Some Thoughts on Laughter (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The following article is from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 114-116, 119:

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Laughter, too, falls into this sense of taste and not to another, and must be avoided, especially violent laughter that is so uncontrolled and loud that it often produces tears. Such excited laughter causes the gums and the teeth to show in those who laugh loudly just as they do with horses when they neigh. St. Basil has strict rules against loud laughter. “To be overcome by uncontrolled and meaningless laughter is a sign on intemperance and the lack of modesty in our behavior; it is also a sign that the foolishness of the soul is not controlled by precise reason.”1 St. Basil also said: “Loud laughter and violent reactions of the body are not proper to one who is contrite of heart, mature, and self-controlled.” This is why this form of laughter is discouraged in the Bible as something especially harmful to the stability of the soul: “I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’” (Eccl. 2:2).

Prophet Solomon

Solomon was right in pointing out that the laughter of the foolish is similar to the sound of thorn bushes being burned. “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools” (Eccl. 7:6). St. Gregory the Theologian in his limbic Poetry wrote: “All laughter deserves the laughter (contempt) of wise people, especially the sinful laughter; but disorderly laughter brings about tears.” St. Basil has set a boundary to acceptable laughter: “The mirth of the soul may be revealed to the point of a happy smile which is not improper, as long as it only reveals what is written in Scripture: ‘A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance’” (Prv. 15:13). Also the wise Sirach wrote: “A foolish man raises his voice in laughter, but a prudent man will smile in silence” (Sir 19:30; 20:5-6).

Moreover, when we take into account that our responsible and sinful life is carried on in a valley of sorrows, then even our laughter must be turned to mourning and our smile and joy to grief, as St. James the Brother of the Lord has said: “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (Jas. 4:9).2 St. Isidore the Pelousiotes wrote to the presbyter Dorotheos:

  • If the priest is called and is the model for the flock and the light for the church, then it is imperative that this be impressed upon his way of life as a seal is impressed upon wax. If he really wants to be a light to his people he must hate coarse jesting and show of laughter, so that he may not teach many to misbehave. After all, he is a priest, an angel of the Lord God Almighty. An angel cannot be versed in laughter when his purpose is to serve with the fear of God.3

The Lord Himself Did Not Laugh but Cried Four Times

There is one thing that I often pondered about laughter and I am puzzled. I see how the philosophers consider laughter as the counterpart of reason and say that every man is reasonable therefore he must also be laughing. And vice versa: Every laughing person must also be reasonable, because the ability to laugh is, as they say, an essential attribute of the faculty of reason. But beyond this, I see that our Lord, though he received all the natural attributes of human nature, did not appear to have ever used this attribute, as St. Basil noted: “It appears that the Lord submitted to the necessary passions of the flesh and to those that bear the mark of virtue, such as physical weariness and compassion for the suffering. He never once demonstrated laughter, as far as the evangelical history is concerned.”4

Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546.
Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546.

What conclusions can we draw from this? We conclude that it is not the ability to laugh but rather the ability to cry that is natural to man. For this reason our Lord not only did not laugh himself, but he also spoke against laughter. “Woe unto you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:25). Christ himself did cry on four occasions in his life:

  1. He cried over his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35);
  2. He cried at the time of his passion. According to the Apostle, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Also, the prayer and agony in Gethsemane before his betrayal is well attested in the Gospels.
  3. On another occasion Jesus drew near and saw the city of Jerusalem and “wept over it,” mourning the sad fact that she “did not know the time of her visitation” (Lk. 19:41, 44).
  4. Jesus cried a fourth time when he sat with his disciples at the last supper for the loss of Judas. “He was troubled in spirit, and testified, ‘truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me’” (Jn. 13:21). According to St. John Chrysostom, this troubling spirit is to be understood as an expression of his sadness accompanied with tears.

So the Lord himself not only shed tears, but he also blessed with his words the capacity to weep. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk. 6:21). When therefore the theologians reason and say that Christ in his human nature is a rational being, they do not add that he is also a laughing being. This has not been revealed in the Scriptures, and we therefore prefer to imitate the example of our Lord and avoid laughing as much as possible as something that may bring eternal mourning. Let us therefore embrace a contrite spirit of weeping that is the cause of blessed and eternal joy and laughter.5

But again we have said enough about the fourth sense of taste and the mouth.

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  1. Broad Rules 17.
  2. John Chrysostom wrote in his homilies: “The present time is one of mourning and sorrow, of constraints and servitude, of sweat and tears, and you laugh!” (Homily 15 on Hebrews). Again he wrote elsewhere: “The present time is not for warm expressions of mirth and joy, but rather for mourning and sorrow and grief, and you spend your time in urban ribaldry!” (Homily 17 on Ephesians).
  3. Epistle no. 319.
  4. Broad Rules 17.
  5. …Time has introduced into the world two types of people. Democritos and Heracleitos. One pondered upon the foolishness of men and had a great capacity for laughter. The other meditated upon the sufferings of mankind and had an aversion to laughter, preferring to cry and mourn. Even if both of these men exceeded the bounds of moderation, it is Democritos, who was always laughing, that is criticized by the moral philosophers as intemperate and facetious, while Heracleitos who was mourning is considered more temperate and more prudent.

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