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.

Flagellation in Monasteries and Nunneries (George Ryley Scott, 1968)

NOTE: This article is taken from The History of Corporal Punishment, pp. 91-97.

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The story of flagellation is inextricably mixed up with the story of religion. The heads of every religious order existent in ancient days punished severely any breaking of the rules prescribed by their order, whether by the priests, the monks or the nuns associated with it; and the favorite form which this punishment took was that of whipping. The only difference between the judiciary whipping of the vagrants and criminals of the world, and that administered to religious disciples by their superiors, was that while in the one instance it was something to be eluded if at all possible, in the other it was a punishment to be welcomed as a just discipline. So true was this that, as we shall see later, many officials connected with the religious orders inflicted this punishment upon themselves in the form of self-flagellation, as a penance for real or imaginary sins. Especially was this true of the saints and martyrs, with the doings of which the annals of religion are so plentifully besprinkled.

Diana

The early historians are in agreement respecting the custom in many lands of whipping worshippers on certain feast days, and all bear out the fact that these worshippers accepted the punishment resignedly, and that in some cases they even appeared to welcome it—a statement well in accord with the fanaticism on the one hand and the submission on the other hand, which were such marked features of the religious zeal with which followers of all early religious cults were plentifully endowed. Plutarch, referring to the customs of the Lacedaemonians, mentions that as the Feast of Flagellations, held once a year, before the altar of Diana, boys were whipped for hours at a stretch. He says “they suffer it with cheerfulness, and even with joy: nay, they strive with each other for victory; and he who bears up the longest time, and has been able to endure the greatest number of stripes, carries the day.” Other writers, notably Mozonius and Cicero, bear out all this, the latter asserting that “I several times heard it said that boys had been whipped to death.”

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According to Herodotus, at the festival Isis, held each year at Busiris, thousands of people of both sexes “beat one another,” apparently with an industry which well matched their enthusiasm.

There can be little doubt that in all monasteries and nunneries, from the days of their foundation, flagellation was common, so common indeed as to call for little comment in the writings of the earliest of the chroniclers; but, as early as the year 508 there appears to have been a ruling by Saint Cesarius d’Arles definitely prescribing whipping as the form of punishment for nuns failing to observe the regulations of their order. By the eighth century, however, most of the religious orders issued specific rules respecting offences and their punishment.

There was the rule which the Bishop of Usez, Saint Ferreol, made for the prevention and punishment of theft: “let him be chastised with the whip, and with great rigour too. The same punishment ought to be inflicted upon him as upon a fornicator, since it may be justly suspected that his lewdness has induced him to commit theft.” Somewhat similar was the rule of the Bishop of Braga, Saint Fructuosus, for dealing with a liar or a thief: “That if, after being warned by the elder monks he neglects to mend his manners, he shall, on the third time, be exhorted in the presence of all the brethren, to leave off his bad practices. If he still neglects to reform, let him be flagellated with the utmost severity.” Anything in the way of sexual indulgence was looked upon as an even greater crime than theft and the like, as this same Bishop of Braga’s ruling shows: “If a monk is used to tease boys and young men, or is caught in attempting to give them kisses, or in any other indecent action, and the fact be proved by competent witnesses, let him be publicly whipped.” Even to so much as look at a woman was a dangerous practice for a monk in those early days; to speak to one was enough to earn him a mild whipping at any rate; to be alone with one was punished by two hundred lashes or living “on bread and water for two days.”

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Saint Colombanus, Saint Macarius, Saint Benedict, Saint Benoit, Saint Pacome, Saint Aurelian and others, all drew up rules and regulations respecting the punishments to be inflicted for various offences, in some cases stipulating a prescribed number of lashes for the offence in question, in others leaving the severity of the whipping to the discretion of the abbot or superior in charge of the monastery. In addition to the offences already noted, attempts to escape from the monastery, swearing gambling, any indecorous behavior, exhibitions of anger, failure to observe the rules of silence, lewd conversations, immoderate drinking, indulging in noisy conversation or laughter, revealing to outsiders any secrets of the order, and many other piccadilloes, were sufficient to ensure a sound whipping; and any attempts to escape such punishment by the parading of extenuating circumstances or excuses, often merely served to ensure a double dose. In fact here the vindictiveness of the religious leaders showed itself plainly—thus: “If the brothers who have been excommunicated for their faults, persevere so far in their pride as to continue, on the ninth hour of the next day, to refuse to make proper satisfaction to the abbot, let them be confined, even till their death, and lashed with rods.” So literally, indeed, were these orders taken, and so rigorously were they carried out, that it was no uncommon thing for a monk to be whipped to death where he stood, or to die later from the injuries sustained during the chastisement.

