Humor in life and in Scripture

Posted by svobadm8230a on 02/25/16

Life is full of humor, though we may not always perceive it. I was especially aware of the mysterious and gifted nature of daily life on the day when I began this essay. In the morning while I was searching for a lost page from a reprint desired by an Oblate, I came upon a folder with information about our Oblate-novice survey from the fall of 2014. That folder had been “lost” (really just misplaced by me in a location where I would be unlikely to look for it) for about a year, and upon finding it I felt like telling the whole world, “I have found my lost folder!” (cf. Luke 15:6, 9, 24). I laughed inwardly over the unexpected nature of the discovery. I had not found what I wanted to find, but I found something significant for which I had not even been looking. I still have not found the page for which I was searching. Is not life strange? Surely, as the prophet Isaiah tells us and as Our Lord often proclaims, God’s plans for us are certainly not our plans! Of course, His are far, far better. Is not this truth a cause for rejoicing and laughter (whether outward or just inward)?

I also perceived humor in the Gospel passage for that morning, which concerned the healing of a paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins (Mark 2: 1-12). The four friends of the paralyzed man certainly did something clever and amazing by poking a hole in the roof to bring him to Jesus amid a large, smothering crowd. Perhaps some people were upset at the damage to the roof, but it seems likely that others in the crowd laughed when they saw the man being lowered on his mat in front of Our Lord. The man, too, must have been surprised that Jesus insisted first on forgiving his sins—and then healing him. This whole incident surely involves much healthy humor and grace-filled joy. Perhaps the paralytic himself was not expecting anything good to happen, but his creative friends saw the potential in him and in the circumstances, and they had an admirable faith in Christ’s ability to help him. God gave the sick man far more than he could have expected. Should not we, like the crowd, be “awestruck” and “give praise to God” (Mark 2:12)—and be filled with joy over God’s superabundant goodness? Furthermore, it seems that such joy can open us to recognize and receive even more gracious gifts.

Reasons not to laugh

On the other hand, in our very troubled world, there are many reasons not to laugh. The news is replete with disasters. Cruel acts of terrorism abound; there are actual wars; Christians are being persecuted and killed in Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa. Countries in Europe are being flooded with refugees, who in many cases are not receiving hospitable treatment. In our own country we have seen in recent years ruthless shootings, acts of suicide by young people, violence in cities by police and against police, and government leaders and political candidates who have little or no regard for God’s moral law. Despite hearty Christian opposition, the evils of legalized abortion, legalized euthanasia, and the redefinition of marriage (as if man could redefine what God has so beautifully established!) seem to be entrenched, and there has been no clear victory over the government’s actions to restrict religious freedom and force institutions to pay exorbitant fines for upholding God’s law. (May we keep struggling!) Furthermore, we all know people (and perhaps we ourselves are among them) who suffer from severe financial woes, diagnoses with terminal illnesses, the loss of loved ones, or the abandonment of Christian faith by family members. How could we ever laugh or find joy amid such a litany of miseries? Furthermore, in St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Our Lord warns us, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep” (Lk 6:26). (Christ is undoubtedly referring to an attitude of self-satisfied contentment that is insensitive to the sufferings of others and to the tragedies of life.)

St. Benedict and his apparent opposition to laughter

At first glance, St. Benedict also seemed to believe that there was not much reason for laughter in monastic life. In Chapter 4 he admonishes his monks, “Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter” (4: 52-54). In treating the practice of silence in Chapter 6, he closes with the firm statement, “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind” (6:8). The tenth and eleventh steps of humility in Chapter 7 also reflect a negative view of laughter. The tenth step prescribes that a monk “not [be] given to ready laughter, for it is written: ‘Only a fool raises his voice in laughter’ (Sir 21:23)” (RB 7:59). The eleventh step requires that a monk speak “gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably” (7:60). Finally, in his chapter on Lent, St. Benedict recommends that each monk “deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (49:7).

