Monday, March 24, 2008

on manners and banishing fear

The intelligent who do not lead others falsely
but lawfully and impartially
and are guarded by the law
are called dhammattha
“Those who abide by the law.”

They are not learned merely because they speak much;
Those who are secure, without hate, and fearless are called learned.
Dhammapada, 19:257-258

I read an article some months ago in the New Yorker about a man who suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a milder form of autism that resolves itself in all kinds of anti-social or asocial behavior. He had obviously made a lot of progress in dealing with the syndrome since he was able to write about it. He said that oddly, the book that helped pull him into the human race was Emily Post’s “Etiquette” because, he said, that book not only “offered clear reasons for courtesy and gentility,” but most of all it convinced him “that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than… to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority.” (Tim Page, “Parallel Play,” New Yorker, August 20, 2007)

I was thinking of some of the really noble people I have met in my life, that were so intelligent, perhaps wealthy, successful in business, erudite, sophisticated, and I must say the best of them have always been people like that, who made me feel comfortable rather than try to show off their superiority, never made me feel stupid for my lack of education, who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, who eased me through an uncomfortable social situation, who had no need to prove their superiority. Instead of talking down to me, I always get the feeling from them that they are pulling me up to their level.

I didn’t even know that William F Buckley had died until I got down here to the hermitage and started rummaging through the periodicals a few days ago. (I missed a bit of American news while I was on the road in Asia.) I was quite fascinated by him in my own what I’ve come to call “neo-con” days of the 80’s, when I was hanging around people who were pretty smart conservatives and pious Catholics (who considered themselves not conservative but “orthodox”). And I used to watch Firing Line pretty regularly in those days, mesmerized by his skill as an interviewer, his erudition and, of course, his vocabulary. My favorite shows, or moments in shows, are two. In 1986 when he was debating and interviewing all the Democratic presidential candidates during the primary season, there was a moment when Buckley found himself standing at a podium next to Jesse Jackson, and he glanced up, everyone could see, rather nervously. Jesse was kind of an imposing presence, and for the first time I thought something like a look of panic crossed Buckley’s face. The audience laughed, and they had a wonderful exchange afterward, certainly the meeting of two very different but equally eloquent speakers. The other was one of the times he interviewed Glenn Gould, which of course featured the latter performing Bach on the piano. They spoke at length about the differences between live performance and recording, and it was a magical almost mystical conversation. You could see how much appreciation Buckley had for the genius of this man, not to mention the glory of the music itself.

As much as I admired Mr Buckley’s intellectual integrity, I was also “confused,” shall we say, by a few of his controversial positions such as on the Jim Crow laws and his backing of Sen. McCarthy, for instance. And I was always amazed how he could consistently be held up as a model of orthodox Catholicism when he himself is oft quoted for his aphorism “Mater Si Magistra No!––Mother, Yes, Teacher, No” when it came to the Catholic social teachings, all the way from John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris through the bishop’s letter on Economic Justice in the 1980s. And of course there was his abhorrence of the Novus Ordo of Vatican II, especially in English. One priest (shame on him) is quoted in print saying, “Bill quite rightly loathed the liturgical changes in the Catholic Church.”

I’ve been happily pouring through the tributes to Mr Buckley recently, especially in the National Review, and the one thing comes up over and over again: though one might have gotten the impression of him as aristocratic or haughty or exclusive due to his ideology, acerbic wit and vocabulary, person after person mentioned about him that as an interviewer he was a self-effacing and almost invisible presence, that one left feeling enhanced, exhilarated, and a better person after being with him; and that in person he was tremendously egalitarian: he treated everyone equally, with equal dignity; he treated people with respect and inquisitiveness, and he loved to celebrate other peoples’ triumphs, from his cronies like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater to John Kenneth Galbraith and Ira Glasser of the ACLU, who were his ideological opposites, down to the lowliest first year law student who came to interview for a job. Again, in this way instead of talking down to people, he pulled them up to his level.

I heard someone say years ago that if he had been the one who had been raised from the dead instead of Jesus, he would have climbed to the top of the parapet of the temple and shouted, “Oh yeah? Who’s King of the Mountain now?” And yet in the Gospels we see Jesus appearing after his resurrection just as humbly as he walked the roads during his ministry. Some of the Patristic writers noted this especially: Peter Chrysologus, (in Sermon 76) wrote that Jesus, when he meets the women at the tomb and when he greets his friends, does not terrify them by his power but convinces and confirms them “with the ardor of love.” And St Jerome says that we always find this, both in the Old and New Testament, “that when there is an appearance of any majestic person, the first thing done is to banish fear, that the mind being tranquillized may receive the things that are said.” Jesus of course is what God is like, so he has told us, and I like to think of God in Jesus, pulling us up to his level. God in Jesus does not terrify us by his power, but convinces and confirms us by the ardor of love. Jesus, like God, pulls us up to his level.

Right away in the Easter season we need to start focusing on this: that not only in Baptism itself but in the feast of Pentecost toward which we are heading, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit of the Risen Christ into the depths of our being, we are celebrating the fact that Jesus is pulling us up to his level; where the head has gone the Body will follow. If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, then that same Spirit will banish our fear and give life to our mortal bodies as well through the ardor of love.

I’d also like to think that I/we could be so majestic, so gracious in our behavior toward one another, if for no other reason than in imitation of Jesus, to never exert any kind of superiority, but to always put others (and service to them) first, to banish fear and assure others of the ardor of our love, to strive to be at the same level of Jesus and invite others there too.