In fact, the abuses connected with the administration of the ‘discipline’ caused Cesarius, Bishop of Arles, to remind the abbots and priors that “if the flagellations they inflicted were continued too long upon offenders, so that they died in consequence thereof, they were guilty of homicide.”

St. Caesarius of Arles
St. Caesarius of Arles

Although the Bishop of Arles himself, and certain of his brethren, restricted the number of lashes to that prescribed in the laws of Moses, such restriction was by no means general. According to the author of The History of the Flagellants, not only was “the punishment of flagellation extended to almost every possible offence Monks could commit,” but “the duration of the flagellations was left pretty much to the discretion of the Abbot, either in consequence of the generality of the terms used in the Statutes, or in consequence of some express provision made for that purpose. In the ancient constitutions of the Monastery of Cluny, for instance, which Saint Udalric has collected in one volume, different kinds of offence are mentioned, for the punishment of which it is expressly said, “that the offender shall be lashed as long as the Abbot shall think meet.”

There were two forms of flagellation in use in the monasteries and nunneries, known respectively as the ‘superior discipline’ and the ‘inferior discipline.’ The first named was restricted in its area of application to the upper half of the back and shoulders; the ‘inferior discipline’ was confined to the buttocks and belly. It is worthy of note that the ‘inferior’ form was by far the less dangerous, especially if it was restricted to the fleshy parts of the posterior, well removed from the interior and more vulnerable organs.

The flogging itself was often carried out by the abbot or superior personally, though he had the power of entrusting the work to other hands. The universality of the practice and the anticipation that every monk would be whipped for some offence or other, real or imaginary, are indicated by the custom, in many monasteries, of wearing a special shirt which opened at the back to as to facilitate the uncovering of the lower part of the body in preparation for flagellation. In certain cases the monk to be whipped was compelled to divest himself of all his clothing in preparation for flagellation, which was performed in full view of all the inmates of the monastery. Thus, by order of Pope John XII, a monk named Godescal was publicly whipped, among those present being Bishop Otger and Charles the Bald.

In those days women received little respect, and were looked upon as the property of the men to whom they were given in marriage. It is not to be wondered at therefore that in the convents they were considered to be deserving of no more consideration or respect than were the monks in the monasteries. Flagellation was common in the nunneries, and for the most trivial of offences, such as the conversing about worldy matters, carelessness on the carrying out of their duties, entering the speaking-room without obtaining permission, and the like.

One of the oldest ecclesiastical writers to prescribe the whipping of nuns was Cesarius: “It is just that such as have violated the institutions contained in the rule should receive an adequate discipline; it is fit that in them should be accomplished what the Holy Ghost has in former times prescribed through Solomon.” Saint Benedict similarly says: “If a sister that has been several times admonished, will not mend her conduct, let her be excommunicated for awhile in proportion; if this kind of correction proves useless, let her be chastened by stripes.”

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It was the custom in many nunneries for the abbess or superior to undertake the necessary castigation herself, often in a private room, but sometimes in public. In some convents, however, specially selected members of the order were trained in the art of whipping, and in all such cases the punishment was of a more severe character than where an untrained hand administered the discipline. In some cases the sadistic nature of the flogger led to the devising of special whips for adding to the severity of the punishment, in addition to increased skill in the wielding of the scourge. It is said that one such, Jeanne de France, daughter of Louis XI, with fiendish ingenuity, devised a five-spiked silver cross for attaching to the whip, resulting in each stroke inflicting five terrible wounds.

Sometimes the flagellation, as in the case of the monks, was not looked upon as a punishment at all, but as a pleasure, giving rise to hallucinations, sexual ecstasy and masochistic love of God. Thus the Carmelite nun, Maria Magdalena of Pazzi, who lived in Florence towards the close of the 16th century, found pleasure in being publicly whipped on her naked buttocks. On one occasion she cried: “Enough! Fan no longer the flame that consumes me: this is not the death I long for; it comes with all too much pleasure and delight.” Another similar case was that of Elizabeth of Genton, who, during the flagellation for which she craved, would cry: “O Love, O eternal Love, O Love, O you creatures! Cry out with me: Love, Love!” [See Kraft-Ebing, Psychopathia, Sexualis, English adaptation of the 12th German edition, p. 36 ]. In these, and similar instances, much of the pleasure experienced was undoubtedly due to stimulation of the gluteal glands in individuals whose sexual repressions were of such a nature as to induce pathological conditions. The part which flagellation plays in sex will, however, be made clear in a subsequent chapter.

