The tenth degree of humility is, not easily to lay hold on occasions of laughing. For it is written: “He who laughs loud is a fool.” [Ecclesiasticus 21:20]
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
At what point do I just declare myself totally unqualified to comment on St. Benedict’s ladder of humility? This step, about something so simple—laughter—is extremely difficult in our time or, at least, for me. The average person, even people in poverty, in the United States enjoys entertainment once the luxury of royalty alone. Every day we are met with hundreds of invitations to “easily lay hold on occasions of laughing.” What are we to do? Is our culture so depraved? Or, on the other hand, is this step of the ladder now passé? Neither.
Now, certainly our culture is somewhat depraved, but that is true of all cultures to some degree. Utopia can only be possible after Jesus Christ “come[s] again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” to quote the Creed.
But I do not think that we should blame our culture. Surely, minus the entertainment we have now, people still told jokes and pulled pranks on one another. Surely, too, people mocked one another. Indeed, Christ himself was mocked by the people and their teachers and the Roman soldiers and even at least one of the two thieves who hung on either side of him. Cruelty, unfortunately, is not unique to our time.
St. Benedict likely has even milder laughter in mind. There is a tradition about St. Lazaras, whom Christ raised from the dead, that he never even smiled again, except once when he saw a man stealing a jar, at which he said, “Look, clay stealing clay.”
How can such austerity be explained?
Well, we began the ladder with the fear of God and a reminder about our own mortality. Think of someone who has been to war and experienced all the violence and tragedy of it. When they come back to everyday life, it all seems bizarre. It’s like one cryptic saying of St. Antony: “The time is coming when people will be insane, and when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person saying: You are insane because you are not like us.” People who have faced death do not “easily lay hold on occasions for laughing.”
On the one hand, this may be a bad thing. It could be a symptom of real depression, emotional disturbance, or mental illness. On the other hand, perhaps it’s actually quite sane after all. Death is perhaps the only certainty of life. To live as if it is never coming is foolishness, if not insanity. Perhaps half the reason those who return from war have such a difficult time adjusting is because everyone else lives an imaginary, immortal madness.
Indeed, beyond the passage cited by St. Benedict above, there is the less well-known woe of Christ that corresponds to his beatitude, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh”—“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).
So let’s try to parse this out more clearly:
- Pleasure, disconnected from the reality of our mortality, is to our harm.
- Joy in what is untainted by our mortality, however, such as virtue and the hope of resurrection, is to our good.
- Such virtue sometimes requires hardship and compunction.
- But such joy is of a jubilant character, not merely “spiritual” or metaphorical, but psychosomatic, “for you shall laugh”—laughing, of course, involves our body as well as our soul. It is a holistic activity.
Thankfully, the fathers even go further in declaring most things in life to carry the potential to be used for virtue and what is divine. A good joke can cheer a person up. Good times with friends can strengthen the bond of love between them. St. Benedict, it should be noted, does not say to never laugh but rather not to do so too hastily.
Well, nevertheless, this is certainly a step I need to work on. An additional comfort, I would add, is that I am not a monk. The standard for traveling the way of life in the world is fitting to that context; it is less severe, though sometimes slower.
The goal for those of us in the world, for the Church fathers, is not perfect dispassion but a virtuous moderation of our passions. Surely we will laugh at silly things, and that is not so bad after all. But we ought not to let such laughter grow into a habit of carelessness. There is something quite admirable about the person whose yes is yes and no is no and who is always the last to laugh. There is something sane about such sobriety.
So this is the tenth step: sincerity, seriousness, sobriety. Would that I, too, might be one of those who at last laughs solely for the joy of my Lord!