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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NOTES:

  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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On Guarding the Sense of Taste (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, guarding the sense of taste is virtually ignored. The main requirement is blind obedience and the Prayer with the belief that the perfect application of these two things will bring all the other virtues to a monastic. Fasting from the required foods on the required days is about the extent of fasting that exists in the monasteries. Monastics can get a blessing to not eat all the food on their plates and not eat desserts though many times it is denied. Monastics are warned that wanting to fast or not eat desserts can lead to delusion because when a monastic goes down that path, they will start getting proud thoughts because they fast better than the other monastics or they don’t eat desserts so they are more virtuous and have more self-control. This will lead to judging the other monastics and especially judging their Geronda or Gerondissa who also eat desserts. Out of all the abbots and abbesses, it is really only Geronda Paisios who has maintained a regime of ascesis, fasting and self-denial when it comes to the area of foods. Unlike the other abbots, he does not drink soda, eat desserts, and other pleasurable foods. He never drinks cold water, always room temperature, etc. In most of the other monasteries, fasting and ascesis are dismissed as the quickest way to pride and delusion.

The following article is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 107-112

 nicodemus-of-the-holy-mountain57835sm

The fourth sense is that of taste and generally speaking that of the mouth. Here, indeed, we find a great marketplace! This sense is like the great chasm that was suddenly opened in Rome and was so deep that no matter how much earth and debris was thrown into it, it simply disappeared and was never filled up, as the historians have written. Also this sense of the mouth is like a gulf so wide that it can contain all the edible provisions which the earth and sea produce. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the mouth is like a large broken earthen jar that is always filled and yet always remains empty. In a word, it is an insatiable Hades. Even though the sense of taste is fourth in line, I consider it to be first in terms of power. Be careful therefore to shut out of this door of your senses the negative effects of so many varieties of foods. Avoid then the sumptuous meals. Avoid the bewitching artistry of the chefs. Avoid wantonness and wastefulness in food. For what else were these delicacies invented? Certainly, you cannot say that they serve some need or function of the body, but only that cursed pleasure of taste in the mouth. What indeed are the effects of such a variety of foods? Nothing good, of course, comes of them, except passions and evils to the soul and to the body. Greedy licking, satiety, and gluttony are the first offspring. If we go deeper we find drunkenness, rapacity, obesity, gout in the feet and in the hands, and even paralysis. If we go even deeper than this we can also find fornication, homosexuality, and virtually all of the carnal and irrational passions that come under the influence of the stomach. These then are the evil by-products of irrational indulgence in the delicate and tasty things of the mouth.

The mouth is an insatiable Hades.
The mouth is an insatiable Hades.

Sumptuous eating deprives One of Piety & Harms, Especially Young People 

Sumptuous eating is harmful to all without exception, but especially to the young. The natural reason for this is obvious. The natural warmth of the young person is enhanced when it receives the fatty matter of various foods. The heavy foods consumed draw out the heavy excretions of digestion in the stomach. These in turn are converted into substances and blood and eventually into fatty tissue. The abundance of food creates a fat body that is susceptible to the forceful temptations of one’s sexuality.

Thus treated and exposed, the poor body becomes a flaming fire, a Babylonian furnace. If the young body is a wild and untamed animal even when it lacks essential nourishment, imagine what it is like when it is well fed! All young people know this because they experience these passions on a daily basis. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: “Its own evil is sufficient for the body. Why add to the existing fire any additional fuel, or any more nourishment to the beast? It will only become more difficult to control and more violent (forceful) than the mind.”

The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)
The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)

Solomon too said: “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury” (Proverbs 19:10). In interpreting this passage, St. Basil considered the body of a young person to be “a fool.” “What is more senseless than the body of a young person prone to easy temptations?” He asked.

Now if you cannot avoid these fatty foods completely, then set a discipline for yourself to eat only once a day, as many spiritual persons, hierarchs, and even worldly leaders do. In this manner the body is kept lighter and healthier and the mind is clearer and more capable of advancing upon divine thoughts. Even then, it is important not to overeat.

The Three Degrees of Eating

According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: “Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:25).

Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, “Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.” 1

The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: “No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other.” Job, too, assuming that one could fall into sin through eating, offered sacrifice to God for his sons who were feasting among themselves. “And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said: “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts’” (Job 1:5-8).

In interpreting this passage Olympiodoros wrote: “We learn from this that we ought to avoid such feasts which can bring on sinfulness. We must also purify ourselves after they have been concluded, even if these are conducted for the sake of concord and brotherly love as in the case of the sons of Job.”

Surely then, if the sons of Job were not at a feast but in prayer or some other spiritual activity, the devil would not have dared to destroy the house and them, as Origen interpreted the passage: “The devil was looking for an opportunity to destroy them. Had he found them reading, he would not have touched the house, having no reason to put them to death. Had he found them in prayer, he would not have had any power to do anything against them. But when he found an opportune time, he was powerful. What was the opportune time? It was the time of feasting and drinking.” Do you see then, dear reader, how many evils are brought forth by luxurious foods and feasting in general?