Not always was the whipping of the nuns carried out by their own sex. It was no unusual thing for the priests of the order to handle the thong themselves, and it was in such instances that so very often there entered into it the sexual element to which I have referred.

Nuns used the whip on the buttocks of the monks; and in turn the monks flagellated the nuns. It was indeed a merry and a libidinous game.

The Jesuits in particular were addicted to whipping. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the order, used the whip himself, and, if historical records are anything to go by, he used it to some tune too. Peter Gerson, not content with flagellating those who came to receive the discipline in the ordinary way, according to Cooper, “fell upon the country girls at work in the fields and flagellated them” [See William M. Cooper, A History of the Rod, 1868, p. 97].

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A peculiar form of flagellation, known as grave-whipping, is referred to by a correspondent in Notes and Queries (March 13, 1852):

“Excommunicated persons were formerly restored to the Church, according to the old Rituale Romanum, by the ceremony of whipping their graves. When it was resolved the dead party should be restored to the communion of saints, it was ordered that the body should not be disentombed, but that the ‘graves shall be whipped, and while the priest whip the grave, he shall say, “By the authority which I have received I free thee from the bond of excommunication, and restore thee to the communion of the faithful.”’”

1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.
1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.

Also see Corrections of a flagellatory kind, inflicted by force, by Bishops and the heads of Monasteries.

Orthodox Church Fathers on Laughter

NOTE: St. John Chrysostom is known as the first to point out that Jesus never laughed. Instead he stressed that Jesus wept twice, once when he beheld Jerusalem, and the second time when Lazarus was raised from the dead. In Chrysostom’s time, at the end of the fourth century AD, there seems to have been a shared opinion among leaders of the Church that laughter challenged virtue and led to laxity. Laughter was conceived of as undermining the very foundations of the ascetic life from which the Christian Church was nourished. As John Chrysostom stressed, the thought of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross ought to quench all laughter, once and for all.

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

The firm stand of ascetic Christianity against laughter was not without precedent. The Pythagoreans boasted that Pythagoras never laughed. For the Essenes, a Jewish group living at the Dead Sea, laughter was reason for punishment: ‘Whoever has guffawed foolishly shall do penance for thirty days.’ In other words, the Christians shared with Greek and Jewish ascetics the ideal of the perfect human who never laughed.

Geronda Joseph (NY)
Geronda Joseph (NY)

Despite the Church Fathers’ best efforts, laughter was never completely shut out of Christian life. We know, for instance, of John Chrysostom’s complaint that his congregation burst out laughing when it should have prayed (Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, XV, 8). Furthermore, the monastic rules against laughter found everywhere in the Christian world indirectly reveal that there still must have been much merriment among the monks; in some cases, laughter might even ‘happen pardonably’. If no one had laughed, there would have been no need for rules against it. Laughing Christians were found within the monk cells and monasteries; jokes even entered the vitae sanctorum, the descriptions of the lives of the saints.

Hieromonk Joseph (TX)
Hieromonk Joseph (TX)

The key to what was regarded as acceptable laughter and joking among Christian monks and virgins seems to be the word ‘pious’: pious laughter expressed spiritual joy, never carnal desires. Laughter could be a sign either of spiritual awareness or of spiritual ruin. The laughter the ideal Christian was repeatedly warned against was the laughter of carnality. Another aspect of Christian laughter was the laughter of spirituality. Spiritual joy could be reflected in a smile. Spiritual laughter was not related to the body; it was seen as a reflection of a Christian soul.

Fr. Alexios (NY)
Fr. Alexios (NY)

St. Pachomius († 348)

Behold the precepts of life that the elders have transmitted.  If during the chanting, the prayers, or the readings, someone talks or laughs, he will untie his girdle instantly and will go before the altar with his head bowed and downfallen arms.  After the father of the monastery had reprehended him there, he will repeat this same penitence in the refectory, when all of the brothers had gathered. (Precept 8)

Each of the chairmen will teach the members of their house how to eat, with discipline and modesty.  If anyone talks or laughs during the meals he will make penance and will be rebuked instantly in his place.  He will stand and will stay standing until some of the other brothers that are sitting stand.   (Precept 31)

†Agios Paxomios2

St. Ephraim the Syrian († 373)

“Laughter and familiarity are the beginning of a soul’s corruption. If you see these in yourself, know that you have come to the depths of evils. Do not cease to pray God that He will deliver you from this death…Laughter removes from us that blessing which is promised to those who mourn (Matt. 5:4) and destroys what has been built up. Laughter offends the Holy Spirit, gives no benefit to the soul and dishonors the body. Laughter drives out virtues, has no remembrance of death or thought of tortures”

†ephraimsyros

St. Basil the Great († 379)

The Christian ‘ought not to indulge in jesting; he ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh-makers’ (On the Perfection of the Life of Solitaries, Letter, 22).

