Laughter, Social Media and the Tenth Step of Humility

Laughter is surely one of God’s most gracious gifts. The ability to see the funny side of life, to lighten a gloomy atmosphere with a smile or quip, the sheer joie de vivre that carries others along on a sparkle of sunshine and merriment, these are things to be celebrated. A good sense of humour is almost a sine qua non of survival in monastic life. As to the literal-minded and humourless sourpusses one sometimes encounters, oh dear! What a pain they are! It can be rather a shock, therefore, to find St Benedict stating as his tenth step of humility (RB 7.59)

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

Quite clearly, he is not condemning mirth in general. Indeed, one of the small asceticisms he recommends for Lent is giving up some of our customary joshing and joking (scurrilitates), which he wouldn’t if no one ever laughed in the cloister. The scripture Benedict quotes, Sirach 21.20, is key to understanding the passage. Laughter in the biblical sense usually has overtones of disbelief (think of Sara, laughing behind the tent curtains at the angel’s prohecy of Isaac’s birth). It is especially identified with the fool who thinks there is no God. To raise up one’s voice, to parade one’s unbelief, to claim for oneself the ability to judge matters about which we are largely ignorant, the derisive laughter of the mocker and scorner, these are all indicators of massive pride — and Benedict has no time for that.

I think this tenth step demonstrates something I have often emphasized: the importance of reading the text of the Rule closely, with an awareness of its broader context. One can’t simply mine a sentence here or there and say, this is what Benedict has to say on a subject. On the other hand, I do think one can apply his precepts to a world beyond the monastery and this one is very relevant to Social Media.

Humour and debate both figure largely in Social Media. Unfortunately, as we all know, debate is often reduced to name-calling or worse, and humour can become rather sinister and unpleasant. There is a lot of scoffing rather than engagement with the issues or with individuals. Now, mockery is one thing Benedict is very opposed to. It contradicts his idea of the importance of mutual respect and his special concern that the most vulnerable should be protected from the ravages of the strong. We may have quick minds and even quicker tongues, but that doesn’t give us the right to use them to put others down. The laughter we provoke condemns us, because it is essentially violent and cruel. Some of the tweets and Facebook postings regarding the current Synod on the Family have made me wonder whether the authors have really thought about what they are doing. Being rude, imputing dishonesty to others without being sure of one’s facts, vilifying, these are not the work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, they are not very funny, either. Today would be a good day for doing a kind of mental check on how we use humnour ourselves. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.

 

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LOL, LiLi and L&P

It is, apparently, a sign of being irredeemably behind the times to use the acronym LOL (‘laughing out loud’). I never liked it much. In my youth, we were told that ladies do not laugh out loud, they smile graciously — or, in my case, give way to helpless giggles — at the foibles of mankind. Any suggestion of impropriety by way of risqué joke or allusion should, by the same token, be met with a glacial stare. How long ago all that seems! But it has left me with a vague feeling that laughter can sometimes be cruel and easily turns to the kind of derisive mockery St Benedict deplored. Time was when the letters LOL stood for ‘lots of love,’ and parts of me wish they did still. Can we reclaim them? If we do, may I put in a word for the monastic LiLi (‘like it or lump it’) and my favourite, L&P (‘love and prayer’)? Much of life is a LiLi experience. We can’t avoid the difficulties, but we can avoid making heavy weather of them. And what is love if it is not accompanied by prayer — if it is not taken up into that greater Love which embraces and redeems all others?

L&P, Digitalnun

And in audio format:

 

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Like Shining from Shook Foil

lunch at Howton Grove Priory
Lunch at Howton Grove Priory: Photo © Keith Waldegrave. All rights reserved

If the glory of God is the human person fully alive (Irenaeus), and the world is charged with the grandeur of God (Hopkins), laughter is surely a divine gift, a light that illumines from within — especially when, as in the case of Quietnun, the laughter is joyful, pure and free. Laugh on, laugh on!

 

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Mocking the Faith of Others

When does making a joke about religion overstep the mark and become mocking the faith of others? Does it matter if it does? I was wondering about this as I checked my Twitter account this morning and noticed a few tweets about one of the more sensational saints of Latin America. Now, I have no devotion to the saint in question, have never lived in the country where his cult is popular, and have no desire to stir up a rumpus, but I did ask myself how I would feel if he were one of my ‘friends in heaven’, in the way that Our Lady or St Bernard are. I realised I might be a little upset. ‘Love me, love my dog’ has its parallel; respect me, respect what I respect, even if it seems to you a little absurd.

