a vow of poverty, but I have some money for a haircut. Please let me pay you."

"Oh no," says the barber. "I insist. This haircut is free!" So the Franciscan thanks him, gives him a blessing and leaves.

The next day the barber comes to his shop and on the doorstep to the barbershop, there is a surprise waiting for him. On the doorstep is a big basket filled with wildflowers, along with a thank-you note from the Franciscan.

That same day another man walks into the barber's shop wearing a long white robe with a black scapular over it. He sits down in the barber's chair and the barber says, "Excuse me, but why are you dressed like that?"

And the man says, "Well, I'm a Trappist monk. I'm in town to visit a doctor and I thought I would come in for a haircut."

And the barber says, "Oh I love the Trappists! You know, I've read all of Thomas Merton's books, and I so admire the way that your lives are so contemplative and prayerful, and it makes me happy to know that you're praying for all of us. You guys are wonderful! This haircut is free!"

The Trappist says, "Oh, no, no, no. Even though we live simply, I have money for a haircut. Please let me pay you."

"Oh no," says the barber. "This haircut is free." So the Trappist thanks him, gives him a blessing and leaves.

The next day the barber comes to his shop and on his doorstep, there is a surprise waiting for him. A big basket full of cheeses and jams made by the Trappist abbey, along with a thank-you note from the Trappist.

That same day another man walks into the barbershop wearing a black suit and a clerical collar. After he sits down the barber says, "Excuse me, but why are you dressed like that?"

And the man says, "Yes. I'm a Jesuit priest. I'm in town for a theology conference."

And the barber says, "Oh, I love the Jesuits! You know, my son went to Santa Clara and my daughter went to Loyola Marymount. I love Ignatian spirituality and I've been to the retreat house you have in town. You guys are great! This haircut is free!"

And the Jesuit says, "Oh no, no, no. I take a vow of poverty but I have enough money for a haircut."
The barber says, "Oh no. This haircut is free." So the Jesuit thanks him, gives him a blessing and is on his way.

And the next day the barber comes to his shop and on his doorstep, there is a surprise waiting for him: ten more Jesuits.

Now, imagine if I told you a second joke or a third joke or a fourth joke. You might start to feel uncomfortable. You might start to wonder when I was going to get to the point. You might wonder whether so many jokes were appropriate here at Sacred Heart. It's funny, but it's beside the point, isn't it?

But, in a way, those stories are the point of my talk, which is that joy, humor and laughter are underappreciated values in the spiritual life, and are desperately needed not only in our own personal spiritual lives, but in the life of the Catholic church. Joy is not a waste of time. Far from it. For joy is what we'll be sharing when we are welcomed into heaven. We will be joyful. We may even laugh for joy.

Humor is an essential, but neglected, requirement of Christian spirituality and are, moreover, an essential element of vocation work. Billy Joel was wrong when he sang a few decades ago, "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints." Remember that song? Well, Billy Joel had it backward. The most joyful people are those closest to God. As the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God."

Joy, humor and laughter are necessary, healthy and have a long tradition in the church, and one that we ignore at our peril. They are needed both for those who work in vocation—to keep a sense of humor about the church, about the difficulties in vocation work, and also, most importantly, to show the Christian joy that is the best way to attract others to our ways of life.
Joy has a somewhat disreputable reputation in the church. And that's a tragedy not only because joy is necessary, but it also has a distinguished history among the saints and spiritual masters as an essential element for spiritual health. When you meet someone truly in touch with God, they are joyful, aren't they? Think of the holy people in your lives. Are they not full of the spirit of the Resurrection? Full of joy? Think of how often you would see pictures of Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II smiling. Think how easy it is to imagine people like Francis of Assisi smiling.
Now, before we go any further, I want to say that I'm not advocating a mindless, idiotic happiness. As The Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to weep and a time to mourn. You would be a robot not if you weren't sad during times of misfortune or illness or death, or over the recent developments in the church, such as the sexual abuse crisis. Those are things to mourn and to grieve.

But Ecclesiastes also said that there is a time to laugh. And sometimes laughter—even in the midst of sadness—can be healthy. A few years ago the superior of a Jesuit Province was visiting the Province infirmary, the place where the sick and elderly Jesuits live. The provincial was talking about how the province was getting older and older.

