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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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”
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)
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)
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)
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?’
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.
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)
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.