St. Basil prescribed that whoever laughed in the monastery was to be expelled for one week (Epitemia, 7)

https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/on-the-vice-of-laughter-st-basil-the-great/

Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos
Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos

St. John Chrysostom († 407)

Christ was crucified for thy sins and dost thou laugh? (Homilies on Ephesians, XVII)

I do not cease mourning for those who laugh. The present time is the time for mourning and grieving, because we commit many sins in word and deed. But gehenna will receive those who are guilty of such offenses as the above, and likewise the river flowing with a stream of fire, and, hardest of all, loss of the kingdom. With these threats hanging over you, then, do you laugh, and fare sumptuously? Though your Lord is angry and threatening, do you continue to be remiss? Do you not fear lest you may thus kindle for yourself the glowing furnace? [Homilies on John, Homily 60 (John 10.14-21)]

For example; to laugh, to speak jocosely, does not seem an acknowledged sin, but it leads to acknowledged sin. Thus laughter often gives birth to foul discourse, and foul discourse to actions still more foul. Often from words and laughter proceed railing and insult; and from railing and insult, blows and wounds; and from blows and wounds slaughter and murder. (Concerning the Statues, Homily, XV)

When therefore thou seest persons laughing, reflect that those teeth, that grin now, will one day have to sustain that most dreadful wailing and gnashing, and that they will remember this same laugh on That Day whilst they are grinding and gnashing! Then thou too shalt remember this laugh! (Concerning the Statues, Homily, XX)

Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos
Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos

St. Cyril of Alexandria († 444)

Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. From the He pronounces them that weep blessed, and says that they shall laugh. But by those who weep, we say that those are not meant who simply shed tears from their eyes: for this is a thing common to all without exception, whether believers or unbelievers, if ought happen of a painful nature; but those rather who shun a life of merriment and vanity, and carnal pleasures.—For of the one we say, that they live in enjoyment and laughter; whereas believers abandoning luxury and the careless life of carnal pleasures, and all but weeping because of their abhorrence of worldly things, are, our Saviour declares, blessed; and for this reason, as having commanded us to choose poverty, He also crowns with honours the things which necessarily accompany poverty: such, for instance, as the want of things necessary for enjoyment, and the lowness of spirits caused by privation: for it is written, that “many are the “privations of the just, and the Lord shall deliver them out “of them all.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Sermon 28)

St. Cyril of Alexandria
St. Cyril of Alexandria

Gerontikon (5th century)

A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, “We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?”

The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, ‘What does this brother have in his heart that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?’

Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos
Monastic snowball fight, Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos

St. Benedict of Nursia († 543)

‘Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter’ (Rule 4, 52–4).

Sts. John & Barsanuphius #455 (6th century)

Q: What is familiarity and unfitting laughter?

A: Familiarity is of two kinds: one proceeds from shamelessness and is the root of all evils; and the other proceeds from a happy mood, and this latter is not at all profitable for the one who has it. But since only the firm and strong can avoid both of these, while we, because of our infirmity cannot do this, therefore we allow sometimes that familiarity that proceeds from a happy mood, keeping watch lest through it we give a brother an occasion for scandal. Those who are among men, if they are not perfect, cannot yet be delivered from this second kind of familiarity. And if we cannot, then let this serve for us as instruction and not as a scandal, especially when we try to cut short a conversation bound up with this; because loquacity is not very profitable, even though in appearance it might not have in itself anything unbefitting.

The same thing should be said concerning laughter, for it is the offspring (of familiarity). In one to whose familiarity is joined foul language, it is evident that his laughter also will have foulness; but if the familiarity proceeds from a happy mood, it is evident that one’s laughter too will be only a happy one. But just as in general it has been said of familiarity that it is not profitable to have it, so also one should not tarry in laughter and allow oneself freedom, but one should restrain one’s thought so that this laughter should pass without unbefittingness. For let those who allow themselves freedom in this know that from this they will fall into sexual sin.