"Well," said the Provincial, "we have so many aging Jesuits that there really isn't any place to put them. There isn't even room for anyone else here in the infirmary."

To which an elderly Jesuit shouted out, "Father Provincial, we're dying as fast as we can!"
It's not clear to what extent joy and laughter have been deemed as inappropriate throughout Catholic history. But I'm sure we've all met Catholics who seem to think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time.

And I'm sure you know priests who make you wonder how they can say that they "celebrate" the Mass when they never crack a smile. I'm sure you've been to Masses that are spoken where the priest says, "And we join with the choirs of angels in their unending hymn of praise….Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…" I always think, oh brother, if that's the way the angels sing their praise we're in deep trouble.

Now, I have a few theories about why humor may not be valued as it should be. And it may have started early.

First of all, it's worth thinking about how much the Gospel writers were interest in presenting Jesus as an overtly humorous person. While the Gospels clearly show Jesus as clever, especially when it comes to the parables, there are few moments in the whole New Testament that strike one as actually laugh-out-loud funny. Why might this be?

Recently I asked some distinguished New Testament scholars what they thought about Jesus and humor. Wouldn't it makes sense that if the evangelists wanted to present Jesus as an appealing figure that they would highlight his sense of humor and even show him laughing occasionally. After all, humor is something that most people find appealing, and they did back in antiquity and the time of Jesus.

In any event, some Scripture scholars suggested that this was a reflection of the Jewish culture at the time, which prized seriousness about God, a subject not something to be taken lightly. Religion was serious.

Another scholar was Professor Amy-Jill Levine, a distinguished New Testament expert at Vanderbilt, and the author of a new book on the Jewishness of Jesus, called "The Misunderstood Jew." When I asked about humor in the New Testament, she said that one difficulty with the topic is that what we think is funny may not have been seen as funny by the evangelists or people in Jesus's time. For them, the setup was probably more amusing. "The parables were amusing," she said, "in their exaggeration or hyperbole. The idea that a mustard seed would have sprouted into a big bush that birds would build their nests in would be humorous."

Father Daniel Harrington, S.J., the professor of New Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology agreed. "Humor is very culture bound," he said. "The Gospels have a lot of controversy stories and honor-shame situations. I suspect that the early readers found these stories hilarious, whereas we in a very different social setting miss the point entirely."

Professor Levine noted that there was of course no way of knowing for certain whether Jesus's humor or even jokes might have been expunged from the Gospels by the early church. But she noted that in many of the noncanonical Gospels, that is, the Gospels not accepted by the church, there are many times where Jesus laughs. Moreover, she said that the early church fathers, set on combating heresy, would probably not have seen the genre of humor as appropriate.

Another reason that humor may have been downplayed was the prevailing Hellenistic culture into which the Gospel was first introduced. Greek culture was very interested in reason. And reason, of course, is serious. For Aristotle, for example, the highest ideal was thought. And what was the highest activity? Thinking. And so, for Aristotle what was the best image of God he could come up with? "Thought thinking thought." That sounds like a lot of fun doesn't it?

Also, Roman culture during the first century laid emphasis on two character traits: gravitas and pietas. Gravitas of course is the sense of seriousness that is to mark a leader. Pietas is a sort of duty towards one's, something that is normally translated today as piety. Both gravitas and pietas were serious virtues. Finally, another Scripture scholar suggested that joy and enthusiasm could lead to, uh oh, erotic love, which was seen as dangerous or at least suspect.

The German Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner, who was Karl Rahner's brother, once wrote a wonderful little book called "Man at Play," where he traces the notion of playfulness throughout Greek, Roman and early Christian thought. Hugo Rahner says that while Aristotle actually encouraged a person to be balanced in their humor and seriousness, many early Christian writers favored a more serious approach to life, since they were concerned with facing the dangers of the world and the evils of Satan.

St. Paul, for example, writes in his Letter to the Ephesians that we must avoid "smartness in talk." St. Clement of Alexandria warns against "humorous and unbecoming words." St. Ambrose says "joking should be avoided even in small talk." On the other hand, St. Augustine recommends some joking from time to time, and St. Thomas Aquinas recommends play in his writings, saying that there was a virtue in playfulness, since it leads to relaxation.

