A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Monastery

Lines from an Old Testament Sabbath Day song, “In old age [the righteous] still produce fruit, still green, still full of sap”(Psalm 92:14), inspired Father Kilian McDonnell, CSB, to write the poem “Retirement Home Chapel.

Lines from an Old Testament Sabbath Day song, “In old age [the righteous] still produce fruit, still green, still full of sap”(Psalm 92:14), inspired Father Kilian McDonnell, CSB, to write the poem “Retirement Home Chapel.” It is difficult to read it with a sober face:

God lives down the corridor
last door on the left. At five
we bring the wine pressed

from eighty or ninety years
of blazing mediocrity
and small victories.

For bread, the mud cakes
of our days, carefully baked
in minor treacheries.

These gifts we lay upon the altar
and see God bending over
our small mess with infinite delight.

The poet, a devout 91-year-old Benedictine with a generous sense of humor, is one of 23 monks and 13 nuns I interviewed to pursue the question: “Do monastics have a sense of humor?”

For decades I have explored the meaning of humor in our lives, including how humor and spirituality intersect. I have also been intrigued by the humor, or lack thereof, in Mennonite churches, communities and institutions. As a participant in Bridgefolk, where Catholics and Mennonites come together to celebrate each other’s faith traditions and spiritual practices, my curiosity was piqued concerning Catholics choosing a religious vocation.

Do monks and sisters really have a sense of humor? Do they perceive God to have a sense of humor, a sense of delight or playfulness?

One current Catholic writer, Father James Martin, SJ, in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth,contends that “few people would argue with the proposition that a sense of humor is a necessary part of being a fully alive, emotionally mature, psychologically healthy human being” (5).

Another high-profile Catholic, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, exhibits a great sense of humor. The archbishop joined Stephen Colbert, popular host of Comedy Central’s“The Colbert Report,”for an evening’s dialogue about humor, joy, faith and the spiritual life. (6)

Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, CSJ, wrote Jiggle Your Heart and Tickle Your Soul, in which she promotes the use of joy and laughter to attain health and happiness. At least these Catholics are not humorless.

My personal quest led me to a Benedictine monastery, where I was invited to live on campus four months as a resident scholar. In keeping with the centuries-old gift of hospitality, the monastery offered me the privilege of interview access to its residents, as well as to sisters at a nearby monastery.

Using two 12-question surveys, I set out in my first project to compare each participant’s memories of humor elements in childhood and adolescence to their humor quotient as an adult.

My second project was a qualitative study, using interviews for responses on six questions from 23 monks and 13 sisters:

  • Do monks and sisters have a sense of humor?
  • Do monks and sisters perceive God to have a sense of humor?
  • Is humor involved as one relates to a divine being in one’s spirituality?
  • Does humor play a role in relationships “behind the walls” of monasteries?
  • Do monks and sisters think it appropriate to use humor in homilies?
  • What did St. Benedict mean when he wrote, “You are not to be given to much laughter”?

Younger years compared to adult years

For my first project, I provided participants two questionnaires to complete prior to our interview. The Childhood Humor Survey (CHS) was an indicator of remembrance from younger years, while the Adult Humor Survey (AHS) elicited current adult responses to humor.

Respondents were asked to estimate agreement or disagreement with a range from 1 to 5. The results give a ballpark indication of how much “permission to participate in humor events” existed in childhood/adolescent years, along with humor indications for the participant’s current understanding of humor.

Sample CHSquestions included: My household enjoyed harmless practical jokes. Meal times were fun times at our home. Did you have a pet? Was there a sense of optimism in your home?

The AHS is designed to estimate one’s current appreciation of humor and participation in humor events. Sample questions include: I laugh out loud at funny movies, and I enjoy a good joke, either telling it or responding to it. Total scores can range from 12 to 60, indicating one’s current willingness to participate in humor events, enjoy humor, or enjoy laughter.

In workshop settings over the past 20 years I have administered these two surveys to nearly 3000 people. With rare exceptions, persons will have lower scores on theCHSthan the AHS.

For the sisters in this study, the average CHS score was 43, while their AHS average was 50. The results fit the pattern I have seen over the years—lower scores in younger years, higher scores for adult years.

