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Book Reviews

What’s so Funny about Faith?  A Memoir from the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy

by Jake Martin, S.J.

 

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight. PhD

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In a society that is somewhat allergic to laughter, Father Jake Martin’s book gives us relief from somberness.  He tells us ordinary stories about ordinary events that take place in his life filled with humor. In the first chapter he amuses us with the tale of his wanting to call in sick from his teaching job but he lives in the building.  He also tells us about his Mother’s insistence in knowing about his Church activity as far as going to Mass. Like many Irish parents and grandparents, this was just part of the ordinary conversation that occurred.  In chapter two Father Martin relates that in his family “being able to help others laugh was the greatest skill a person could possess”. This family refers to his mother and the six sisters and their children who spent almost every weekend together sharing stories.  In order to get attention in this brood of cousins he decided he wanted to be funny. His Aunt Ginger and he spent time together and did all sorts of mischievous activities in buying articles (cigarettes) at Walgreens. Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Richard Pryor were very influential in the development of his humor. “Through the qualities of transcendence, kindness, integrity and compassion, these comedians articulated and embodied what would become foundation stories for my life as a Jesuit, for my life as someone whose mission is to help souls by finding God in all things.”

Some of the shows he watched to fortify his humor were: the Brady Bunch, the Three Stooges, the Courtship of Eddie’s Father and the Brady Bunch which give the reader the underlying disposition of his humor. Father Martin’s grandmother was a woman who gave him spiritual direction in regard to purgatory, heaven and hell and all that image entails. Martin describes his family as not very religious as they did not pray before meals or go to Catholic schools but relate the imperfect CCD interactions. After Father Martin’s father died from Hodgkinson disease he was sent to the therapist in school to deal with this.  Martin’s response was made up fantasies about the weekends. The teachers treated him with pity and that was not what he wanted so the relationship was at an impasse. His continuation of school and all that entailed gave Father Martin, humor was a way of releasing some of the tension from all that took place.  Fr Martin went onto college and majored first in accounting but thought better of that and went into theatre.  After seeing the Exorcist, Fr. Martin investigated becoming a Jesuit because of the implication of the parts they played in the film.  He wrote to the Jesuits and told them of his desires and what led him to the decision including his prayer life.  The vocation director met with him and questioned Fr. Martin about his life. Fr. Jake entered the novitiate with 14 other men. He tells of their age difference 22-49 with very different experiences in regard to working. The novice master was of special interest to Fr. Martin as he had a wonderfully deep prayer life and life experiences that he shared with all. Father Martin shares his understanding of formation and his eventual 30 day retreat where he came to grips with his Father’s death. He also began to realize the importance of taking care of the next generation. He went from the place of formation to New York City where he always wanted to be as a comic.  He relates that in his Examen (a time when a person thinks about their daily life) each night he asked God to show him where he found him during the day. Of course his mind went to television and movies.

Father Martin helps us to see the similarities of 30 Rock to Saturday Night Live and the experience of being in an event like it.  He ends up doing his first gig in New York as part of the Hebrew School Dropout at a small theatre off of St. Mark’s Place.  His colleagues from the rectory joined him and although the gig was somewhat of a disaster, Father Martin had the support of his colleagues and they left the play “yelling and laughing at one another, a pack of celibates looking for wings with one another”.  In the next chapter, Father Martin deals with some of the idiosyncrasies of humor, he states: Humor can be a remarkable spiritual tool, capable of healing, conversion and catharsis.  However, it can also be horribly malignant.  Humor can hurt and can be damaging spiritually. …If humor at its finest is life giving, then humor at its most destructive can only be seen as life taking”. Father Martin in the next chapter investigates the issues of technology in our society with all its imperfections and goodness.  The shows he undertakes are different from those of the past. He has hope in the youth of today and what they want to accomplish.  In the last chapter Father Martin tells of his devotion to prayer and the constant need to be with his God.  The prayer he describes is not a prayer of imposition but one of desire.  He describes this in a very liberating way.  In the last chapter he states: “And so now, I honor my sense of humor as a gift from God, no longer a means to a professional or personal end, but a Grace in its own right, a particular way of observing my life and the world around me which makes things better, which makes me better”.