Tuesday, November 12, 2013

thou shalt be well-bred

The late Queen Mother was apparently an absolute genius at being able to talk to everyone in a crowded room while giving each and every one the impression that he was the one she had come to see. This quality is called charm, and I think it a very useful quality to have. 

 Good manners are my favorite thing. 
 Good manners and charming manners are just so pleasant to be around. 
But, as Paul is so fond of saying, without love, they are a clanging gong or noisy cymbals, or whatever that quote is. 
Essentially, without love, charming manners are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. 
Charming manners fueled by charity, however, are the recipe for success; those who are charitable and charming shall inherit the earth. 

Upon consulting with my sources, I've discovered it is not the charitable and charming who are said to inherit the earth. 
 It's the meek. 

I am never quite sure what "meek" means. 
And it seems to me that I often incorrectly imagine meek to mean the opposite of courage. 
Courage is one of the cardinal virtues of virtually any society or group of people.
 It takes courage to do more than sit on your couch and sob that the world is going to shit. 
So, we get up and move on with our lives. 
We call this courage, and it seems to me to be fundamentally necessary for any person to get anything done.
So meekness, I feel now, cannot possibly be the opposite of courage. 
Because there is no way that people who sit on their couches sobbing are going to inherit the earth.
I mean, for starters, they don't even want to inherit it, because they believe it's going to shit. 
So I don't understand what meekness is. 
Maybe this is partially because if I were a construction vehicle, I would be a bulldozer. 
 I wonder if a bulldozer is meek. 

 Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek," but I could not be meek at the thought of injustice. 
--Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness 

 Ever since I can remember, one of the staples of our front living room coffee table book collection was a large, glossy picture biography of Pope John Paul II. 
The book journaled his journey from simple, grainy, black-and-white pictures of the young Karol Wojtyla as a boy growing up in Wadowice, to splendid color panoramas of the new Pope John Paul II in white vestments, parting the surrounding waves of the red sea of cardinals that surged around him. 
Between these two bookends were photos and short tales about losing his mother, working as a theatre artist, living in Poland, secretly defying Nazi occupation, entering into the seminary on the sly. 
 The high romance of Karol Wojtyla’s youth struck a chord in my seven-year-old heart. 
 This man captured my imagination. 
 Ever since I was a young child, I grew up spinning stories in my head, and knowing that When I Grew Up I was going to tell those stories. 
This priest had a whole section of his particular biography devoted to his work in the theatre. 
He’d written a play that theatre companies around the world were still performing. 
This man was a full-fledged artist. 
 Growing up with Pope John Paul II on my coffee table, I never knew that there was a divide between the theatre world and the theology world. 
I remember so clearly the picture of John Paul II meeting with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison. 
At the time, I accepted this picture so easily, just as I accepted each story I read in the Brother's Grimm. This picture was a part of the story. 
 I assumed it was simply part of the job, and when you were grown-up you were used to handling these things, and of course you forgave them, because you were supposed to forgive everyone seventy-times-seven.

 And then you grow up and you realize that your heart still has just as hard a time forgiving and understanding as it did at age seven.
 And that really, the fact that this man was able to so completely forgive someone who tried to take his life was--and still is-- completely astonishing. 
 But maybe it wasn't so astonishing for a man who said, as John Paul II once did, "The limit imposed upon evil is ultimately Divine Mercy."
 As a man who had come of age during the Holocaust, just miles from Auschwitz, whose faith and vocation were fostered during the cruelties of the Nazi regime in Poland, and who reigned during the highly treacherous and turbulent waters of the late twentieth century. 
 His papacy saw tragedies and sorrows aplenty--he served during the Cold War, 9-11, the Rwandan genocide, and the Apartheid, Pope John Paul II understood how limitless human evil can seem. 

 "This thing called reconciliation … if I am understanding it correctly … it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed [my son], becomes human again-- this man-- so that I, so that all of us get our humanity back … then I agree, then I support it all." 
 --Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull 

 It is dreadful to see the pain human beings inflict on one another. 
It is terrifying to watch them struggle to comprehend it. 
It is distressing to find violence whirling through a story, a perpetual cycle of hate, which leaves a reader asking: how on earth does one stop a cycle of pain? 
 The only option cannot be to inflict more pain. 
 In the face of all the atrocities of the Apartheid, of the Holocaust, of simply one person reaching out and hitting the other, I thought of that picture of John Paul II.
 The limit imposed upon evil is mercy. 
 This incredible truth seemed like second nature to John Paul II. 
 Just as Olympic Gymnasts make spinning at high speeds around little strings of rope look like a piece of cake, this man made holiness look as simple as breathing. 

 In that picture, I found what meekness looks like. 
 It looks a lot like mercy, and it looks terrifyingly challenging rather than weak. 
 It looks mild in the face of violence, but with a mildness made of iron and stone. 
A man who seems as tall and great as a giant, dressed in white, looking a very broken man in the eye. Looking at him with the knowledge that they are brothers. 
 This picture seemed to capture the essence of all charming good manners, charity, and meekness. 
 I think I will call it grace. 

 For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.
--Papa Francesco

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