Have you heard the one about the Jesuit who was a comedian?
When American Jesuit Jake Martin entered the novitiate in 2004, he thought he would have to set aside being a comedian. 'I am holy now or whatever', he says with a laugh.
He did not actively pursue gigs, yet found himself being given opportunities to perform. It felt like affirmation. 'I've done this long enough now to know that God wants me to do this', he says. 'In my best moments, I feel right with the world, right with God.'
Jake is currently undertaking theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in California. He also teaches and performs improv, or improvisational comedy, which he says is a great relief valve from 'heavy and full' theology.
Comedy is his 'thing', he once wrote in an article for The Jesuit Post, the way other Jesuits might have academia or social work. He inevitably gets introduced as 'the Jesuit comedian'. 'I'm glad that that's how it worked out', he says.
When he was still discerning his call to priesthood, he felt insecure about how he would be received. In his memoir, What's So Funny About Faith?', he tells the story of a pre-vocation dinner with Jesuits at Loyola University in Chicago, where he 'felt the heat of their gaze' as he was about to tell them that he told jokes for a living.
'They were so excited about the fact that I was a comedian', he now says wryly. 'They loved me for me.' The decision to become a Jesuit was 'a no-brainer'.
The lead-up to religious life had not been as straightforward. 'I left the faith when I was a teenager', says Jake. He undertook a bachelor's degree in theatre, and spent his twenties writing and performing improv, sometimes as part of a troupe. The ultimate goal was a spot on Saturday Night Live.
When his grandmother passed away, however, Jake found himself reconsidering life in the Church. 'I can't do this alone', he recalls thinking. 'What keeps bringing me back to God is my constant need and recognition of Christ. We're brought back to that place when we recognise our finitude.'
Since then, Jake has been navigating the secular world of comedy as a priest-in-waiting. The tagline for his book, 'a memoir of the intersection of hilarious and holy', invites reflection on the way humour and faith feed each other.
'Humour in moments of sorrow and grief help get us through', says Jake. 'God expresses himself in those moments of lightness, (reminding us) that there is still goodness to be had in the world. A really good laugh doesn't necessarily change our outlook, but it makes us feel better. It is part of the healing process.'
He adds that being in a pastoral role has made him realise the importance of gentleness in our encounter with others. This has been highlighted over the past year by Pope Francis himself, particularly his appeal to believers and non-believers alike. 'Not to diminish what he has said and done, but he's just going back to the basics', Jake points out. 'We are countercultural. We're not doing this because we have to but because there is joy in it.'
In this regard, comedy is a great way to engage with the world. 'Comedy, at its best, is a wonderful tool for social critique', says Jake. 'I always use Charlie Chaplin movies as an example, where the wealthy person ends ups looking like a fool.'
Chaplin's humour isn't mean-spirited, which Jake believes is how most contemporary comedy tends to be. 'It comes down to who is the subject of ridicule. In improv, whoever has the higher status needs to be upended.' Jake reckons that this is why satirical news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are successful. 'There is a specific point of view - "this isn't right". We wouldn't be laughing if it wasn't absurd, if there wasn't something wrong with the situation.' In other words, good comedy often presents an idealised way of looking at society.
Jake enjoys reflecting on such intersections between comedy, the media and culture, and is discerning how these interests will manifest in his future as an ordained priest.
'Comedy will always be a part of my life in some way', he says. 'How big a role it will play is up to God.'
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Two novice priests, one Franciscan and one Jesuit, were friends. Both were smokers who found it difficult to pray for long periods without having a cigarette. They decided ask their superiors for permission to smoke.
When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. 'I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray and he said "no"', he said. The Jesuit smiled. 'I asked if I could pray while I smoked. He said, "of course".'