The Rule of Benedict can seem very alien to us twenty-first-century Christians. It is probably the most famous set of guidelines for the founding of monasteries, and thousands of Christians have lived by it during the last fifteen hundred years; but who becomes a monk any more? There are other ways of devoting our lives to God—ways that, because they seem more connected to the wider non-Christian world and have more possibility of changing it, seem better, more useful, to us. What, after all, we may ask ourselves, is the good of singing our way through all 150 psalms every week?
Setting aside this broad gap, small details also divide us. While reading the piece, I was most struck by repeated commands not to laugh: “a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: “The fool exalteth his voice in laughter” (Sir 21:23)…. When a monk speaketh, he speaketh gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words.” This seemed awful to me. No laughing? Does Benedict really want his monks to be sour, joyless people? And really, what justification does he give for this other than a quotation from the Book of Sirach, which Protestants don’t even think is canonical?
Well, let’s think about this command—because Benedict, although perhaps not completely right about everything, was a wise enough judge of persons to create a Rule that is still being used today. What good did he think could come out of forbidding laughter? First of all, the kind of laughter he was talking about was not the sort that flowed out of joyful thoughts about the Resurrection. Perhaps Benedict does not give enough attention to having joy in the Lord, but it is not his purpose to forbid it. Instead, he always links “coarse jests, idle words, and speech producing laughter.” For him, laughter is coarse, rude, and dwells on things that are less than pure; and it is idle, useless, unnecessary. What kind of a society could have given him such a picture of what laughter is like?
Well, a society much like our own. Anything can be laughed at, even things that are most holy, not because we are confident enough about our nearness to the holy but because we do not sense its concreteness. Things are said that are not meant in order to produce laughter, and no one thinks, afterwards, to go back and explain the truth that was twisted for the sake of humor. There is humor that strikes the listeners as cruel, or coarse, or useless, but no one knows quite how to say that it wasn’t funny, because for us laughter covers over many sins. This, I suspect, was the kind of society that caused Benedict to be so strict against laughter.
I of course do not want to say that we, too, should live absolutely without laughter; it is a good and healthy thing, and one of the great gifts of God to us. But I think that most of us know that already. What we might not know is that not all situations are suited for laughter; that sometimes somberness of purpose is necessary; that not all jests are healthy. I don’t pretend to know where we ought to draw the line between what should be joked about and what shouldn’t be; but I encourage you to examine your own minds. What laughter is acceptable? And what isn’t? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.