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 [2015] 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 humour ourselves. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.


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.