Saints Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet
Saints Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet

St. John Climacus († 649)

If nothing goes so well with humility as mourning, certainly nothing is so opposed to it as laughter. (Step 7:8)

He who sometimes mourns and sometimes indulges in luxury and laughter is like one who stones the dog of sensuality with bread. In appearance he is driving it away, but in fact he is encouraging it to be constantly with him. (Step 7:14)

I have seen some who, priding themselves on their skill in lying, and exciting laughter by their jests and twaddle, have pitiably destroyed in their hearers the habit of mourning. (Step 12:4)

Crabs are easily caught because they walk sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. So the soul that now laughs, now mourns, now lives in luxury, can make no progress. (Summary # 39)

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St. Isaac the Syrian († 700)

If you are compelled to laugh, do not show your teeth.

He who is fond of laughter and of making a show before men should be no friend of yours, for he will lead you into loose habits. Do not allow your countenance to be glad with joy in the company of a man who has relaxed his discipline; but keep yourself from despising him.

St. John Damascene († 749)

A dispersed and dissipated intellect given to frivolous talk and foul language produces many vices and sins. Laughter and loose, immodest speech also lead to sin. (On the Virtues and Vices)

St Symeon Metaphrastis Paraphrase of the Homilies Of St Makarios of Egypt (10th century)

The signs that accompany those who are not producing the fruit of life are listlessness, day-dreaming, curiosity, lack of attention, grumbling, instability; and in their actions they manifest gluttony, anger, wrath, back-biting, conceit, untimely talk, unbelief, disorderliness, forgetfulness, unrest, sordid greed, avarice, envy, factiousness, contempt, garrulity, senseless laughter, willfulness and – the sum of all – darkness, which is Satan. (Patient Endurance and Discrimination, III:3)

St. Anthony’s Monastery Rules for Visitors

Loud talking and laughing are always inappropriate.

Χαράλαμπος ηγούμενος Διονυσίου, Εφραίμ προηγούμενος Φιλοθέου, Ιωσήφ μοναχός Βατοπαιδινός στη Νέα Σκήτη (φωτ. 1966)
Χαράλαμπος ηγούμενος Διονυσίου, Εφραίμ προηγούμενος Φιλοθέου, Ιωσήφ μοναχός Βατοπαιδινός στη Νέα Σκήτη (φωτ. 1966)

On Laughter (St. Clement of Alexandria, 198 )

NOTE: This article is taken from The Paedagogus, Book II, Chapter 5, written in 198 AD:

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People who are imitators of ludicrous sensations, or rather of such as deserve derision, are to be driven from our polity [or society].

For since all forms of speech flow from mind and manners, ludicrous expressions could not be uttered, did they not proceed from ludicrous practices. For the saying, “It is not a good tree which produces corrupt fruit, nor a corrupt tree which produces good fruit,”1 is to be applied in this case. For speech is the fruit of the mind. If, then, wags are to be ejected from our society, we ourselves must by no manner of means be allowed to stir up laughter. For it were absurd to be found imitators of things of which we are prohibited to be listeners; and still more absurd for a man to set about making himself a laughing-stock, that is, the butt of insult and derision. For if we could not endure to make a ridiculous figure, such as we see some do in processions, how could we with any propriety bear to have the inner man made a ridiculous figure of, and that to one’s face? Wherefore we ought never of our own accord to assume a ludicrous character. And how, then, can we devote ourselves to being and appearing ridiculous in our conversation, thereby travestying speech, which is the most precious of all human endowments? It is therefore disgraceful to set one’s self to do this; since the conversation of wags of this description is not fit for our ears, inasmuch as by the very expressions used it familiarizes us with shameful actions.

Pleasantry is allowable, not waggery. Besides, even laughter must be kept in check; for when given vent to in the right manner it indicates orderliness, but when it issues differently it shows a want of restraint.

For, in a word, whatever things are natural to men we must not eradicate from them, but rather impose on them limits and suitable times. For man is not to laugh on all occasions because he is a laughing animal, any more than the horse neighs on all occasions because he is a neighing animal. But as rational beings, we are to regulate ourselves suitably, harmoniously relaxing the austerity and over-tension of our serious pursuits, not inharmoniously breaking them up altogether.

For the seemly relaxation of the countenance in a harmonious manner—as of a musical instrument—is called a smile. So also is laughter on the face of well-regulated men termed. But the discordant relaxation of countenance in the case of women is called a giggle, and is meretricious laughter; in the case of men, a guffaw, and is savage and insulting laughter. “A fool raises his voice in laughter,”2 says the Scripture; but a clever man smiles almost imperceptibly. The clever man in this case he calls wise, inasmuch as he is differently affected from the fool. But, on the other hand, one needs not be gloomy, only grave. For I certainly prefer a man to smile who has a stern countenance than the reverse; for so his laughter will be less apt to become the object of ridicule.

