FROM THE PASTOR
February 19, 2017
by Fr. George W. Rutler
An oral tradition holds that in the course of a reception during the Constitutional Convention, the hearty Gouverneur Morris on a wager, after bowing to George Washington, patted him on the shoulder. Washington cast an icy glare at Morris, and the room fell silent. A man of grace and tact, Washington nonetheless had no patience for what he considered boorishness.
At the age of sixteen, Washington had laboriously copied out a long list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour” compiled by French Jesuits in 1595. Rule 47 said, “Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance . . . and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasant, abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.” Similarly, Rule 64: “Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion. . . ”
None of this was a formula for pomposity. This simply was the protocol for avoiding behavior that masks pride as humility. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca the Stoic agreed that the virtuous man is one of piety, dignity, manliness and gravity. Saint Benedict (480-547) raised this up a notch by associating these virtues with true humility. He writes in his Rule for monks: “The tenth degree of humility is when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written, ‘The fool exalteth his voice in laughter.’” Then: “The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: ’The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’”
Benedict was a happy man, and his monasteries were beacons of joy in a darkening society. He knew the difference between honest happiness and suspect giddiness, just as no one today would want to buy a used car from a man who is constantly giggling. Slapping a man on the back may be fraternal, but it also may be a subtle form of domination. And clownish behavior can be an indication of insecurity. In the days of vaudeville, the advice was to hold a baby and wave the American flag if the audience started to boo. When institutions are failing, false informality serves as a desperate distraction from that fact, and when someone is insecure, levity becomes a substitute for virtue.
The irony is this: those who are silly on the outside can be sly on the inside, and the comic can be cruel to those who see through the charade. The witty Chesterton nonetheless spoke of the “easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” Cruel men dressed Jesus as a clown on the way to the Cross, but he never lost his dignity. His humility made the governor so nervous that with studied ambiguity Pilate nailed a sign over his head calling him a king.
Father Rutler’s book, The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns, is available through Sophia Institute Press (Paperback or eBook) and Amazon (Paperback or Kindle).
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