Those are a few reasons why humor might have been given a short shrift in Christian circles: Jewish culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, a lack of understanding what was considered funny, an overfamiliarity with the story, an overemphasis on the Passion, a failure of the imagination, and the sociology of hierarchical institutions.

You might disagree with that little analysis, and that's okay. The point is not to prove conclusively that the church has undervalued humor in the past, but that we need to value it today.

I would suggest that humor is not prized in the church today, at least on an official level. You might know a funny priest or a humorous nun or a jokey pastoral associate, but, how many newly appointed bishops are officially described as funny? When was the last time you heard a bishop described by a Vatican official like this: "The bishop is completely hilarious and has an amazing sense of humor and laughs all the time?" Humor, as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests, is seen almost as strike against a church leader when it should be seen as a requirement.

That's not to say that no bishop has a sense of humor. Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, was once at a fundraising dinner and a friend of his got up and proceeded to thank everyone who had helped with the dinner, but kept forgetting their names. Every time he forgot a name he would pull out a little note card to help him remember. "I would like to thank our fundraising chairman, Mr….(and he'd pull out his note card)….Smith." "And I would like to thank our communications director, Mr…(and he pulls out the card) Jones." "And I would like to thank our board chairman, Mrs…(and out comes the card) Johnson." Finally, he said, "And now Cardinal O'Connor will come to the dais, and give us his benediction.

And the cardinal got up and said, "Almighty God, we thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed on us and we do this in the name of your son….(and he pulls out his note card)…Jesus Christ."

But some Catholic leaders seem tone deaf to the need for humor and the ability to laugh at oneself. One cardinal was once speaking to a group of his priests and extolling the virtues of prayer. "Prayer," he said, "is most important to the spiritual life, especially in the life of a priest. I myself believe that prayer is the engine of my spiritual life, because it leads to such humility. In fact, just the other day I was kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in my private chapel and I felt I heard the voice of Jesus within me. And Jesus said to me, 'Your Eminence…'"

The undervaluing of humor is surprising when we look at the Gospels and find a Jesus who has a real sense of joy and even playfulness, which you can see many of the parables. And there are other indications that he must have been a person who was joyful. You'll remember that at one point Jesus is even castigated for not being serious enough in the Gospels, for not being as serious as John. "The Son of man has come eating and drinking," says Jesus. "And you say, Look a glutton and a drunkard."

Jesus himself embraces people with a sense of humor or even sarcasm. You'll remember the story of Nathaniel, sitting under the fig tree when he is told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathaniel says, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Which is a joke about how backwards the city was. That doesn't bother Jesus one bit. In fact, it seems to delight him. "There is an Israelite without guile!," he says.

And there are many signs of humor from the evangelists themselves—that is, from the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote and edited the Gospels. But again, we may be so familiar with them that we miss them. The story of Zaccheus, the short man who climbs up into a tree to get a better look at Jesus is a touching but also very playful story, as written by Luke. Amy-Jill Levine pointed to the story of Eutychus, in Acts 20, sitting in the window ledge of a room in which St. Paul is talking and talking and talking around midnight. Eutychus finally falls asleep during the long speech by Paul, falls out the window, drops to the ground and is presumed dead, until Paul goes down, finds out that he's not dead, and then talks until dawn.

But while some church fathers, and some quarters in the church, may have downplayed the role of humor in Christian life, many of the saints never did. Most of the saints were joyful. While I was researching my book My Life with the Saints, I realized one thing: the saints were deeply attractive whom people wanted to be around. And, in general, the people we find attractive usually have a sense of humor.

Joy, humor and laughter are constant threads through the lives of many saints, disproving the stereotype of the dour, depressed grumpy saint. You laugh with the saints.

St. Teresa of Avila herself even spoke out against that kind of deadly serious Catholicism. "A sad nun is a bad nun," she said. "I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits….What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others." So a Doctor of the Church is recommending a sense of humor.

