…we always condemn and ban all small talk and jokes.
Why so serious?
It is this chapter which challenges me more personally than any that have gone before. I suspected that ‘obedience’ would be the chapter which cut the deepest but it is here, in the demand of this chapter, that I’m left… silenced. I have been on silent retreat on a number of occasions and always find them very refreshing and beneficial; it’s not the call to silence in this chapter which challenges me rather it’s the call to cut ‘small talk’ and ‘jokes’.
I prefer to be in small groups rather than a room full of people mixing and mingling. I find that shallow introductory conversation when getting to know new people very difficult and scary. I feed off deep and meaningful conversations about the important issues in people’s lives (don’t invite me round for networking events!) Don’t get me wrong, I can do the networking but it drains me of energy very quickly and soon I will be putting my coat on and leaving. When I’m tired, however, and I’m in the company of close friends I settle into ‘banter’, joking comments which stem from a deep knowledge of the people I am around. It is easy to do and, at times, it strengthens and communicates the comfort I feel in the other’s presence but… it also has the potential to damage and hurt.
I have friend who I see less than I like to. We went to college together and, I hope, there’s a respect between us. We both love each other dearly and that is communicated through the jokes we make at the other’s expense. I use the jokes to highlight my knowledge of him and what brings us together. I have made it clear that I enjoy the to and fro of the jibes and we laugh together. The laughter brings us closer, I feel. I was at an event where I had the opportunity to see him again. We hadn’t been together for a long time and it was lovely to see him flourishing. Soon we were sat laughing and joking with each other, ‘ribbing’ each other for the foolish parts of our personalities, etc. It was like we’d never separated. Again, the laughter brought us together but… then the laughter stopped and we parted.
It wasn’t a division as such. There had been no big falling out or argument but when I hadn’t had an opportunity to say goodbye I was left with a feeling of disappointment that I hadn’t chosen my words more carefully and spent the time reconnecting with him on a deeper level. I had decided to spend my time with small talk that, although it didn’t upset him, had not built him up and encouraged him. I’d like to have been able to do that more than share the laughter which didn’t.
Comedy is very weighted towards the negative representation of certain people in order to evoke laughter at them. Comedy has become, or maybe it always was, very aggressive and destructive of others or self. There is an inherency in the bringing out the failings or foolishness of people in comedy, we cannot escape that, but there’s a lot of playing with power that goes into it. When does it go too far? Where is the line? It’s often hard to tell and when you find out you have often just passed it!
The Laughing Church
This may say more about my personal challenge from this chapter but I don’t want to see a community where laughter is not allowed. I suspect this is not what St. Benedict has in mind and the words ‘small talk’ and ‘jokes’ may hold different meanings. There are times, for example, even for more introverted people like myself, for small talk; those conversations which settle people into relationship. It would be tiring to only have deeply intense discussions. Likewise, there are those times when one must laugh at one’s self and allow others to share in the knowledge of our true nature, ‘fools’. There are too many people who are forced to take themselves too seriously, either by our culture or by themselves.
A Benedictine of Saint Cecillia’s Abbey, Ryde, suggests,
St Benedict never intended to banish joy from the monastery. One reason St Benedict may have prohibited a certain kind of laughter is given in the conference on prayer by John Cassian: “For whatever the soul was thinking about before the time of prayer inevitably occurs to us when we pray as a result of the operation of the memory. Hence we must prepare ourselves before the time of prayer to be the prayerful persons we wish to be. For the mind in prayer is shaped by the state that it was previously in, and when we sink into prayer, the image of the same deeds, words, and thoughts plays itself out before our eyes just as they did before, making us angry or sad or causing us to relive foolish laughter” (Conferences 9:3). Both see that a certain frivolity, the kind of laughter that seeks to make a joke of everything, can undermine the spirit of prayer. Nevertheless laughter and good humour have an important place in our community life. And the ability to laugh at oneself is more akin to humility than opposed to it. (A Benedictine of Saint Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, ‘Enlarging the Heart: Daily readings from the Rule of Saint Benedict’, 10th February 2014, http://www.ancilla-domini.org/Benedict.html)
Another friend of mine rightly pointed out that laughter brings people together and the church has a tendency to take itself too seriously and it puts people off. There’s this impression that Christian communities are dower places of sackcloth and ashes; where is the heavenly feast that Jesus inaugurated in the Kingdom of God? I understand the need for wisdom and discernment about the nature and timing of laughter but I think it cannot be cut altogether.
One final story to end on:
At my retreat before I was ordained a priest I went and had some time with a monk. I went to him to seek guidance on some struggles and issues I was having at the time. The emotions and reflections weighed heavy on my mind and heart and I was weeping often and not sleeping well.
I sat down next to him and he gave this big smile to me. He asked me what I wanted to talk about and I began the rant!
I recalled all the painful things people had said to me, the frustrations and disappointments. I told him how unjustly I had been treated and how I was not being listened to or understood. Throughout my long and impassioned speech he continued to smile. Occassionally he nodded and laughed; to be honest it wasn’t the reaction I had expected. Did he not realise the importance and difficulty of the situation? The more I tried to convey how pained I was the more he smiled and laughed. Soon I was laughing with him.
How foolish I was! How seriously I had taken myself! Was it all that bad?
When I had finished he asked me one question,
Have you thought about all that you’ve missed out on whilst worrying about this?
At that moment I realised again what it meant to be free; to live the new life given to us by God’s grace, the life in the light of forgiveness and release from bondages. I looked on this simple monk and he had true joy and there I sat racked with guilt and anger.
I wonder what it might look like to have a spiritual discipline of foolishness. What might the practical work of deconstructing the pompous idols of our own pride through deliberate acts of foolishness? I like my friend’s suggestion that there needs to be more laughter in Christian communities, laughter which disarms and neutralises the those dark arts of anger, resentment and pride. What would a community that takes joy seriously, celebrating freedom to see ourselves as fallible fools and its ok?
Christ of the party, Bring to me and the community of which I am a part a right joy and laughter. Challenge our use of words to encourage one another and bring us to that humble acceptance of our own foolishness. Disarm the anger, disappointments, frustrations and help us to silently smile at the futility of worry and striving.
Come, Lord Jesus.