February 7, June 8, October 8
Chapter 7: On Humility
The tenth degree of humility
is that he be not ready and quick to laugh,
for it is written,
“The fool lifts up his voice in laughter” (Eccles. 21:23).
There are those people who think it is funny to be sarcastic or insulting. I think people who model their sense of humor on the smart ass, insulting, dysfunctional garbage that passes for humor on America sitcoms, have proved the wisdom of what Benedict says here.
That is what Father Benedict addresses here. It is not humor when it demeans, disrespects, hurts, and invalidates someone else. That is emotional and verbal abuse
We have enough of that nonsense in this world. Benedict has nothing
against joy and neither does this passage. 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 humor helps us handle this life. As to the literal-minded and humorless 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)
Benedict 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, which he wouldn’t if no one ever laughed in the monastery. The scripture Benedict quotes, Eccles. 21:23), 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 prophecy 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. I believe on more than one occasion I have said that before one starts with the daily readings, it is a good idea to read the entire Rule from beginning to end. One can’t simply mine a sentence here or there and say, this is what Benedict has to say on a subject the way some readers of the Bible use proof texts, lifting verses out pf their context. On the other hand, as you well know, I always look for a way to apply the Rule to the world beyond the monastery and this one is very relevant to Social Media.
Humor and debate both figure largely in Social Media. Unfortunately, as we all know, debate is often reduced to name-calling or worse, and humor 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 Facebook postings in response to another’s blog 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 humor ourselves. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.