Saturday, June 27, 2020


Against Monastic Laughter

G.G. Coulton, Five Centuries of Religion, Vol. I (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1929), pp. 470-471:
Laughter, again, was reprobated from Vitaspatrum onwards. Abbé J.-B. Thiers scarcely exaggerated when he wrote in 1686: "Les pères des monastères semblent avoir absolument interdit le ris aux Religieux et aux Religieuses." St Bernard echoes St John Chrysostom; Christ, (he says) is recorded to have wept for Lazarus, to have wept for Jerusalem, but never to have laughed (In Adv. Serm. iv, § 7). St Basil had put it almost as emphatically as Chrysostom: "Seeing that the Lord condemneth those who laugh in this life, it is very plain that the faithful hath no occasion to laugh, and especially among so great a multitude of those who dishonour God by transgressing His law and die in their sins; over whom we ought to mourn and groan." St Benedict stated it more moderately in his Rule (ch. iv, §§ 54-5; vii, 10): the monk is "not to speak idle words, or such as are apt to laughter, nor to love much or uncontrolled laughter"; he must not be "easy or prompt to laugh; for it is written. 'the fool raiseth his voice in laughter.' Medieval commentators, though they point out that this does not forbid laughter altogether, are practically unanimous in interpreting these sentences in what would be called a distinctly Puritan sense; this may be verified from the quotations collected by Martène for those two passages, and in P.L. vol. 103, col. 823 notes. Turrecremata, who is perhaps the most lenient of the commentators, quotes not only Christ's example, but His words, "Woe unto you who laugh" (Comment., on ch. iv, §§ 54-5). Herolt tells us of a monk to whom a foretaste of purgatorial experience had been vouchsafed in his lifetime, and who, "when he saw any young monk laughing immoderately, or indulging in any other frivolity, was frequently wont to cry out, 'O! if thou knewest how bitter pains are due unto thee for these levities, thou wouldst perchance correct these thy frivolous ways'" (Ex. P. 90). Compare also the Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony, who gives the same quotations from Chrysostom and Basil, "especially considering the great multitude of men who die in their sins, and for whom we ought to mourn as Christ did" (Vita Jesu Xti, pars. 1, c. 33 Q). We have seen how even St Francis's joy seldom admitted actual laughter; nor is there anything to differentiate the angelica hilaritas of Thomas à Kempis from the spiritual serenity which was quite common among seventeenth-century puritans and in the Clapham School, and most of all among the Quakers.

For other sentences against monastic laughter, see Benedict of Aniane's Concordia Regularum, P.L. vol. 103, col. 823, and Abbot Autpert in P.L. vol. 40, col. 1101.
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