Smiling even requires to be made the subject of discipline. If it is at what is disgraceful, we ought to blush rather than smile, lest we seem to take pleasure in it by sympathy; if at what is painful, it is fitting to look sad rather than to seem pleased. For to do the former is a sign of rational human thought; the other infers suspicion of cruelty.

We are not to laugh perpetually, for that is going beyond bounds; nor in the presence of elderly persons, or others worthy of respect, unless they indulge in pleasantry for our amusement. Nor are we to laugh before all and sundry, nor in every place, nor to everyone, nor about everything. For to children and women especially laughter is the cause of slipping into scandal. And even to appear stern serves to keep those about us at their distance. For gravity can ward off the approaches of licentiousness by a mere look. All senseless people, to speak in a word, wine

“Commands both to laugh luxuriously and to dance,” changing effeminate manners to softness. We must consider, too, how consequently freedom of speech leads impropriety on to filthy speaking.

“And he uttered a word which had been better unsaid.”3

Especially, therefore, in liquor crafty men’s characters are wont to be seen through, stripped as they are of their mask through the caitiff licence of intoxication, through which reason, weighed down in the soul itself by drunkenness, is lulled to sleep, and unruly passions are roused, which overmaster the feebleness of the mind.

  1. vii. 18; Luke vi. 43.
  2. xxi. 20.
  3. Odyss., xiv. 463–466.

Concerning the Fact That Christians Should in General Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

In Christian Morality, there are two discourses which intensely focus on dance – “Discourse II:  Concerning the Fact That Christians Should in General Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing” and “Discourse III:  Concerning the Fact That Christians Should Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing at Weddings.”

nikodemos the hagiorite christian morality

In Discourse II, St Nikodemos the Hagiorite begins with Isaiah 5:11-14.  Dance is not isolated but placed in the following context:

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Behold what piteous cries the Almighty utters in deploring all who play instruments, all who dance, all who sing.  Woe, He says, and alas for those who rise from sleep in the morning to run to drink raki.  Woe to those who linger in taverns until the evening, for wine and raki will inflame them.  These people drink wine to the accompaniment of harps, zithers, drums, and flutes, but have no desire to pay heed to the commandments of the Lord; nor do they wish to give any thought to the works of God.  For this reason ‘My people will be enslaved, and many of them will die from hunger and thirst; for they neither know nor fear the Lord, and Hades has opened its mouth wide to receive them.’ {p 35}

Tupan, Tapan, Davul, Daouli is the two headed drum. The daouli player usually hangs the drum from a belt or strap over his left shoulder.
Tupan, Tapan, Davul, Daouli is the two headed drum. The daouli player usually hangs the drum from a belt or strap over his left shoulder.

The translators (Hieromonk Patapios, Monk Chrysostomos and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna) included the following explanatory footnote:

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… it is important to note that in all of the passages that he cites from St. John Chrysostomos and other Church Fathers, it is not music as such that it is so harshly censured, and certainly not what would today be considered “classical” or “serious” music, but rather a more popular or vulgar kind of instrumental music that was typically played by persons of rather loose morals in socio-cultural contexts characterized by egregious improbity.  Such “vehemence against instrumental musicians is primarily explained by the association of musical instruments with sexual license, luxurious banquets, and the immorality of the theater” (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol II, s.v. “Musicians”). {p 36}

Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians. It is written that as the musicians played at her wedding she "sang in her heart to the Lord".
Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians. It is written that as the musicians played at her wedding she “sang in her heart to the Lord”.

St Nikodemus outlines the “evils” caused by musical instruments and dances – idolatry (Exodus 32), perjury and cursing (Judges 20:47; 21:18, 20-21), bloodshed and murders (Matthew 14).  He further points out:

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And what other evil, my beloved, is not caused by dances, instruments, and songs?  By these are engendered adornment and beautification of the body, for those who go to the dance and sing, be they men or women, first adorn and bedeck the body with bright clothing and jewelry and then go forth.  By these are engendered the application of musk oils and other perfumes; by these are engendered disorderly and indecent sights of the eyes; by these are occasioned whorish sounds in the ears; by these are engendered shameful talk, jesting, and unseemly laughter, postures, and movements; by these are engendered carnal lusts and fornications and adulteries that arise in the heart (cf. Matthew 5:28). {p 38-39}

Opposite from the Magi sits a young shepherd boy plays music for his flock (Nativity icon detail).
Opposite from the Magi sits a young shepherd boy plays music for his flock (Nativity icon detail).