Stories about the humor of the saints reach as far back as the early Roman martyrs—that is, from the very earliest days of the church. 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. I'm done on this side!" Or remember, St. Augustine of Hippo, who famously prayed, "Lord, give me chastity, but not yet."

And some saints were known specifically for their sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, for example, was called "The Humorous Saint," and at his door was a little sign that said, "The House of Christian Mirth." "Christian joy is a gift from God flowing from a good conscience," he said. Once, a young priest asked him what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, and Philip Neri thought and said, "A prayer for peace."

Saintly humor continues right up until modern times. The most well known contemporary example is Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose most famous joke came when a journalist innocently asked him, "Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?" John said, "About half of them." Another time he was walking in the streets and a woman passed him and said, "My God, he's so fat!" And he turned around and said, "Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest."

In the 1940s, when John was still a cardinal and the papal nuncio in Paris, he was at an elegant dinner party, seated across from a woman wearing a very low-cut dress that exposed a good deal of cleavage. Someone turned to him and said, "Your Eminence, aren't you embarrassed that everyone is looking at that woman?" And he said, "Oh no, everyone is looking at me, to see if I'm looking at her."

The saints knew that there were some good reasons for humor. Humor can serve some serious purposes. So let's look at ten reasons for joy, humor and laughter in the church.

1) Humor evangelizes.

Joy, humor and laughter show one's joy in the Risen Christ and one's faith in God. This essentially positive outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death and in the power of love over hatred. Don't you think that after the Resurrection, the disciples were joyful? "All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well," as Blessed Julian of Norwich said. Joy reveals faith.

On an even more practical level, St. Francis Xavier Seelos, the nineteenth-century Redemptorist priest, spoke of "holy hilarity" as a tool for spreading the Gospel. Joy draws others to Christ. Joy is an imitation of Christ. As St. Teresa said, Why hide it?

Once, when I was a Jesuit novice, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, came to visit our novitiate. Most religious orders these days are concerned about declining numbers, so I asked him the best way to increase vocations. He said, "Live your own vocation joyfully." That's good advice for everyone: joy attracts more people to Christ. Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people?

As an aside, the Superior General of the Jesuits is usually called "Father General," or, more simply, "The General." Anyway, in the early 1960s, another Father General, Pedro Arrupe, who had a marvelous sense of humor, was visiting a Jesuit school in New York, called Xavier High School. At the time, all the boys in the school wore military uniforms and had military drills and things like that. So when it was announced that Father General was coming to visit Xavier High School, the school decided that all the students would line the street, wearing in their uniforms, as a way of giving Father General a special welcome.

Anyway, a friend of mine was accompanying Father General, and he said that the General's car drove down the street in between hundreds of students in uniform. He opened the door and got out and suddenly everyone snapped to attention and saluted. And Father Arrupe said, "Ha! Now I feel like a real General!"

2) Humor is a tool for humility.
We can tell jokes about ourselves to deflate our egos, which is a good thing—especially for anyone working in an official capacity in the church, where it's easy to get puffed up. That goes for cardinals who wear silk robes and have people kissing their rings. That goes for priests, brothers and sisters whom others think are holy just because they're in a religious order. That goes for laypeople in parishes and schools and hospitals and chanceries who exercise a great deal of power over people's spiritual lives. All these people can get puffed up, and humor is a good way for people to remind themselves of their essential humanity, their essential poverty of spirit. For example, that Jesuit joke I told at the beginning is fun to tell. I love the Society of Jesus, but jokes remind me that Jesuits need to be careful about being too proud of their accomplishments, or too focused on too many practical matters.

You know the story of the three priests, Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit, who are on retreat together? Anyway, they receive this special grace of finding themselves at the Nativity scene. So they're kneeling before the Nativity scene and the Dominican says to Mary, "Oh the joy of seeing the Word made Flesh, of seeing the Incarnation of God, of seeing the hypostatic union of the Human and the Divine!" And the Franciscan says to Jesus, "Oh the joy of seeing how the Son of God identifies with the poor, and chooses to be born in poverty, and among the dear animals that he loves!" And the Jesuit says to Joseph, "Have you considered sending him to a Jesuit high school?"

