Immoderate laughter and holiness

The saints rail constantly against immoderate laughter, though to leave it at this almost certainly makes them seem like sanctimonious twits. One approach to seeing the truth of what they’re saying is to see the holy as characterizing a situation or lived space which totally excludes jokes and irony. Flannery O’Connor describes a character recognizing this characteristic of the sacred in The River: 

Bevel rolled his eyes in a comical way and thrust his face, close to the preacher’s. “My name is Bevvvuuuuul,” he said in a loud deep voice and let the tip of his tongue slide across his mouth.

The preacher didn’t smile. His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky. There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and held it tightly. The grin had already disappeared from his face. He had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke. Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke. “My mother named me that,” he said quickly.

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.

In this sense the holy has a strange affinity with the terrible. One of the hardest things to explain to people who didn’t live through September 11th is just how gravely serious the days were after it happened: radio stations that played bubble-gum pop cut all their programming and commercials and just turned into 24 hour reporting stations; late night comedy shows were mothballed for over a week and came back without jokes; football was cancelled on the following Sunday, etc. Everything lighthearted, entertaining, ironic, bawdy, clever, etc. all vanished. It was not so much that it was inappropriate to the time, though it was, but rather that it seemed to entirely lack its proper basis.

The holy and terrible are not dour or stuffy, but they do exist in a space above humor or irony. A partial explanation of this is found in the fact that both transcend normal, familiar categories of human experience since humor – like the sexual personhood that will always be the deepest source of humor – is something peculiar to human personhood.

This might account for the close unity between holiness and dread: it is not a mere recognition of sin, since even if one were sinless he would still feel this peculiar sort of dread in the holy places. The pocket catechism descriptions of the “fear of the Lord” all tend to miss this peculiar sort of dread in the face of the transcendent, and instead miss what fear of the Lord is in a desire to distinguish so called “servile fear” from “filial” fear. Fear of the Lord is the first awakening we have to the transcendent, understood as that place in which what we are doing is not something we can joke about.



  1. December 13, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    I’ve wondered about this for a while. The joy of holy persons rarely seems to descend to comedy. And then I think of G. K. Chesterton’s remarks on the Divine mirth, which although analogized as laughter, nevertheless appears something far deeper and sounder than (though not excluding) both ordinary humor and tragic dumbness.

  2. December 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I think your connection of the moderation of laughter with acknowledging one’s mortality (9-11) and the fear of the Lord is right on, and I especially like the connection with dread and the terrible aspect of the holy. I’ve written along a similar line on immoderate laughter myself:

    On the other hand, of course, the saints are not entirely devoid of humor either (as the qualifier “immoderate” implies). The desert fathers, for example, sometimes played jokes on each other to teach one another humility. And I still can’t help but find comical the progression between Moses and God at the burning bush, which culminates in “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4:14) in response to Moses, when he had run out of excuses, finally begging God to just send someone else besides him to Pharaoh. Perhaps the story isn’t meant to be funny, but there is just something so pitifully human about Moses in it that I can’t see it without some humorous aspect. Maybe that’s just a reflection of my own deficiency, however.

  3. December 18, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I find this a bit off the mark since many Saints also highlighted Joking, laughter and joy.

    I think attitudes of the era influenced the Saints every bit as much as it does us. Even Holy persons made errors of judgement. Moderation and being too serious are a conflation.

    [N.B. I don’t use this email address much]

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