The Importance of Civility

One of my personal bugbears is the way people order one another around without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. I know it is a minor matter compared with world peace or climate change, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of consequences. I tell myself that a subjunctive is meant or that I have misheard or misinterpreted, but it won’t wash. We say ‘I want’ or ‘Get me’ or ‘Pray for’ or whatever without troubling ourselves about the small courtesies of life. Indeed, daring to say they matter marks one out as an old fuddy-duddy. I think that issuing an order instead of making a request implies a misplaced sense of entitlement. Civility and civilisation are intimately connected.* The loss of the one is not very good for the other.

In the monastery what I call the small courtesies of life are ritualised. That doesn’t mean, as some would like to assert, that they are stripped of meaning. On the contrary, they become charged with meaning that goes beyond the quotidian. The reverence shown to those older in the habit, the ritual exchange of greeting and blessing, the very body language we use, standing in the presence of our seniors, bowing in acknowledgment of small services or simply in passing, the fact that we follow the Rule and never address one another by the bare name alone but always prefix it with the customary monastic ‘Dame’ or ‘Sister’, these all imply a thoughtfulness about life that as a society I fear we have abandoned. The Rule of St Benedict envisions everyone in community, from the youngest to the oldest, being valued, having a place, being respected and loved — especially when most vulnerable. Our task is to incarnate these values not de haut en bas but horizontally, as it were. This is sometimes mistakenly identified with being democratic. A monastery is not a democracy but it is, or should be, a very civilized society.

Can those outside the monastery derive any benefit from this? I hope so. We have all had the joy of knowing people who seem to have an instinctive grasp of the importance of treating others with respect and kindness. They tend to be more selfless than the rest of us, less concerned about what others think of them, and careful to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They are gracious in the true sense of that word. They are our best hope of remaining civilized, for they know the meaning of, and practise, civility.

*Latin civilitas, of or pertaining to being citizens. Later the word acquired associations with politeness as we understand it today.