Last week, Daniel Johnson spoke to the Catholic Women of the Year lunch. Here is his address.
It is, I suppose, an unusual privilege for a man to be invited to address a women's luncheon, and it is all the greater for being the Catholic Women of the Year Luncheon. The very title combines three things that make life worth living: true religion, women, and lunch. When Angela Gracey broke the news to me that I should speak about courtesy, however, I confess that I wondered what I could possibly say to this audience on the subject, when every woman here knows far more about courtesy than any man. I realised that, to do justice to this occasion, I should require, as St Paul might have said, all three theological virtues: our faith, my hope, and your charity. My title comes, as many of you will know, from Hilaire Belloc: an unfashionable writer in praise of an unfashionable virtue — so unfashionable, indeed, that it is not even mentioned in the new Catechism. It is worth quoting the verse from which my text comes: Of Courtesy — it is much (less
Than courage of heart or (holiness; Yet in my walks it seems to (me That the Grace of God is in ( Courtesy.
Notice that Belloc prefaces his memorable line by comparing courtesy unfavourably to courage and holiness. In this, he is surely right; but the truly brave and the truly saintly are rare, and opportunities to practise these higher virtues do not arise every day.
If we want to see the grace of God working in our lives, we can hardly do better than to reflect on the countless courtesies, great and small, which we give and receive every day.
In doing these little kindnesses for one another, we are bearing witness to the Gospel; for nobody was more considerate of others, whoever they might be, than Our Lord.
To be courteous is to follow Jesus. It is true that we do not usually think of courtesy when we attempt what Thomas Kempis called the imitation of Christ, imitatio Christi.
Yet it is in courtesy that we can most readily practise His commandment to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In His unfailing courtesy He demonstrated how to be generous, unselfish, humble towards the lowest of the low, people who had never expected such consideration from a great rabbi.
Many of His parables are about courtesy, among other things, and are intended to show that nobility of character has nothing to do with nobility of birth. English schoolboys used to learn how to be gentlemen from the example of the Greeks and Romans; but the good Samaritan was a truer gentleman than any pagan, and the mother of Jesus is not called "Our Lady" for nothing.
Mention of Mary reminds me that courtesy is unthinkable without women. The word itself emerged in medieval culture as part of the code of chivalry which required men to subordinate their strength to the service of a woman. Here again it was Jesus Himself who showed the way, by treating women as social and intellectual equals — something no pagan, mortal or immortal, had ever done — and showing His disciples by example the godliness of gentleness.
Courtesy is a specifically. Christian virtue, a moral advance as significant as any in European history. The treatment of women is the best test of any society that aspires to civilisation. And however unfashionable it may lately have become for men to treat women with courtesy, it remains the mark of a Christian that he should also treat a woman like a gentleman. Lady Thatcher is supposed to have praised Tony Blair as a "Christian gentleman". If we may judge him by his discourteous treatment of the Queen on more than one occasion, however, the Prime Minister has as much to learn about how to conduct himself like a gentleman as he does about how a Christian in his office should approach marriage, the sanctity of life or morality in general.
Courtesy is not always genuine. There is more to manners than mannerisms, more to politeness than polish, more to courtesy than condescension.
Hypocrisy may masquerade as humility. How do we distinguish? Here again, Jesus is our guide. He was nothing if not direct, startling in his frankness, alarming in his total absence of euphemism. We, too, should never suppose that courtesy releases us from the imperative to live in the light of truth, to say and do what is right.
The grace of God is not to be found in airs and graces.I should like to leave you with one thought. What would a world without courtesy be like? I fear that we do not have far to look. We do not have to imagine some nightmarish Brave New World. A world without courtesy already exists, and we live in its midst. It is inhabited by people who lead lives without God, without knowledge of good and evil, without mercy.
It is a world that sometimes seems to have regressed to a Hell on earth. On estates such as the one where Damilola Taylor bled to death, among men who preach holy war against the society that affords them hospitality, among adults who exploit children and children who terrorize adults, courtesy seems as much a stranger as all the other virtues.
Those of us who try, however unsuccessfully, to live as Christians in a militantly secular society must often lose heart in such a dispiriting environment. Yet the grace of God, which sustains us in Mysterious ways, will often manifest itself in the darkest moments of our lives.
The kindly word, the charitable gesture, even the gentle rebuke: these acts of courtesy, seemingly trifling in themselves, may be the sole glimmer of hope in another's despair. Our Christian duty is to prove ourselves worthy of God's love by loving our neighbours as ourselves. The name that we give for that neighbourly love, that automatic and unconditional warmth and consideration towards others, is courtesy. We need God's grace more than ever to bear witness to our faith in a world without courtesy; and so courtesy becomes a sign of contradiction. Where discourtesy is the norm, to be Christian is to be courteous.