Daily Archives: August 30, 2009

The dangers of civility

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of how the Pharisees condemned Jesus and His disciples for not washing their hands . This is a  common motif in the Gospels, which people conveniently ignore in their attempts at being as worldly as possible.  Martha condemns Mary for for making a nice dinner setting.  The Pharisees condemn the Apostles for not washing their hands.

Civility is often the enemy of the spiritual life, more than its friend.  Certainly, there are parallels between good manners and good morals.  Certainly,  human respect can aid virtue if it is one more thing to shame us out of commiting at least certain kinds of sin.

But, more often than not, civility is just what the Devil uses to cover up his tracks.

Somewhere, my kids picked up the idea, when playing, that there are “evil people” and there are “nice people.”  I’m constantly trying to point out, when I hear them say that, that evil people often appear nice, and goodness often is not “nice.”

“Nice” people don’t  like what’s unpleasant.  That may be the exposure of the festering wounds of sin, or that may be the exposure of the festering wounds of the body.  They don’t like being around those who are odd-looking, or different, or challenging. 

Flannery O’Connor’s stories are all about how the civility and manners of “nice, decent” people both disguise their sins and impede them from pursuing heroic virtue.  She forces them into dramatic situations where they are forced to face the unpleasant head-on, and then they have to deal with that somehow.  In doing that, she forces her readers to face the same situation, and her “nice, decent” readers often balk at the unpleasantness of her stories.

Yet O’Connor forces us to look right at the unpleasnat in the eye, and then points us to the Desert Fathers, who understood the truth of Matthew 11:12. 

One of her favorite passages, quoted prominently in one of her later stories, was the following letter of St. Jerome:

Pampered soldier, why are you wasting time in your father’s house? Where is the rampart, the ditch, the winter campaign under canvas? Behold the trumpet sounds from heaven! Our General, fully armed, comes amid the clouds to overcome the world. From our King’s mouth comes the double-edged sword that cuts down all in its path. Are you going to remain in your chamber and not come out to join in the battle? . . . Listen to your King’s proclamation: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”

0 desert, green with the flowers of Christ! 0 solitude in which the stones of the Great City of the King mentioned in the Apocalypse are found! 0 wilderness rejoicing in the presence of God! Brother, what are you doing in the world when you are so much more important than the world? How long are the shadows of a roof going to hold you back? How long will the smoky dungeon of these cities imprison you? . . . How refreshing to fling off the burdens of the flesh and fly to the sparkling aether? . . . You are spoiled indeed, dear friend, if you wish to rejoice here on earth–and afterwards reign with Christ!

To whom did St. Jerome direct these harsh, judgemental words?  To a pro-abortion politician?  To a  bishop who gave solace to such a politician?  No.  He gave them to a fellow hermit who accepted a position as a bishop in the city. 

The saints understood that the way of salvation is harsh and difficult.  They understand that, as St. Teresa of Avila puts it, this life is like a night in a bad hotel room, and the most pleasant things the world offers are nothing compared to the next life.

But even those who have “made themselves eunuchs” for the Gospel still cling to human respect.  They wine and dine with those who do the work of the enemy.  They say, “Well, Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners.”
Yes, He dined with tax collectors and sinners who repented, though He often dined with Pharissees as well, in order to debate with them. 

When bishops, pundits and politicians talk of their “friendships” with pro-abortion politicians and celebrities, and cite Jesus dining with sinners to endorse those friendships, have they put those friendships above their responsibility to Truth?  Have they really tried to change the minds of those pro-abortion and pro-contraception people? 

When a Catholic politician dumps his wife for a younger model and wants an annulment, does any prelate dare stand against him the way the Holy Father stood against Henry VIII?  Or do they just give a rubber-stamp annulment–the way they do for other laity these days–for some reason not much better than “irreconcilable differences,” totally degrading the importance of marriage? 

Do they make any efforts at getting those politicians to reconcile with their wives?  Heck, to they make any efforts at saving Catholic marriages these days?

Or do they do the “civil” thing and avoid controversy, especially when the controversy could cost them thousands of dollars in donations?

Civility says there are things you don’t talk about in polite company.  Instead ,those most important of  subjects, get conveniently avoided, and those who *would* talk about them, those who *would* try to challenge the behavior of others are challenged for violating the rules of “civility.”

“This man’s spiritual power has been precisely this, that he has distinguished between custom and creed. He has broken the conventions, but he has kept the commandments”

–GK Chesterton