Of Clowns, Killjoys and the Tenth Step of Humility

To many, religion is a dreary matter of keeping rules, most of which begin with ‘thou shalt not’. It can be rather a shock to such people to discover how very cheerful Catholicism is and how many jokes are cracked in the cloister. We may not always look redeemed, as Kierkergaard complained of Christians in general, but, by golly, we make a good fist of acting as though we were. Benedict’s tenth step of humility comes as a douche of cold water on all this merriment:

The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written, ‘The fool raises his voice in laughter.’
Decimus humilitatis gradus est si non sit facilis ac promptus in risu, quia scriptum est: Stultus in risu exaltat vocem suum. (RB 7. 59, quoting Sirach 21.20)

What is that about?

First, let us notice that the word Benedict uses for laughter is risus, which has many shades of meaning, from simple laughter as we understand it today, to mockery and even scurrility. The clue to how we are to understand it here comes from the scripture quotation. In the Old Testament laughter is predominantly a mark of disbelief, e.g. Sara laughed with disbelief when told she was to bear a son in her old age. Those who disbelieve God are closed to his promises. They place themselves outside his salvation and are therefore the very worst fools, doing no good either to themselves or to others.

What I think Benedict is warning against in this precept is the kind of laughter in which we lose control and end up in a situation similar to that of the biblical fool, destroying either our own faith or that of another. We begin with a harmless joke, a little bit of clowning, but we are easily intoxicated by our own wit. The joke may be turned against someone else, go too far, become mockery. Humour misused easily becomes cruel, and what began as one of God’s pleasantest gifts is warped into something horrible. It is not being a killjoy to suggest that we need to watch our laughter and ensure that it builds up rather than destroys. That doesn’t mean becoming terribly self-conscious, never daring to say anything, but it does mean cultivating a sense of appropriateness and mindfulness of God and others.

In the end, humility is meant to make us more charitable, more open to God. It doesn’t do away with humour, but it does purify it from anything that is cruel or destructive. Then can we truly laugh, when we are pure of heart.