In a society ever more given to banality, technological gadgets, utilitarian education, vulgar treatment and unbridled sensual pleasure, what role do ceremony and etiquette play? Are manners really important anymore? Would not life be easier without them?
The wise and edifying work by Saint John Baptist de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers, answers many of these questions. Other enlightening explanations can be found in the lectures of Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Catholic leader and founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP).
Millions of actions occur during a man’s lifetime—great endeavors like writing a book or small ones such as brushing one’s teeth. Is there a single action that does not have a purpose or a way to perform it that is more perfect or pleasing to God?
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Saint John Baptist de la Salle answers the question with a passage from Saint Paul’s epistle:
“According to the same Apostle, because all our actions ought to be holy, there are none that ought not to be done through purely Christian motives. Thus, all our external actions, which are the only ones that the rules of decorum can guide, must always, through faith, possess and display the characteristics of virtue.”
There is a profound lesson contained in this counsel. Virtue or vice is present in everything we do or say. Therefore, etiquette has a vital purpose because it refers to our external actions, whether we are speaking with a friend, dining at our own table or writing a letter to the editor of a large newspaper. There is a proper and an improper way to do things. The great Marian apostle, Saint Louis de Montfort, expresses this idea in True Devotion to Mary. He states that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave more glory to God by turning a doorknob than the holy Saint Lawrence being martyred on the gridiron. Why is this? Because Our Lady acted with such perfection, purity of intention, and love of God, her simple actions were more pleasing to the Creator than Saint Lawrence’s supreme offering.
This reflection gives us food for thought amid the hustle and bustle of our times full of gadgets and distractions.
When speaking with someone at the table, should we pull out and look at our smartphones? Someone may object, “Where in the catechism does it say this is not permissible?” True, the catechism does not mention this sort of thing, but the action itself can be a breach of etiquette and has spiritual ramifications.
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Let’s analyze this one incident. First, the action may give the impression that one finds the conversation at table uninteresting. Second, the action may result from not paying attention to the one who is speaking, thus causing resentment in the other and feeding our laziness. Third, the action could become a nervous habit brought about by our frenetically intemperate society.
A doctor or priest may have a higher reason to answer the phone at the table; a medical emergency, for example. However, this action is a noble exception amid many unnecessary interruptions in the course of a simple meal. Go to any restaurant and observe how technology governs our lives.
That which deals with basic etiquette also applies and is linked to ceremony. Etiquette is a collection of small ceremonies. Standing up and giving one’s seat to a lady or tipping one’s hat is a small ceremony.
Ceremony does play a role in our spiritual life. But why? Would it not be easier just to put a crown on a king’s head and be done with it? Why have a coronation ceremony?
Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira answers:
“Because original sin, having degraded human nature, leads man to do many trivial and cartoonish things which lack the beauty appropriate to his nature. So, there has to be something called education, protocol and ceremonial to fix that which men would not do well of themselves.”
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Indeed, Original Sin has left in the souls of men tendencies that are not appropriate to the sublime calling of each one. If each person is an heir to a throne in heaven, certainly he is called to live a life of dignity proper to this high calling. Moreover, since heaven and hell are awesome realities, everyone has a great reward awaiting him in the next life if he corresponds. When one sees things in this light, ceremony takes on a genuinely sublime aspect.
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira continues: “What is a ceremony? It is a set of gaits and movements idealized according to a structural and calculated plan that all persons adopt—the beautiful, aesthetic attitudes men would take had they not fallen into Original Sin. During a ceremony, a kind of recapitulation of paradisiacal nature takes place. Hence comes the beauty of ceremonial acts, which expresses wonders that ordinary human life does not have. That is ceremonial.”
The love of God is intricately related to ceremony. It could be said that ceremony helps us think of many aspects of God and the heavenly paradise awaiting us. Does this not increase our love for our Creator?
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Unfortunately, the formation of modern man is utilitarian. We could almost say we live in a world in which ceremony is despised. When was the last time someone saw another unlocking a car door and opening it for the other before going to the driver’s side? Automatic locks made that obsolete. Isn’t this the abolition of a little ceremony? Though small, it has many profound reasons to be. Self-abnegation and sacrifice for another are two virtues practiced in that small ceremony.
So, before going to a McDonald’s “restaurant” for a Sunday meal, think about the opposite: A fine meal prepared at home with china, forks, knives, spoons, candles, a tablecloth, cloth napkins, and good conversation.
Which one is proper to celebrate the day of Our Lord’s resurrection?