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Hierarchs, Priests, and Every Christian Ought Not to Break the Fast of Each Wednesday and Friday

Let me add here that after abstaining from rich foods and sumptuous feasts, you must also keep the prescribed fast of each Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, except of course for those times when no fast is required by the practice of the church calendar. Even if others may break this fast by including wine and oil in their diet on Wednesday and Friday, you ought not to imitate them, whoever they might be, for the holy canons require this rule to be kept. The 69th Apostolic Canon considers the fasting rules of each Wednesday and Friday to be the very same as that of Great Lent. “Any bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, or chanter who does not fast during Great Lent and each Wednesday and Friday is to be deposed, except if he is prevented from doing so because of a bodily illness. If the person is a layman who does not fast, he is to be rejected.” The same kind of austerity is expressed by the 5th Canon of Peter of Alexandria: “I agree with St. James who called the well fed sheep for slaughter: ‘You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’” (Jas. 5:5).2 St. Gregory the Theologian had no kind compliments for feasting when he considered it to be nothing but manure. St. Isaac the Syrian too considered the wasting of food as only appropriate to swine. This is why a wise man, seeing that inscription on the tomb of Sardanapal the glutton which read: “I have as much as I have eaten and have drunk and have enjoyed,” concluded: “This inscription is indeed appropriate for a pig!”3

King Sardanapalus and His Consort
King Sardanapalus and His Consort

God Will Put Gluttons to the Test

I praise the Most High God many times who has never neglected to put the gluttons who are always feasting to the test. Sometimes he permits the sons of Job to be crushed to death in the house of their cohorts; sometimes he destroys through Sampson the palace where the gentiles were eating and reveling. God disrupted the feast of Balthasar by that fearful hand which was writing on the wall, and he brought great sorrow to the hearts of the revelers who were feasting with the tetrarch Herond on account of the beheading of the Forerunner. Do you see, dear brother, how hateful a thing this gluttonous feasting and drinking is in the sight of God? This is why the Prophet Amos condemned such unrighteous feasting. “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Am. 6:4-6). Whatever I have said so far about sumptuous foods, I also say about aromatic wines. St. Gregory the Theologian has noted, “Let us not honor the wines that have the scent of flowers.”4 It should also be noted that the quantity of wine be limited to two or three glasses, especially for the young. The elder Sisoes was once asked if it is too much for someone to drink three glasses of wine. He answered that if there was no Satan, then it would not be too much. The Spartan Leotychides, too, was asked by the Spartans did not drink wine. He answered that the Spartans refrained from drinking wine so that others would not receive instruction from their consequent bad behavior. And he was right because wine clouds the mind and does not permit it to know the truth and the correct and benevolent advice. Now, when much wine is consumed, then the mind is totally clouded, like the extra oil that snuffs out the lamp. Thus another sober person is required to offer advice and guidance to him who is drunk.

 Sisoes

What One Must Do to Avoid Overeating & Other Sins of the Tongue

When eating and drinking, always remember the Psalm: “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?” (Psalms 30:9). St. Basil has advised that we recall this verse in order to help us avoid overeating and overdrinking, as he has interpreted it in the following manner:

“What is the need for robustness of flesh and an abundance of blood if their future is to be delivered over to the common corruption of the body? For this reason I constrain and deprive my body, otherwise my blood becomes so robust and overzealous that it makes my flesh to sin. Do not therefore flatter your body with sleep and baths and soft beds, but always recall the saying: ‘What profit is there for my blood if I go down to the Pit?’ Why do you care for the lesser thing that will later become corrupt? Why do you bother to make yourself fat? Do you not know that the fatter you make your body so much heavier will be the soul’s prison?”

In this sense of the mouth are also included all those sins which are enacted by the tongue: condemnation, slander,5 mocking, insults, unreasonable excommunications, curses, reprimands, obscene talk, and all the other idle and vain words. From all these we must guard ourselves as much as possible, for as you know, we must give an account for every vain and idle word, according to the Sacred Scriptures (Matthew 12:36)…

Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)
Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)

NOTES

  1. Broad Rules 15.
  2. I read once an amusing story about two men who met each other. One loved to eat a lot and was fat and robust, the other exercised self-control and was very thin and ascetic looking. The fat man greeted, “Welcome, spirit without a body!” And the thin man responded, “Welcome, body without a spirit!” Is it not true that this is the only gain of such well-fed persons: a heavy body that is difficult to maneuver and often troubled by ailments? While the body of the ascetic person is thin, healthy, and resilient. Moreover, it has been shown that gluttons die much sooner than those who exercise self-control in their eating habits. Hippocrates said: “The fat people die much sooner than thin people do…The mother of health is not to be over-satisfied with food, and the ability to bear pains.”
  3. Remember that the ascetic fathers on the Holy Mountain, who sit to eat on the 9th hour on days of fasting, experience greater sweetness and joy in tasting their simple meal and drinking their simple water than the gluttons who devour sumptuous pheasants and other rich foods and drinks. And as the wise Solomon said: “He who is sated loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet” (Prv. 27:7). St. Basil too made the same point: “If you wish to make your meals desirable, accept the change that is brought about by the period of fasting. Something that is enjoyed to satiety through continuous use is easily rejected. The things rarely acquired are the things most especially enjoyed” (Homily 1 on Fasting).

It can be said about all those who love to eat in excess all sorts of rich foods that they do not simply eat to live, as in the normal and reasonable case, but rather they live in order to eat, which is characteristic of irrational beings and beasts. The mind of Christians will surely be much more miserable than these if, after the Grace of the Gospel and the hope of eternal life, it becomes like that of pagans of old who had no other concern but to enjoy sumptuous and endless feasts. And, again, the Christian becomes a miserable person if he abandons his proper nourishment, which is the study and practice of spiritual things, to preoccupy himself with unworthy bodily foods and the worship of the stomach, which will be done away with.

  1. Homily on the Nativity.

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