Why is St. Benedict so opposed to laughter, at least from a first glance at these texts? In his time laughter was often associated with “vulgarity and gossip” (6:8). (That connection sometimes applies today as well.) Also, people of all times have used laughter to exalt themselves and put down other people and opposing opinions. Such derision and scorn go against Christian charity. When people talk in such a way as to cause others to laugh, it is often from self-centered motives; the speaker may wish to display his cleverness, perhaps with indecent language, and to receive unhealthy affirmation for behavior that is essentially evil. “Immoderate or boisterous laughter” can disturb the peace of a gathering and interrupt a good conversation; it can also serve to draw attention to the one who is laughing recklessly. To laugh too readily and frequently may be a sign that a person is not taking life (or God) seriously or that he may be emotionally unstable. Readiness to laugh can interfere with efforts to be recollected, to be mindful of God, and to be intentionally conscious of one’s sinfulness and of the redeeming love of Christ. In his Commentary, Dom Paul Delatte asserts, regarding RB 7:59, “ … the Holy Rule will not tolerate a habit of treating nothing seriously, of turning everything to jest. This infirmity of the mind is one of the most unpleasant traces of the spirit of the world. Even in the world it is irritating and in bad taste; it is considered the mark of an empty soul …. But for a monk it is incompatible with recollection and the sense of the presence of God” (p. 126). Regarding St. Benedict’s restriction on words that lead to laughter, Delatte comments that our holy founder is not forbidding all light-hearted conversation; rather he is aiming to restrain “buffoonery, idle words, worldly talk that has for its sole end the causing of laughter” (p. 97). Delatte adds that “it remains true that there are certain subjects, a certain coarseness, a certain worldly tone, which should never enter our conversation. These things are not such as to stir wholesome laughter (underlining mine); there are matters which we should not touch, which it is wholesome to avoid” (p. 97). In his book Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986), Fr. Charles Cummings, O.C.S.O., reminds us that the virtue of silence involves the right use of speech. He asserts, “I need to silence the word that wounds and cuts down another in his or her presence and the word that judges or ridicules another in his or her absence” (p. 100).

Openings for laughter in the Rule

If we look more closely at the Rule, we can see that St. Benedict does not ban all laughter. When he forbids loving “immoderate or boisterous laughter” (4:54), we can assume that there must be some laughter that is moderate and non-boisterous; apparently, St. Benedict does not forbid that. When he prescribes that a monk should not be “given to ready laughter” (7:59), he opens the way for the possibility of laughing at appropriate times without the tendency to burst out frequently. Similarly, in his legislation for Lent, when St. Benedict recommends denying oneself some “needless talking and idle jesting” (49:7), he certainly does not forbid all talking, and he implies that not all jesting is out of place. If some humor and jesting are appropriate even during Lent, then we can conclude that there was room for healthy jesting in St. Benedict’s monasteries all year long - within proper bounds.

Also, as modern commentators assert, St. Benedict lived in an era when laughter was frowned upon in monastic (and Christian) circles because it symbolized a failure to take monastic and Christian values seriously. In his commentary on RB 4:54, Fr. Terrence Kardong, O.S.B. (in Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996]), translates the verse as “Don’t indulge in prolonged or explosive laughter.” He comments that “in ancient times comedy usually meant ribaldry. Nevertheless, Benedict follows the Master [author of the Rule of the Master] in avoiding any total prohibition of laughter. … [T]he general prohibition of laughter is often a sign of an unhappy authority that wishes to make others unhappy as well” (pp. 90-91). In reflecting on RB 6:8, Fr. Terrence states that “laughter … may also have a flavor of ribaldry, given the fact that much ancient comedy was obscene. This may be part of the reason why Benedict is so opposed to laughter, a thing we take for granted as a sign of a balanced and healthy personality” (p. 123). Even so, as Fr. Terrence mentions regarding RB 49:7, St. Benedict does not “demand that all chatter and joking be put aside. … For his part, Benedict may be chary of imposing a grim atmosphere on the community, a thing that the Church at large has not always avoided during Lent” (p. 406). Furthermore, Fr. Terrence proposes that “the most remarkable element in this verse [49:6] is its call for joy during the Lenten season” (p. 409).