Humor deflates puffed-up egos. And it reminds us not to take ourselves with such deadly seriousness. That goes for people at the very top, too. Once, when Pope John XXIII was in Rome he got a letter from a little boy named Bruno. "Dear Pope," wrote Bruno, "I am undecided. I don't know if I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?" "Dear Bruno," wrote the pope, "If you want my opinion, learn to be a policeman, for that cannot be improvised. If you are ever in Rome, please stop by and I will be glad to talk this over with you."

That is an important way that the saints used humor: as a tool in their quest for humility. In the 1960s when the Red Brigade was causing violence in Rome, people would carry pictures of Padre Pio around for protection. One day Padre Pio was going into Rome and one of his friends said, "Aren't you worried about the Red Brigade?" And he said, "No, I have a picture of Padre Pio with me."

3) Humor can shock listeners into recognizing reality.
In other words, humor can go right to the point. It puts things into perspective. St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the gospel. Use words when necessary." That's pretty clever and even funny. But it's also a profound truth.

St. Anthony Avellino was a seventeenth-century canon lawyer who entered the Theatine order. One day a pious priest asked him, "Father Avellino, how long should one stay at the bedside of a sick person?" Rather than offer a long explanation, Avellino said, "Always be brief. There are two advantages: if they like you, they'll want you back. If you're boring, their displeasure will be short."

4) Humor speaks truth to power.
A witty remark is a time-honored way to challenge the pompous, puffed-up or the powerful. Jesus deployed humor in this way, exposing and defusing the arrogance of religious authorities with clever parables. Humor is a weapon in the battle against the arrogance and pride that sometimes infects our church.

A friend told me that her mother was once in the hospital at the same time that the local bishop was. After his operation the bishop went around room to room visiting all the patients. When he visited my friend's mother, who was recovering from a difficult surgery, he said, very unctuously, "Well dear, I know exactly how you feel." And she said, "Really? Did you have a hysterectomy, too?"

5) Humor can show Christian courage.

As I mentioned, St. Lawrence showed his courage to his torturers during his martyrdom, saying, "I'm done on this side." It's both a pointed challenge to his executioners and a bold profession of faith. In that same vein, St. Thomas More, in the sixteenth century stepped up to the chopping block and, as he climbed the steps to his beheading, said to his executioner, "I pray you, help me on the way up, and I will take care of myself on the way down." That brand of humor says, "I do not fear death."

6) Humor deepens our relationship with God.
One of the best ways of thinking about prayer is as a personal relationship. Like any relationship, our relationship with God often starts with infatuation, it goes through exciting and sometimes dry periods, it requires time, it requires listening, it requires some moments of silence, and it requires honesty. All the things that you say about friendship you can say about prayer.
Our relationship with God can also use some humor. That is, it's okay to be playful with God in your prayer and accept that God might want to be playful with you.

Once, when she was traveling to one of her convents, Teresa of Avila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. "Lord, you couldn't have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?" And the response in prayer that she heard was, "That is how I treat my friends." And Teresa said, "And that is why you have so few of them!" That's a playful way of addressing God and assumes God's own playfulness.

Here's a question: Can you allow God to be playful with you? The Book of Isaiah says, "The Lord takes delight in you." Can you allow God to delight in you, to be playful with you? On a practical level that means this: Can you imagine God not simply loving you, but as the British theologian
James Alison says, liking you?

Can you allow God to give you things that delight you, and give you joy? Can you allow yourself to think that the wonderful or funny or unexpected things that surprise you are signs of God being playful with you? If you think that the metaphor of God as parent, you might say, "Doesn't a parent sometimes enjoy being playful with a child?" For myself, I think that those surprising moments in life are examples of God's delight in you.

The Jesuit Priest Anthony DeMello said it best in one of his shortest recommendations for a meditation, "Look at God looking at you," he said. "And smiling."

7) Humor welcomes.

Hospitality is an important virtue in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, the act of welcoming Jesus into one's home was an sign of one's acceptance of Jesus. If a town didn't welcome the disciples, Jesus told them to wipe the dust of that town off their feet. Jesus himself welcomed those who were outsiders into the community, by healing them and by casting out demons. He was showing God's hospitality.