What do we mean by ‘respect’ in such a context? Are we to be afraid of saying anything for fear of giving offence? Perhaps this analogy may help. I may not be a Communist myself, but if you have little busts of Lenin all over your mantlepiece, I will take the hint and confine any remarks to discussion of his theories rather than make a joke you may find tasteless. I may not be a republican, but if you are French and ardent in your love of country, I would not choose today to make derogatory remarks about the fall of the Bastille and all that it entailed subsequently. In both cases, I would be doing no more than showing good manners. Would that mean I was truly respecting you? I’m not sure, but I find it interesting that St Benedict has a lot to say in his Rule about the dangers of scurillitas, a kind of mocking laughter that often degenerated into indecency. I don’t think he was concerned about his monks making an off-colour joke so much as losing that sense of respect and reverence for the person that is fundamental to his concept of honouring everyone.

Ultimately, mocking the faith of others is an act of derision rather than an argument. It may be effective in silencing someone but it can never really advance understanding. So, a thought for the week-end. When we are tempted to mock others, are we misusing one of God’s gifts (for laughter and fun); are we building up or tearing down? The answer can sometimes be chastening, especially for those of us who have a way with words.

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OMG

OMG: three little letters representing Creator and creature, infinity and love; or the fool’s laughter, signifying nothing?

There is a world of difference between ‘Oh, my God!’ used as a virtually meaningless  exclamation of surprise and ‘O my God’ used as the language of prayer. They are as different as chalk and cheese, as far apart as the East is from the West. If one were to say how offensive the misuse of God’s name is to the ears of believers, one might be regarded as rather strange, ‘excessively’ religious, a bit of a pompous ass (donkey to our American friends). The acronym makes it no better. To triviliase the Infinite is surely the mark of the very shallow.

So what of ‘O my God’? We use those three little words to call upon the Almighty with joy, thanksgiving and contrition. They are our comfort in sorrow, our help in times of need; the only words necessary to adoration. They are
‘church-bells beyond the starres heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices: something understood.’

Can we reclaim them? Does it matter? Look at the front page of today’s BBC website or any newspaper and ask yourself how and why we came to this. If that doesn’t bring you to your knees, I don’t know what will.

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Blessings Awareness Day

I have ‘Awareness Day’ fatigue. Too many good causes ask me to be ‘aware’ of this or that, to give my time, energy, money or what you will; to tweet or wear a ribbon; it is all too much. Apparently, today is, among other things, Bread Awareness Day. That set me thinking. Bread  is so important, a blessing in itself. Blessed and broken, it is a feature of most meals; consecrated and shared out in the Mass as the Body of Christ, it sustains both body and soul. So I hereby declare today Blessings Awareness Day, a day to acknowledge our blessings and give thanks for them. Nothing more is required, but it should put a smile on your face and laughter in your heart.

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13 November 2011

For most people this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, pure and simple, when we recall the sacrifice of those who died in defence of our freedom. It is a day for prayer and gratitude and solemn acts of remembering. Here is it is also Oblates’ Day, when we welcome those of our oblates and associates who can get here to a day of quiet fellowship at the monastery. The 13 November is the feast of All Benedictine Saints so is suitably challenging: holiness, and nothing less, is what we aim at, and we have a ‘great crowd of witnesses’ to encourage us. Today will have challenges peculiar to itself, however, as half the community is down with what looks suspiciously like ‘flu or a similar virus. It reminds me of that lovely Hasidic saying, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I trust there is a broad grin in heaven today.

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Laughter in the Cloister

It’s Saturday, you’re short of time, and St Benedict has just a few words to say to you today: ‘The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: “The fool raises his voice in laughter.”‘ You are probably thinking, ‘He can’t be serious. Life without laughter would be miserable,’ and you’d be right. To understand this short section of the Rule, you need to understand the kind of laughter Benedict is talking about, the resonances in the scripture he quotes (Sirach 21.20) and the oblique reference to the Institutes of Cassian, IV.39.10.

We think of laughter as a simple, joyous expression of amusement or delight. There is nothing nasty about it. Such laughter is not condemned by Benedict. A sense of humour is, as I indicated a few days ago, a great blessing in monastic life, and I am quite convinced that there are deliberate touches of humour in the Rule. The laughter Benedict rejects is, first, the laughter of disbelief, such as Sara laughed when she was told that she would conceive in her old age. It is, secondly, the laughter associated with scurilitas, a word for which we have no exact equivalent in modern English, the laughter associated with obscenity and cruelty.

In scripture the fool is one who lacks knowledge of God and is morally adrift, who does not believe God and goes wrong because of his disbelief. Benedict doesn’t want fools in his monastery. He doesn’t want obscenity or cruelty, either; and he knows that what begins as a good, clean joke can, on occasion, lead to something less innocent, destructive of both the individual and community. So, he is telling us this morning to be aware of the pitfalls, to use humour in the right way, that it may be a blessing not a curse.

It is precisely this thoughtful, considered approach to everyday things that makes the Rule of Benedict a useful guide to living a Christian life. Laugh on, but let it be with a laughter you are not ashamed of before God.

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