Our need to set limits on laughter

Obviously, laughter is not completely under our control. It is a normal spontaneous response to something that appears humorous or paradoxical. Furthermore, some people have a temperament that tends to frequent laughter, whereas other people’s temperaments cause them to laugh very little if at all. (I am among the latter.) However, we must be especially vigilant of bad humor in this age of disregard for holy things and sinful derision of other people, especially in the political realm. In situations of temptations to unhealthy laughter, we need to beseech God for the grace to restrain ourselves from laughter and for the conversion of all who seek to promote sick humor. As part of our commitment to conversatio morum, we need to seek the purity of heart that will react quickly against occasions of perverted humor. If we nurture a consistent reverence for God and for holy things (including all people, for we were all created in God’s image), then we shall learn to counteract any mocking or derision. If we strive daily to nurture a wholehearted love of others, even our enemies, we shall have a strong barrier against the tendency to ridicule anyone, even from a distance.

People who tend to be very ready to laugh might examine the attitude that underlies this tendency. We might ask ourselves: “Do I take serious things too lightly? Am I trying to escape the reality of the Cross? Am I forgetful of the truth that God will judge us for every thought, word, and action? Am I failing to nurture a deep mindfulness of God in daily life? Am I respecting others’ need for silence and recollection?”

Freedom to laugh appropriately

Despite the need to restrain unhealthy laughter, a world without healthy laughter would be missing something that God wishes. To laugh is something uniquely human that animals lack. Christian life is to be joyful, even during Lent, and to have joy means that we should accept laughter (if only interiorly) as a gift when we experience the overwhelming graciousness of God and His marvelous interventions in our lives. Pope Francis has often warned priests and religious against becoming “sourpusses.” This warning might apply to all of us who tend spontaneously to have a gloomy, critical attitude toward life and the world. Yes, there is much evil, but the Gospel, which is good news, assures us that just as Christ’s Resurrection followed His gruesome death, so also the victory of the Resurrection is a guarantee today that God’s power of love will ultimately overcome the forces of sin and death in our world. Therefore, although Christians may indeed weep and lament over the evils of the world and their own sins, they must also “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4) since following Christ leads us to a final victory over all the powers of wickedness. That joy, at times, may overflow into laughter that reminds us and others of the heavenly inheritance in store for us and of the “first installment” of that inheritance that we already have in the Holy Spirit.

Summary: weeping and laughing: both essential

Life on this earth offers opportunities both to weep and to laugh. Wonderful events like Israel’s return from exile can cause people to laugh. Psalm 126 expresses both the sorrow of exile and the joy of the return to Jerusalem. “They go out, they go out, full of tears. … they come back, they come back, full of song” (verse 6). The psalmist also describes the response to the Lord’s deliverance from bondage in terms of laughter: “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs” (verse 2). In the New Testament the phenomena of laughing and weeping take on a new dimension because of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Because of His ultimate victory over sin and death, St. Paul can command us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4) and to “rejoice always. Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5: 16-17). At the same time, humility demands that we weep over our sins, and charity demands that we “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:16). St. Benedict tells us that true disciples when asked to obey “under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions” (RB 7:35) “continue joyfully … because of Him who so greatly loved us” (7:39). To live in Christ and to proclaim Christ must be out deepest motive, whether we weep of laugh!

No one can command us to laugh. However, the Scriptures do command us to rejoice and to rejoice always, even under the most miserable circumstances. We can and must rejoice because of the love shown to us by Christ in His Passion and Death. This joy may or may not overflow into laughter, but we need to strive to make this joy ever present in our hearts even when we are sorrowing or weeping. As we enter into the season of Lent, let us realize that it should be an opportunity for a deepened commitment to ongoing conversion and, therefore, for joy in the saving work that Christ wants to perform in us. At the birth of her son Isaac, Sarah exclaimed that God had given her cause to laugh and that all who would hear of this marvelous event would laugh with her (Gn 21:6). May we be prepared for the amazing things that God may wish to do for us and for the possible laughter that can come with grace-filled amazement at His wonders. During this Lent let us strive to “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (RB 49:7).

In the peace of Christ and Saint Benedict,


Fr. Donald S. Raila, O.S.B.,
Director of Oblates

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