The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter (VII:13)

7 Feb. 8 June. 8 Oct.
The tenth degree of humility is, that he be not easily moved and prompt to laughter; because it is written: “The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter.”

Who is the fool who “lifteth up his voice in laughter”? It is the fool of Psalm 13:1: “The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God.” The laughter of the godless fool is hollow and harsh. It is a laughter devoid of joy, of sweetness, and of modesty. It sounds like the artificial laughter that associate with inane television comedy of the lowest sort. This is the sort of laughter that Saint Benedict condemns.

A superficial hearing of the tenth degree of humility might suggest that Saint Benedict was opposed to good cheer and to mirth. On the contrary, Saint Benedict wants his monks to have good cheer for, as he says in Chapter V, obedience “ought to be given by disciples with a good will, because ‘God loveth a cheerful giver.'” And in Chapter XLIX, he says that a monk’s Lenten offerings ought to be made “with joy of the Holy Spirit.” The tenth degree of humility is directly related to the 20th instrument of good works in Chapter IV: “To become a stranger to worldly deeds.” Worldly deeds includes laughing as the world laughs, laughing when the world laughs, laughing at the things the world finds risible. You know the words of Our Lord:

Amen, amen I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labour, hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she hath brought forth the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you. And in that day you shall not ask me any thing. Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full. (John 16:20–25)

The gentle, modest laughter of a true monk is a beautiful thing. It is like the laughter of a little child or of a very old man. It is a quiet laughter in which there is no bitterness. It is a sweet laughter that passes like a refreshing ripple in the silence of the monastery; it causes neither disorder nor annoyance. It is a comfort to the disconsolate and an antidote to the grim seriousness of the perfectionist who would, if he had his way, prefer to see the faces of his brethren mirror the dour expression of his own. A joyful countenance is a precious gift to one’s brethren. The brother who goes about with a frown and whose very presence is heavy with gloom injures the whole community. It was said of Saint Anthony of Egypt:

As his soul was free from disturbances, his outward appearance was calm; so from the joy of his soul he possessed a cheerful countenance, and from his bodily movements could be perceived the condition of his soul, as it is written, ‘When the heart is merry the countenance is cheerful, but when it is sorrowful it is cast down’. (Proverbs 15:13)

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