In the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah were rewarded for their hospitality of strangers with the gift of a son. A few Scripture scholars have even gone so far to say that the real sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, the reason that God condemned them is not so much for their licentious behavior, but lack of hospitality. And in the Middle Ages, the Benedictines gave us the wonderful motto, Hospes venit, Christus venit. The guest comes, Christ comes.

Humor is one way of showing hospitality. Perhaps the easiest way to get someone to feel at home is to make them laugh. You know that a dinner or a party a gathering is successful, and that people feel at home when they start to laugh.

A few years ago, I worked in Nairobi, Kenya, with refugees. At the end of my first year I signed up for an eight-day retreat at the Jesuit retreat house in Nairobi. The retreat house grounds are just gorgeous, right at the foot of the Ngong Hills, right near the house of Isak Dinesen, or Karen Blixen, who you might know about from the movie "Out of Africa."

On the last day of the retreat, there was a big celebratory dinner, and everyone was supposed to speak about their retreat. When I looked around I realized that the other few men, the priests and brothers, on retreat had left. So when I stood up I looked around and it was just me and about 50 African sisters. I felt a little strange and was worried that I would say the wrong thing. So I blurted out, "I guess I'm the only man here." And from across the room an African sister called out, "And blessed are you among women!" Everyone laughed and I felt right at home and could talk about my retreat with them. Laughter had welcomed me.

8) Humor is healing.
Physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists believe that humor helps the healing process in the physical body. Laughter releases endorphins. And if we take seriously the Pauline image of the Body of Christ, we might consider that the same holds true for the Christian community. In the midst of some of the worst times in the church, with the sexual abuse crisis, and declining vocations, and parishes closing, the People of God could use, from time to time, some laughter. That's not to say that one laughs about the pain or sin in the church. Rather, humor gives us a much-needed break and can help us to heal.

Humor is healthy in during difficult times in the church.

9) Humor fosters good relations and helps with our work.
This is perhaps most important for bishops, priests, sisters, directors of religious education, pastoral workers. In his parables Jesus used a little humor could help people understand difficult topics. Or, consider a more secular example of the use of humor in management. In Doris Kearns Goodwin's wonderful book, Team of Rivals, she tells the story about how Abraham Lincoln gathered together a very different group of men around him in his cabinet. Most of the times they disagreed with each other, quarreled with one another, and even worked against one another. And one way that Abraham Lincoln lightened the atmosphere or made a point, without offending anyone, was to tell a good joke or a little country story to illustrate his point. Humor can make for good social relations.

Once, before the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII picked up a preparatory document, took one look at all the people that the document condemned and found it too harsh. There are thirty centimeters of condemnations here. Rather than arguing with the men who wrote it, or discussing the theological objections he had to these condemnations, and so on, he simply picked up a ruler, measured the document and said, "Look there are thirty centimeters of condemnations here!"

10) Humor opens our minds.
Neuroscience tells us that when we laugh we release endorphins and we can relax. Psychologists say that when we relax, and feel less threatened, we are more able to listen and learn. So laughter helps to get your message across. Likewise, laughter can signal a sudden spiritual insight. Often, in spiritual direction, when people finally, finally realize how foolish or sinful or selfish they have been acting, they laugh. They laugh at themselves and how foolish they have been to turn from God. Why do they laugh? Well, it's funny to think of how human we are, and it's joyful to know that we have been freed by God. Laughter both deepens and reveals understanding.

11) Humor is fun.
Here’s an eleventh reason: And let me repeat that: It's fun. There may be no better reason for humor than that. God forbid that Catholics should actually enjoy ourselves and have fun, right? Fun—a word you don't hear in church much—is a foretaste of heaven. The saints understood this, and I would bet that Jesus understood the need to have some fun in life.

Those are some of the reasons that joy, humor and laughter should be part of everyone's spiritual lives, whatever your role is in the church. They are gifts from God to help us enjoy creation and build up the Kingdom. They are also neglected gifts that need to be recovered for the health of the Body of Christ. In short, joy, humor and laughter is part of the vocation of being Christian. Finally, they are essential elements in attracting anyone to any kind of Christian vocation.