For the monks I interviewed, the average for the CHS was 47, with the AHS score average dropping to 45. For scores to go downward from adolescent to adult years has been rare in my previous research.

It is tempting to speculate on why the sisters’ scores increased and the monks’ scores decreased. One explanation can be garnered from the interviews I subsequently conducted with them. Many sisters (most of whom are now in their late 70’s or early 80’s) found the monastery to be a place where they could advance their education and pursue a career they would enjoy, such as teaching, service and theological studies. So their lives became more fulfilled.

Monks, on the other hand, had a wider range of educational opportunities from which to choose initially. They did not have great expectations about what the monastery would do for them; rather, they understood the commitment it takes to be a dedicated monk. Although both sisters and monks take dedication to their callings seriously, the interviews suggested to me that sisters tend to take themselves a bit more lightly than do the monks.

Monks and sisters interviewed had relatively high CHS and AHS scores, compared to the general population I have surveyed, meaning that in general they remember their adolescent years as allowing for a great deal of humor and are currently enjoying participation in humor events.

Do monks and sisters have a sense of humor?

To find whether sisters and monks have a sense of humor themselves, I asked each person interviewed to rate his/her own sense of humor. I did not define what that meant, simply asking: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least sense of humor and 10 being the greatest, where would you rate yourself on this scale?

The monks rated themselves from a low of 5.5 to a high of 10, while the sisters rated themselves from a low of 4 to a high of 9. On average, both monks and sisters rated themselves at 8, indicating that, when doing self-evaluation, these monks and sisters rated themselves as having a strong sense of humor.

While interacting with 36 monastic persons, I noted that the variety of personalities, understandings of life, and appreciation of humor was similar to the variety I see outside the monastery. With one exception, each person had a vibrant sense of humor. They radiated a joy that transcended the walls of the monasteries. They told great stories of humor behind the walls, of humor at the workplace, and even humor during celebration of the mass.

Does God have a sense of humor?

Without detailing each interview, I can point to several themes that emerged from the question of whether God has a sense of humor. I should note that we agreed at the start to some clarifying modifiers to make more sense of the question. For example, it is a bit presumptuous to anthropomorphize, perhaps even trivialize, God with such a question. So to clarify the definition of humor, we chose words like delight, as seen in the opening poem, or joy and celebration. Now we were on common ground. With these qualifiers the responses to this question gave the following results:

  • Monks who think God is involved with humor or delight = 96% (22 out of 23)
  • Sisters who think God is involved with humor or delight = 100% (13 out of 13)

Monks and sisters found this “humor” or “delight” in several major settings, including scripture, parables and understanding some of the stories of Jesus. Some even posited that Jesus himself must have been a person of good humor, given his welcoming of children, his getting invitations to parties (as in the wedding in Cana), and his willingness to use stories to illustrate deep principles.

One monk related the story of his resistance to the building of a new guest house. His conversation with God included, “We have a lot of aging monks, and even though I am one of the younger ones, we do not have any more available monks to staff the new guest house, even if we were to build one.” The turn of events happened when several years later this resister-to-change was tapped by the Abbot to become one of the monks to staff the new guest house. As he told this story he took great delight in the “humor of God.”

Is humor involved as one relates to a divine being in one’s spirituality?

The answers to this question were not as clear as answers to other humor questions. Few respondents would say they approach God as Tevye did in “Fiddler on the Roof,” with his monologues to God, which included this familiar phrase: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

Only a few monastics say that they have a light-hearted approach to the Divine. One or two mentioned talking out loud to the sky, requesting answers, asking for help, praising or giving thanksgiving. However, the idea that humor plays a major role or any role at all in relating to God seemed to be a new concept that it was difficult for them to relate to.

In morning prayers, one monk reported:

. . . there are times when the reading from Psalms is actually quite funny, and at times I have to refrain from laughing out loud during the quiet time between scripture readings. So if this qualifies for humor and my own spirituality, then I would have to say yes.

Does humor play a role in relationships “behind monastery walls”?

There was general consensus among all the interviewees that humor is a critical and important part of monastic life. Humor is present at the dining table, in the workplace, and even in worship. They readily shared stories of how humor works in this religious order at this monastery. Perhaps not unrelated is the fact that the Abbott himself is a person of good humor, and often inserts relevant humor into his homilies.

