A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

Reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I came across the following:

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?’

While this probably strikes most as curmudgeonly, for us Christians, a reference to the Last Judgment ought to inspire sober reflection. How appropriate is frivolity given the desperate spiritual state within which we find ourselves—and the world at large?

The monastic rule of life, while at once being a model for all Christians, is still in many respects different from the rule of Christians living in the world. One assumes that, had the hermit seen a mother’s joyful laughter at her one year old child, he wouldn’t rebuke her as he did a fellow monk who was neglecting prayer. The distinctness of the vocations must be kept in mind.

Nevertheless, consider the degree of frivolity and lack of seriousness that is fostered by a culture (and economy) fueled largely by entertainment; often entertainment experienced on devices whose primary function is distraction. Not all of it, of course, is the sort of distraction that provokes laughter, but most of it leads to forgetfulness regarding our salvation. Consider the degree to which we all—not least of all, myself—busy ourselves with trivial matters that distract us from our dire, spiritual circumstances.

When I take a step back and examine our culture from this perspective, it’s staggering. We need to both hear and take seriously—though not make an absolute rule—the words of this hermit, rather than making excuses. When we examine ourselves honestly, and focus less on self-justification, we are well served. Like all aspects of Orthodox spirituality, there is a delicate balance involving ascetic self-control, as all sins in scripture are characterized by excess: gluttony, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and other uncontrolled urges.

Such warnings aren’t unique to this desert father, but are rather a steady drumbeat within our Orthodox spiritual tradition. Laughter is often associated with the passions, a forgetfulness of death, and a neglectful spirit towards prayer.

While it’s easy to imagine Jesus smiling on regular occasions, and while certain sayings might have had a twinge of humor to them (I’ve heard many claim as much, at least), our Lord is never shown in the Gospels as having laughed—and yet, he is recorded as having wept. The same goes for the Theotokos and St. John the Forerunner. Indeed, Our Lord even uttered: “woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). There’s probably something to this.

All that being said, it’s also true that there is “a time for every matter under heaven,” including “a time to laugh” (cf. Eccl. 3:1—8). In addition to a mother’s mirth at her child, we can also use humor to comfort those who are in pain or spiritually weary. There are even “Fools for Christ” who use it as a means by which to disguise their own virtues.

I fear, however—and I know this to be true for myself—that most of the laughter we indulge as a culture is of the distinctly immoderate and even useless variety, inspired by a felt need for distraction from our spiritual reality. When we begin to ponder the seriousness of what we say, what we teach, how little we pray, or how much we think about the shortcomings of others, Satan will always find a way to distract us through entertainment and other vices of the modern world.

There is nothing more serious in our lives than salvation. And yet, when fully affected, our salvation and spiritual journey can be an incessant, permanent joy—even amidst all the sin, sorrow, and death in this present, evil age. We must drink deeply of that joy, delighting in God and His goodness, allowing it to fully permeate our lives. And we must be careful not to confuse it with fallen, counterfeit ways of being, which often lead us to forgetfulness of God and His desire to be in fellowship with us.

Comments

  1. Fr. Timothy Cremeens says

    It is hard work trying to walk the line between soberness and frivolity. However, if it were not for a good laugh every once and a while, my grip on sanity would be less secure (it is questionable whether I have a secure grip to begin with). As one version Proverbs 17:22 says: “Laughter does the heart good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

    • says

      Father Timothy, this says what was in my thoughts as well. While I agree with the need to be serious concerning our salvation (thank you for the reminder, Nathan), as a believer working through a multitude of health issues, the fact that my husband can still make me laugh is a blessing beyond measure.

      • says

        Making others laugh is a great gift, too. I always try to brighten people’s days when I can. But for my own spiritual benefit, I have to try and remember to be serious when it really counts. That’s why I’m thankful for Nathan’s reminder!

      • says

        Hey Susan,

        I think that Christian spouses using humor to help each other is a beautiful example of when laughter can be healing and good, definitely. Thank you for the reminder.

        In any case, I consciously wanted to emphasize the negative side of laughter, humor, and distraction because of how radically our culture endorses extended states of frivolity and escapism that are very harmful.

        Nate

        • says

          Yes, Nathan, my response was subjective, and I definitely agree with the need for us as a culture to move away from “Amusing Ourselves to Death” as put so aptly by author Neil Postman (hard to believe that was first published almost 30 years ago).

  2. Beardless John,Military Hermit of the High Desert says

    Given the Spirit of the Church, inspiring the Fathers throughout the ages, I doubt Jesus said anything which was inteded to make His audience laugh. To me, it seems that would be indulging in His listeners’ pride, which is highly dubious. There are times where it seems that He may be using a play on words or bitter sarcasm to make His point, but these were for convicting effect, not for laughter. I am sure He laughed a lot, though, when He was around children. You can see how much their simplicity pleased Him, not only in His injunction that we become as innocent as them, but also in the lives of saints like Elder Paisios, who both wept much and laughed much, yet from simplicity of heart and not frivolity. Great article, Nathan!

  3. Karen says

    The point of this post is well-taken and I wouldn’t in any way seek to undermine it. The monk’s advice pertains to frivolous laughter that serves only to distract from the “one thing needful.” It does not refer to the laughter which is the fruit of true joy and a taste of the Kingdom, the laughter that “doeth good like a medicine.”

    On the subject of the laughter that shall be characteristic of the Kingdom, though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:

    http://byztex.blogspot.com/2014/06/what-photo.html

  4. Eleni says

    Nathan,
    This article is so much appreciated! I took your article to be reminded about distractions and how much or how little time should be spent online – such a distraction – in keeping with being accountable for our time on Earth. Without online, I couldn’t have read this, so am grateful.