St Nikodemos goes even further in raising the bar (before beginning Discourse III regarding weddings):

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Now, what do some people say?  “All right, on other days one should not play instruments, dance, or sing.  But when there is a feast and a celebration, when Pascha comes and the days of Bright Week? What about Meatfare?  How, at those times, are we to display our joy? …”  But listen … feasts and celebrations of Saints are held for no other purpose than for Christians to assemble thereon, to hear the exploits of the Saints being celebrated, and as far as possible, to emulate the Saints themselves, and thereby receive piety in their souls, and in their lives amendment and rectitude. …

Likewise, Pascha and Bright Week are celebrated in order that Christians might be reminded that the Son of God, by His Passion, Cross, death and Holy Resurrection, redeemed them from the hands of the Devil, delivered them from Hades, freed them from death, and granted them resurrection and the Heavenly Kingdom; and that for all of these benefactions and favors they might thus be thankful to Christ, Who suffered, was crucified, died, and rose out of love for them. {p. 43-45}

An ancient Greek lyre.
An ancient Greek lyre.

Recalling the words of the Prophet Amos, St Nikodemos warns Christians:

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…so you, by your instruments, dances, songs, carousals, brawls, and fights, and the other evils that you commit on Feast Days and Pascha, compel God to cry out that He loathes and no longer desires such celebrations and that He abhors such feasts [Amos 5:21].

If God, on account of the sins of the Hebrews, hated and no longer wished to listen to the Divine songs that they chanted and the sacred instruments that they played in His Temple, and in spite of the fact that they chanted those songs and played those instruments to the glory, honor, and majesty of His Holy Name on Feast Days – for He says:  “Remove from me the sound of thy songs, and I will not hear the music of thine instruments” (Amos 5:23) – if, I say, He loathed those things, how much more, and incomparably more, does He loathe and abhor the diabolical instruments that you Christians play on Feasts, not to the glory of God, but to the glory, honor, and pomp of Satan? {p 47-48}russian-bellringers

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My Christian brothers and sisters, do you wish truly to rejoice and be glad on Feast Days, on Pascha, and in the pre-Lenten periods?  Do not play instruments; do not dance; do not sing songs.  No, rather chant some Troparion or hymn that you know, to Christ or the Panagia.  Chant “Christ is risen”; chant “The Angel cried” or “It is truly meet.”  Thus does the Apostle James enjoin Christians to do, saying:  “Is any merry? let him sing psalms (James 5:13).”  That is, whoever has joy and a happy heart, let him sing a psalm, not a song.  If you act in this way, God blesses your table; if you act in this way, the Angels of God stand beside you and guard you.  If you act in this way, your eating and drinking, your observances of Feasts and pre-Lenten periods, are all done to the glory of God, as befits Christians and as the Divine Paul enjoins, saying:  “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

Regarding Discourse III:  “Concerning the Fact That Christians Should Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing at Weddings,” St Nikodemos begins based on the words of St Paul (cf. Hebrews 13:4).  St Nikodemos writes:

 

Fr. Taxiarches (TX) hitting the Talanton with a Athonite rhythm.
Fr. Taxiarches (TX) hitting the Talanton with a Athonite rhythm.

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[St Paul] also taught us that Christian weddings should not be characterized by any disorderliness or impropriety, but should be dignified, orderly, and honorable, and not honorable in a general sense, but in every way. …Let marriage be honorable in all, not just at one time, but at all times:  before the couple are blessed, when they are being blessed, and after they have been blessed.  Let marriage be honorable in all, not in only one way, nor in only one place, but in all ways and places:  in food, in drink, in clothing, in Church, in the home, at the table, and everywhere. [p 59]

And David and the children of Israel [were] playing before the Lord on well-tuned instruments mightily, and with songs, and with harps, and with lutes, and with drums, and with cymbals, and with pipes. (II Sam. 6:5)
And David and the children of Israel [were] playing before the Lord on well-tuned instruments mightily, and with songs, and with harps, and with lutes, and with drums, and with cymbals, and with pipes. (II Sam. 6:5)
St Nikodemos cites three reasons the Church calls marriage a “Mystery”:

  1. because of the unity in love of the souls of a man and a woman;
  2. because marriage is a type of the spiritual union of Christ with the Church…
  3. because marriage contains Divine Grace within it, as do the other Mysteries. [p 60]

and outlines how “instruments and dances are contrary to the properties that characterize the Mystery of marriage.” 