One sister related the story of the prioress impressing upon them the sacredness of all living creatures and how each was to be treated with respect:

These lessons often happened in mini-lectures before evening mass. On this particular evening, as the sisters filed into the sanctuary, it was quite obvious that stink bugs had invaded the sacristy. Since it would be awkward to squash the little critters, the prioress disappeared for a moment, returned with a brush and a dustpan and summarily swept the stink bugs into the dustpan, walked out of the sanctuary, and returned empty-handed. The mass went on as usual.

As the sister told this story she allowed herself another giggle at this humorous turn of events.

Do you think it is appropriate to use humor in homilies?

When asked about incorporating humor in homilies, all 13 sisters approved the use of selective humor in homilies, whereas 96% of the monks approved of such use. In general, they rejected the use of humor as stand-up comedy with little to do with the message. If used judiciously and in moderation, the majority of both monks and nuns thought the use of healthy humor was a good idea.

Several folks I interviewed were quick to respond with a hardy “of course” when asked this question. One monk reported, “Of course. And it is especially appropriate when we do lessons for children. Imagination, creativity and humor are essential for engaging the children.”

What did St. Benedict mean, as Rule 7:59 states: “The tenth step of humility is that he is not given to ready laughter, for it is written: Only a fool raises his voice in laughter”?

All agreed that St. Benedict wrote for a different time, a different population, and as one monk put it, “He was from a different anthropology”. After just a few interviews, an obvious consensus emerged on this question. Beyond agreeing on this common statement, four nearly equal themes emerged:

  • Raucous laughter is the greatest objection St. Benedict had regarding laughter.
  • Laughter that is hurtful to others was equally objectionable. Some monks referred to a Latin root word ridi, which is closely related to our word for ridicule; thus laughter that ridicules is not appropriate.
  • Inappropriate laughter or crude joke telling, and
  • Foolhardy or undignified laughter would all fit under the umbrella of St. Benedict’s prohibition.

Modern Benedictines understand what St. Benedict meant for his time. Further, they clearly understand what it means for modern times—freedom to participate in healthy humor events but refraining from raucous, hurtful, inappropriate, or undignified laughter.

“We do have a lot of laughter at the dinner table,” reports one monk. “It usually happens at one or two tables where Fr Paul or Bro Bryan (not their real names) is telling a story. They are wonderful storytellers and you can usually guess that if there is laughter at a table, one of these two monks is there. Some monks think it is a bit much at times.”

Before I arrived at the monastery I imagined it would be a rather austere and humorless place. But a funny thing happened. In the face of one of St. Benedict’s first rules of hospitality as expressed at this monastery, the notion of humorlessness vanished.

One monastic theologian put it this way, “Delight carries with it the idea of reckless abandonment, a sense of joy, and certainly a sense of play.”

This current research strongly suggests that the monks and sisters I interviewed appreciate and participate in healthy humor, enjoy laughter, understand the delight of God, and freely express the joy they have come to know.

NOTE: It order to have access to personal interviews with monks and sisters, it was understood that I would not explicitly identify the monasteries with which I interacted.


Dolan, Timothy Dolan on “The Colbert Report.” www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/topstories_2489.asp

Hostetler, Jeptha R. “Do You Have a Good Sense of Humor?” Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 2000: 14.

__________. “Humor, Spirituality and Well-Being.Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 54.2 (June 2002): 108-13.

__________. The Joy Factor. Scottdale,PA: Herald Press, 2008.

__________. Stories on the Way to Market. Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April 2001: 13-14

Martin, James. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Smollin, Anne Bryan. Jiggle Your Heart and Tickle Your Soul.Lathan,NY: Canticle Press, 1994.

About the Author

Jep Hostetler

Jep Hostetler, like many writers, has many personas. (1) He is a retired Professor of Anatomy from the Ohio State University College of Medicine, where for nearly thirty years he taught, conducted research and published in medical journals. (2) He has long been a popular public speaker and writer on the relationship between humor, health and healing--his oral presentations themselves being comic gems. Herald Press published his book The Joy Factor in 2010. (3) He is a professional magician. He has served one term as International President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and won first prize for “close-up magic” at an international convention competition in Washington,D.C. He attends Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.