To be read: February 6, June 6, October 8
The tenth step of humility is, when a monk is not quickly given to laughter, for it is written: “Only the fool raises his voice in laughter”(Sir 21:23).
The tenth step is Benedict’s prohibition against laughter: “a monk is not quickly given to laughter…” This is bothersome to many modern Christians, and it is easy to get the sense that St. Benedict was a killjoy. However, there are other parts of the Rule which point to a subtle humor in Benedict’s presentation of the disciplines. Throughout the Rule there is great concern for restraint from speech. We have already seen the multiple tools in chapter 4 exhorting “moderation in speech” (vs.52), “avoidance of chatter” (vs. 53), and to not love “boisterous laughter” (vs. 54). The entirety of chapter six counsels restraint of speech and the importance of silence. But now we come to the issue of humility. Steps nine through eleven of the ladder concern the need to be moderate in our use of words, and cautious in expressions of mirth.
Clearly one quarter of the steps to true humility involve the use of the tongue. St. James gave the clarion call of warning at the beginning of the Christian era. He said, “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell…no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:6-8). In this middle step of the three regarding speech, the monk is commanded to “not [be] quickly given to laughter.” Does Benedict presume to forbid the expression of joy through laughter? Not at all. For example, in his instructions for Lent in chapter 49:5-7 he says that we are to deny ourselves “some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting…” If we are to deny “some” chatter and laughter in Lent, the presupposition is that it occurs at other times. He is not promoting dour demeanors from those who pursue the Way of Christ, rather moderation in all things. But laughter should not be a constant.
Whereas joking can relieve tension and be therapeutic for the individual or group, often it is used to draw attention to self. The goal of self-denial is thwarted when we seek others’ responses to our humorous banter. Would it not be better to engage the one speaking and elicit their further insights rather than draw attention to self with humor? And never should our jesting be at the expense of another or be cruel and vulgar. Good humor has its place, but all things should be done decently and in order and in moderation.