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Now, if it were perhaps good and lawful to play instruments, dance and sing at Matrimony, which is one of the seven mysteries, one must be permitted to play these, to dance, and to sing songs also at Baptisms, Chrismations, Ordinations, and the other mysteries. But because Christians play instruments, dance and sing neither when they are baptized, nor when they are chrismated, nor when they commune, nor when they receive priesthood, nor when they confess their sins, nor when they are anointed with oil, therefore, when they are married, likewise, they must neither play instruments, dance, nor sing songs. For, if instruments were to be played and dances and songs were to take place at weddings, then it would be necessity follow either tht Matrimony is not a mystery like the other six or that playing instruments, dancing, and singing would have to take place also at the other six Mysteries, since all the Mysteries are alike. Therefore, it does not behoove Christians to play instruments, dance or sing songs at weddings. (p. 64-65)

Fr. Nektarios Moulatsiotis ("Free Monks" pop music band)
Fr. Nektarios Moulatsiotis (“Free Monks” pop music band)

After discussing the use of the crown in the “marriage” service, St Nikodemos states: 

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So now I ask you, my Christian brothers and sisters, to tell me the truth:  Is it right for a couple that is blessed and crowned in marriage… to arrange for music, dancing, and singing at their wedding?  Are they justified, who have heard such blessings, such holy words from the Priests who blessed them, in sullying their ears once more with unclean and indecent songs?  Is it right for them, after they have stood in the Holy Church of God and sanctified their feet, to defile them again with diabolical dancing?  In a word, is it right for them, having communed that same day of the Immaculate Mysteries, not to keep pure all of their bodily senses and all of the senses and powers of the soul, for the sake of the joy, the honor, and the sanctification that they have received?  Again, is it right for them to see the immodest sights of musical performances, dancing, and other improprieties, or to do anything immodest at all? [p 70]

Instead, St Nikodemos exhorts Christians to follow the guidance from the Sixth Ecumenical Synod in Laodicea which “enjoins them to lunch or dine on these occasions with decorum and propriety.”

In addition to Old Testament references, St Nikodemos expounds upon the raising of Jairus’ daughter to explain further the reasons behind the prohibition:

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Follow me, and let us go to Jerusalem.  Have you arrived?  It was here that a young girl died, and her father, who was called Jairus, came to Jesus, beseeching Him woefully to go to his house and resurrect her.  The most compassionate Jesus Christ, showing sympathy for his affliction and plight, went to the house.  However, He saw great commotion there and the flutist playing their flutes and pipes, not in order to bring joy, but to arouse grief by the dirges that they were playing; for the historian Josephus says that it was the custom at that time for the Hebrews to summon musicians to their dead in order to play dirges and thereby to move people to tears.  St John Chrysostomos says the same thing in his interpretation on the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew [Homily XXXI].  When He saw them, the Lord did not wish to enter Jairus’ house; no.  He bade everyone to go outside.  After they had left, it was then that He entered the house and, taking the girl by the hand, immediately raised her up by the almighty power of His Divinity… [p 75]

"and when they raised their voice together with trumpets and cymbals, and instruments of music, and said, Give thanks to the Lord, for [it is] good, for his mercy [endures] for ever:-- then the house was filled with the cloud of the glory of the Lord" (II Chronicles 5:13)
“and when they raised their voice together with trumpets and cymbals, and instruments of music, and said, Give thanks to the Lord, for [it is] good, for his mercy [endures] for ever:– then the house was filled with the cloud of the glory of the Lord” (II Chronicles 5:13)
At this point let each person reflect on the difference between the flute-players and musicians at today’s weddings and those of olden times.  For the latter played in order to stir up laments, sights, and tears, which are not harmful to the soul, but actually beneficial.  Today’s musicians play at weddings in order to provoke joy, laughter, dancing, and singing, which are harmful and injurious to the soul.  Those of olden times, when they played their instruments made the house in which they were playing a house of mourning and grief.  When today’s musicians play, they make the house in which they play a house of inebriation and sin. … As Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the banquet house” [ Ecclesiastes 7:2].  All of this notwithstanding, our Lord did not enter even into the house in which those musicians were playing; it was, rather, after they departed that He entered … [p 76]

Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp. Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ.  Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals. (Psalm 150: 3-5)
Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp. Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ. Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals. (Psalm 150: 3-5)

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.

basil1

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)