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A Lenten Commentary on Humor, Laughter, and Frivolity

By Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

It seems to me that now, as we begin the journey through the Great Fast towards Holy Pascha, may be an appropriate time to comment on something about which many of you have asked me: the delicate question of the positive nature of humor and laughter and their negative transformation into frivolity.

Let me begin by saying that I am very fond of humor and believe that wholesome laughter is spiritually, psychologically, and even physically healthy. I am, indeed, personally uncomfortable around individuals who lack a sense of humor and who do not laugh. One might respond, with regard to my statement, that many ascetics and holy people have argued that humor and laughter detract one from spiritual sobriety and opine that Christ, the Archetype of the perfected man, never laughed, there being no evidence in Scripture of His having had a sense of humor.

I would respond to this, not by saying that we humans are imperfect or that we should not imitate Christ in our spiritual lives; that would be foolish. We certainly should aspire to perfection in Christ and, of course, emulate His actions, whether we be monastics, clergymen, or lay people. Rather, I would say, first, that we are not Biblical literalists. Simply because some trait or quality in Jesus Christ is not mentioned in Scripture does not mean that it was absent in Him. Unless it is a trait incompatible with His Theanthropic Nature, as Perfect Man and Perfect God, we cannot dismiss qualities in, and behaviors of, Christ simply because we do not read about them in the New Testament. I would also suggest that a sense of humor and laughter are not inherently evil or inconsistent with the Christian view of perfection in Christ. After all, we know of Saints and holy men and women in our own days who were given to refined and delightful humor, and the Holy Fools-for-Christ have often used humor to make known their hidden wisdom.

Secondly, with regard to the witness of ascetics, they constitute a class of remarkable and special individuals, called by Christ and gifted with special Grace, who serve to set the standard of Christian praxis and who, by virtue of the Grace dwelling in them, take solace in Divine comforts and rise above the weaknesses—even the more innocent weaknesses—that mark the majority of us Christians. As well, they see Christ in a higher and more exalted way than we, and are drawn into His Presence, as it were, in a manner that transcends our trifling encounters with Christ. If they opine that Christ never smiled or laughed, or that He did not have a sense of humor, this rises out of the purity of their vision. And while I would not dispute the words of such holy personages, their individual views do not have definitive or dogmatic authority, with regard to Christ as He dwelled on earth; nor, in respecting their words, are we obliged to condemn laughter and humor on this account.

Thus it is that St. John Chrysostomos, in one of his homilies on Hebrews, [2] while doubting that Christ could have laughed during his earthly life, nonetheless tells us that laughter is not evil or harmful (“ou kakon ho gelos”). Indeed, he points out that laughter has been implanted in the us (“enkeitai en hemin”) by God, so that we might with a smile comfort those who are despondent or afraid (“anomen autous to meidiamati”). Further, he tells us that laughter has been so implanted in us that the soul might thereby be given respite at times (“hula anetai pote he psyche”). In other words, laughter can comfort the suffering and can soothe our own souls. However, such is true only when our laughter is not immoderate (“para metron”) or untimely (“akairon”), the Divine Chrysostomos tells us, and when we avoid breaking out in uproarious laughter (“anakanchazomen”) or laughing endlessly (“aei gelomen”) or frivolously.

Here then, St. John the Golden-Mouthed brings us to a crucial distinction between laughter and humor that, as we have observed, can comfort us and others and frivolity—characterized by immoderation out of season—which he tells us to control (“kratoumen autes”). As healthy as humor and laughter in moderation are for us spiritually (when we use them to comfort the distressed), psychologically (as they give respite and comfort to our souls), and physically (since health in the soul promotes health in the body), frivolity, witless laughter, cackling, and the indulgence of humor at the cost of spiritual sobriety are not salutary things. When we look upon the Saints and holy men and women of our day who had a good sense of humor and enjoyed refined comedy, the one thing that characterizes them, above all else, is their corresponding lack of frivolity and silliness. In keeping with St. Paul’s description of the proper Christian, they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (II Corinthians 6:10).

Witless laughter and the frivolity and humor that it spawns, the Divine Chrysostomos tells us, lead to such a deranged state (“paraplexia”) that those who fall to it cannot even be rebuked for their humor. They find even chastisement for their senselessness something humorous. So insidious in his day, St. John tells us, was this silly and fruitless laughter that even in prayer people would cultivate laughter. He observes that daily affairs and polite exchanges were infused with silly laughter. [3] Indeed, as he says in another of his homilies on Hebrews, [4] so mad had people become, that they would laugh at things about which they should actually have sighed (“stenein”). Of such laughter, he reminds us, Christ Himself spoke with this fearful waffling: “Woe to them that laugh, for they shall weep” (St. Luke 6:25).

If all that the Divine Chrysostomos tells us about people, in his times, who exceeded the boundaries of healthful humor and laughter seems hyperbolic, I would ask you to attend to the nature of private and public discourse in our day. I constantly hear telephone conversations in which every comment, whether humorous or not, is either introduced or brought to a close with meaningless laughter and cackling. Face-to-face conversations are likewise peppered with completely inappropriate laughter. And even in instances where humor might properly provoke laughter, the latter is so drawn-out and witless, with long guffaws and cackles, that it obviates further intelligent discourse. Without our noticing it, frivolity has become so much a part of our modem society that people do not respond to serious matters or serious discussions in a mature way. They have become like children on the playground who speak and act in childish ways.

I listened, recently, to an interview (recorded from the Public Broadcasting System) by the “chat host” Charlie Rose with Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of the immensely successful company, Amazon.com. This individual is an exceedingly gifted and bright individual, as well as a potential source of sound and productive advice in a world facing one of the worst economic meltdowns in history. I was dismayed that, in the style of the contemporary interlocution that I have described, throughout this interview, even when discussing important and interesting economic or scientific issues, Mr. Bezos would break into almost uncontrolled laughter, to which his interviewer would respond with equally inordinate laughter. Thus, otherwise cogent observations took on the character of flummery and babble.

What St. John Chrysostomos said to Christians in his own day applies, then, to our era, when we are surrounded by the superficies of a society that cannot respond to the greater issues or ills of human life with instructive or palliative humor. We have placed humor, laughter, and comedy outside the realm of moderation and circumspection, depriving ourselves of a wonderful part of human discourse by abusing it. It behooves us, therefore, almost sixteen centuries after he chastised our Christian forebears, to apply St. John’s chastisements to ourselves and to take care that we do not squander the riches of our Faith on foolishness in the name of humor, allowing giddy, imbecilic behavior to discredit and despoil our witness to our fellow man and to the world. Following the admonition of Scripture, too, let us be “sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience” (St. Titus 2:2), as we appropriately “rejoice with joy unspeakable” (I St. Peter 1:8).

Endnotes

1. This commentary was written by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and distributed to the clergy and faithful of the American Exarchate of our Church at the beginning of Lent, 2009. We have included it in the pages of Orthodox Tradition, feeling it appropriate to a larger audience—Editor.

2. See “Homily XV,” Patrologia Graeca, Vol. LXIII, cols. 12 1-122.

3. “Homily XV,” op. cit.
4. See, “Homily XXIII,” PG., Vol. LXIII, col. 164.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XXVI, No. 2 (2009), pp. 17-20.