To that end, I'll end with, what else, a joke about two different kinds of vocations in the church. Why? Well, you know now that the better question is, why not?
A Jesuit priest and a Franciscan friar are driving to a Catholic college. Well, they're talking about liberation theology and they get into this big argument and they swerve off the road and hit a telephone pole, and go straight to heaven. The Jesuit and Franciscan suddenly find themselves standing in front of the gates of heaven, which are hidden behind some big white clouds. They're all excited, thinking, well, we spent all our lives serving the church and all that, so we're pretty excited to see what heaven is like.

In a few minutes, the clouds part, and the gates of heaven open, and trumpets sound and hundreds of angels start flying around and start singing. Then a long red carpet rolls out, all the way up to the Jesuit. And out come all these Jesuit saints—Aloysius Gonzaga, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola himself. They all hug the Jesuit, who is just overjoyed. And then…out comes Mary, and St. Ignatius introduces her and she hugs the Jesuit, too.

Then there is this a trumpet blast and out comes…Jesus, who embraces the Jesuit says, "Welcome to heaven." They all hug each other, and everybody starts singing St. Louis Jesuit songs, which is what they sing in heaven, and then they all go inside to heaven, laughing and singing.

Then the carpet rolls back up and the angels go away and the gates close and the clouds come back. And the Franciscan is left standing there in front of the gates by himself. Well, he's pretty excited, wondering what his welcome is going to be like. They wait some more. And some more. After about a half-hour they start to get ticked off.

Finally, after an hour, a little side door opens up and St. Bonaventure says, "Hey!" And the Franciscan says, "Who, me?" And St. Bonaventure says, "Yeah, you. So the Franciscan goes up to the door and St. Bonaventure says, "Oh yeah, hi…um…
so…welcome to heaven."

And the Franciscan says, "That's it?" And St. Bonaventure says, "Is what it?" And the Franciscan says, "Oh, come on! That's the welcome I get? I mean, the Jesuit gets the trumpets and the angels and the red carpet and the saints and Mary and Jesus, and all I get is this lousy welcome?"

And St. Bonaventure says, "Oh yeah, right…well you have to understand something. We get Franciscans up here every day. We haven't had a Jesuit in heaven for three hundred years!"ourt this:

8 years 6 months ago
I'm not sure that Mary Doria Russell's books:  "The Sparrow" and its sequel, "The Children of God" would be considered as alternative literature.  They are books that look at history and ask, "what if".  They are sci-fi and a whole lot more.  The author looked at the hx of the First Contacts made by missionaries such as the Jesuit Black Robes in the New World, saw how severely criticized they have been in current thought and asked what if she put modern, welll-educated, intelligent, wellll-meaning people into the same state of radical ignorance that the early explorers and missionaries experienced .  Her premise is that the difference in language alone would be a source of disastrous mistakes.  The books take place in the 21st C. and involve a group of Jesuits and scientists who land on a land in outer space and meet with 2 different species of sentient beings.   The main character, a Jesuit priest, is a figure of Jeremiah the prophet.  One of the alien females is a figure of Moses.  The Jesuits believe that God is leading them to do something good.  Faith is shattered when tragedu ensues.  Redemption comes at a high price, but comes.  Russell's theme is tha God intervenes in history.  Our need for grace.  Only God can redeem them (us).

There is some humor and jocularity in the first part of the first book.  Serious thereafter.  I do love Catholic jokes and Fr. Martin has some good ones!  Another churchman with a great sense of humor is Archbishop Dolan.  We do need more of that in the church , that's for sure!!
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Thanks Janice,

Along with Crystal's suggestions, I'm going to put these on my "to be read" list. As you note, amidst humor and playfulness books like this can bring up some very serious issues. But for now with Turtledove, I'm just seeking a little fun. Hope you are having a good weekend. amdg, bill 
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago

Many thanks! I put "Pope" in their search engine and a few good titles emerged, such as "Whst if Peter had been Pope During World War II." It's a really neat site and I hope others will not only check it out but read some of the books.

I happened to enjoy what I guess what one would call an extremely interesting "extended family" on the part of Sam Yeager.

The descriptions of FDR were uncanny.

Have a good week, bill


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