Meditations for Layfolks - Politeness

Politeness often seems the most charming of natural virtues, but it is almost the least common of supernatural virtues. It is really astonishing to notice the large number of pious people who have absolutely no appearance of politeness, and who exhibit extreme difficulty in trying to be polite. Perhaps this may be due in part to an intense desire to speak and act truly, and a feeling that this is incompatible with politeness. How is it possible for me to be courteous if I really show my genuine opinion and feeling on every occasion? If my life is really honest in deed and word, shall I not be obliged to act in a manner extremely disagreeable to my fellows? they will continuously be demanding praise when I can only blame. Surely, then, it is argued, it were better to give up all this conventional and artificial politeness and revert to that better attitude of truth? Sometimes it is obvious that the real trouble is not an endeavour to achieve truth, but carelessness, thoughtless of the feelings of others. Even people whose lives are in many ways edifying have this startling omission, that they neglect to consider their fellows. But a further excuse is sometimes brought forward namely, that the character of our Lord warrants such a disregard of these conventions. His figure is outlined to us as that of a puritan, whose speech was "Yea, yea, and Nay, nay," and who never spoke at all unless there was direct and serious need. They picture Him to us without charm or gracefulness, a Baptist with the rugged ways of a prophet, whose business it was to denounce perpetually whatever pleased mankind. In their attempt to excuse their own want of tenderness and their awkwardness of mind and manner, they endeavour to make Him after their own image and likeness.

Of course, in reality our Blessed Lord is the very opposite of what they would make Him out to be. The strong and denunciatory side of His life is only one aspect of a character that was divinely complex. It was certainly the side that least appeared to His contemporaries: for them there was rather contrast than comparison between Christ and the Baptist. Our Lord con sorted with publicans and sinners, did not teach His disciples to fast, and was so far removed from the sternness and ruggedness of the desert-preacher that the accusation levelled against Him was that He was a glutton and a wine-bibber. The miracles that He wrought were evidence of His wonderful tenderness, and showed, as the Evangelists intended that they should, that He had compassion upon the people. Moreover, they were performed with a gracefulness that doubled the value of His kindness: He wrought all kind of service with a noble ease That graced the lowliest act in doing it." On one occasion He feeds four thousand in the desert, but He carefully selects for this a spot where "there was much grass in the place," thus choosing to make His miracle all the more welcome. His very generosity was done politely, thoughtfully. His rebukes have the same charm, unless they happen to be launched against hypocrisy, which can be cured only by being broken. Notice His delicate treatment of the woman taken in adultery; the polite tenderness: "Has no man condemned thee? Neither will I condemn thee. Go thou and sin no more." In that last phrase is His only recognition of her fault.

I must make careful examination of my own ways of acting. How far are my acts of kindness spoilt by the manner in which they are done? Perhaps I go out of my way to help people; but perhaps also my very attempts to help them are done in so thoughtless a way, that I only succeed in crossing their tempers and irritating them. There are people I meet in life who in conferring a favour on me seem to impress me with the fact that it is I who am doing them a favour. Am I like that? or are my favours plainly favours? Do I ever take the trouble to hide from the people I benefit the fact that it is a sacrifice to me? May not my generosity be more intolerable than my meanness not in its matter but in its manner? Or do I follow the gentle spirit of Christ, and so look upon politeness as a necessary condition of all true charity? The titter of laughter at a social mistake, the hardness of speech that is brutal in its frankness, and the scorn lavished on all attempts at making repentance easy to the sinner, are surely not as we have learnt Christ? It is possible, indeed, that I do not realize how rude I am; for each of us is immoderately quick to claim always a sense of humour, an experience with the deepest suffering, an instinctive tact, whereas all these three great gifts are the privilege of only rare souls. Politeness means thoughtfulness, and is due especially to the poor, and to all in discomfort, to the old, to the afflicted, to children. It is frequently neglected by me because I happen to be in a hurry, and if I am one of those people who are always in a hurry I can take it for granted that I shall always be neglecting opportunities of politeness. Let me be very attentive to other people, have a remembrance of their troubles, and never be eager to announce to them my own.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.