|From The Laws of Hywel Dda, illustrated by a 14c Welsh monk|
(53) Not to love excessive talking.
(54) Not to speak useless words and words that provoke laughter.
(55) Not to love unrestrained or raucous laughter.
I almost never regret keeping my mouth shut, but I frequently regret opening it. And when the time comes for an apology, it’s sad how often I here myself saying, “Gosh, I was only joking.” Saint Benedict wants his monks to be very careful with their sense of humor. Laughter can be life-affirming, but it can also break people down, filling their heads with vulgar or cruel images.
Take my college roommates, for example. For two years, I lived in a house with seven other rugby players. We teased one another constantly, and that was okay because, frankly, it was part of the fun of living with seven rugby players. If any one of us said, did, or implied anything even slightly embarrassing, he could expect to become the butt of every joke in the house. Those were the rules, and we all understood them. It was practically on the lease.
One of the guys (his last name was Ackerman, so we all called him “Ack”) had a habit of posting little signs everywhere. It was funny because he was 6’6” and 280lbs., but he was also kind of a neat freak. The signs said things like “Please wash your coffee mugs and return them to the cupboard” and “Don’t forget to take the lint out of the dryer when you’re finished.” As you can imagine, no one obeyed the signs. In fact, I don’t think we even noticed they were there at first; but pretty soon we started to put up little signs of our own saying things like, “Remember to recycle your earwax” and “Please do not eat the socks.” Then we started leaving little notes for one another with messages like, “Rudy, I cooked your cat. Leftovers in the fridge” and “Will, your sister called. She wants her Barbies back.” Someone left a note by the phone that just said, “Ack”. Then someone else wrote underneath it, “your mom” and later, someone else came along and wrote “is dead” underneath it. What none of us knew was that Ack’s mother had gone to the emergency room earlier that week with chest pains, so when Ack came home and saw the message, he panicked. He was half way to the hospital before he realized it was a joke.
That was the end of the funny signs. And it might have been the end of all seven roommates if Ack hadn’t been such a nice guy.
You see, there is a line that can be crossed, and it is often difficult to know exactly where that line is. The funniest jokes, after all, are those that come right up to the line of impropriety without actually crossing it. This is why—and here’s the serious part—you really need to make sure you know who you’re teasing and how they’ll take it.
Now, I’m pretty sure Saint Benedict had a sense of humor. I can’t imagine how anyone could survive the monastic life without one. What’s more, teasing tends to be the way young people show affection to one another. But—and here’s my point—you need to be very careful when you tease people. Because humor, like any powerful tool, can be dangerous. And often, you can’t really know for sure what is in another man’s heart; so just because your friend is laughing along, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s feeling alright.7
But here’s one last reason to think twice before you tell a joke: unrestrained or raucous laughter, excessive talking, and vulgar or wicked words get in the way of silence. And silence, you will recall, is the first language of God.