On the Vice of Laughter (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: When Geronda Ephraim starts to break into fits of laughter, he starts doing the sign of the Cross over his mouth, and all his monastic subordinates, as mimics of his every action and affectation, also do this. The action of signing their lips with the Cross is rooted in Gerontikon stories of demons trying to make monastics laugh, as well as, Patristic teachings about laughter being demonic and unmonastic.  The monastics believe that invisible demons are invisibly inciting them to laugh which is a sin for them. As monks should be in a perpetual state of mourning and repentance, joking and laughter are generally not accepted actions in their calling.  Some monastics who lack the self-control to guard their mouth from sarcasm, joking, fits of laughter, etc. will many times receive large penances (prostrations, deprivations, the Lity, etc.) to help correct them of this fault. The superiors and second-in-commands are generally exempt from reprimand for these kinds of behavior. The only time that monastics generally don’t get in trouble for laughing is during group homilies when Geronda Ephraim—or in individual monasteries the Abbot or Abbess—tell jokes or center out a monastic and mock them.

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Q. 17. That laughter also must be held in check.

R. Those who live under discipline should avoid very carefully even such intemperate action as is commonly regarded lightly. Indulging in unrestrained and immoderate laughter is a sign of intemperance, of a want of control over one’s emotions, and of failure to repress the soul’s frivolity by a stern use of reason. It is not unbecoming, however, to give evidence of merriment of soul by a cheerful smile, if only to illustrate that which is written: ‘A glad heart maketh a cheerful countenance’;1 but raucous laughter and uncontrollable shaking of the body are not indicative of a well-regulated soul, or of personal dignity, or self-mastery. This kind of laughter Ecclesiastes also reprehends as especially subversive of firmness of soul in the words: ‘Laughter I counted error,’2 and again: ‘As the crackling of thorns burning under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.’3 Moreover, the Lord appears to have experienced those emotions which are of necessity associated with the body, as well as those that betoken virtue, as, for example, weariness and compassion for the afflicted; but, so far as we know from the story of the Gospel, He never laughed. On the contrary, He even pronounced those unhappy who are given to laughter.4 And let not the equivocal sense of the word laughter’ deceive us, for it is a frequent practice in the Scriptures to call joy of spirit and the cheerful feeling which follows upon good actions, ‘laughter.’ Sara says, for instance: ‘God hath made a laughter for me,’5 and there is another saying: ‘Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh’;6 likewise, the words of Job: ‘And the true mouth he will fill with laughter.’7 All these references to gaiety signify merriment of soul instead of hilarity. He, therefore, who is master of every passion and feels no excitement from pleasure, or at least, does not give it outward expression, but is steadfastly inclined to restraint as regards every harmful delight, such a one is perfectly continent but, clearly, he is also at the same time free from all sin. Sometimes, moreover, even acts of a permissible and necessary kind are to be abstained from, when the abstinence is dictated by consideration of our brother’s welfare. Thus, the Apostle says: ‘If meat scandalize my brother, I will never eat flesh.’8 And even though he could have gained his livelihood from preaching the gospel, he did not take advantage of this privilege lest he should offer any hindrance, as it were, to the Gospel of Christ.9

geronda-ephraim-and-ladies-early-2000s

Continency, then, destroys sin, quells the passions, and mortifies the body even as to its natural affections and desires. It marks the beginning of the spiritual life, leads us to eternal blessings, and extinguishes within itself the desire for pleasure. Pleasure, indeed, is evil’s special allurement, through which we men are most likely to commit sin and by which the whole soul is dragged down to ruin as by a hook. Whoever, then, is neither overcome nor weakened by it successfully avoids all sin through the practice of continency. If, however, a man escape almost all incitements to sin, but falls prey even to one, such a man is not continent, just as he is not in health who is suffering from only one bodily affliction and as he is not free who is under the authority of anyone, it matters not whom. Further, the other virtues are practiced in secret and are rarely displayed to men. But continency makes itself known as soon as we meet a person who practices it. As plumpness an a healthy color betoken the athlete, so leanness of body and the pallor produced by the exercise of continency mark the Christian, for he is the true athlete of the commandments of Christ. In weakness of body, he overcomes his opponent and displays his prowess in the contests of piety, according to the words, ‘when I am weak, then am I powerful.’10 So beneficial is it merely to behold the continent man making a sparing and frugal use of necessities, ministering to nature as if this were a burdensome duty and begrudging the time spent in it, and rising promptly from the table in his eagerness for work, that I think no sermon would so touch the soul of one whose appetites are undisciplined and bring about his conversion as merely his meeting with a continent man. Indeed, the reason we are enjoined to eat and drink to the glory of God11 is, probably, so that our good works may shine forth even at table to the glory of our Father who is in heaven.12

Hieromonk Joseph (TX)
Hieromonk Joseph (TX)

NOTES

  1. Prov. 15.13.
  2. Eccle. 2.2.
  3. Eccle. 7.7.
  4. Luke 6.25.
  5. Gen. 21.6.
  6. Luke 6.21.
  7. Job 8.21.
  8. 1 Cor. 8.13.
  9. 1 Cor. 9.12.
  10. 2 Cor. 12.10.
  11. 1 Cor. 10.31.
  12. Matt. 5.16.
Fr. Alexios (NY)
Fr. Alexios (NY)
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