Regular readers will know that I am no fan of Brexit, but Donald Tusk’s puerile rudeness towards Theresa May has made me much more sympathetic towards her than I ever dreamed I could be. It reminded me of incidents in my brief banking career when one was subject to similar laddishness (though, thankfully, Instagram did not exist then), to say nothing of the tiresome misogyny women still encounter in the Church. Happily, today’s first reading at Mass, Proverbs 3. 27–34, is a reminder that men do not have a monopoly of bad behaviour. We can all be boorish at times. The trouble comes, I would suggest, when we see our rudeness as a positive good, a mark of our independence of mind and spirit, and forget what the effect on others may be.
I have long thought that in Britain we have come to despise courtesy and forgiveness as weakness. The idea that inviting the German President to attend a ceremony at the Cenotaph to mark the end of the First World War is an ‘insult’ to those who fought and died in that war strikes me as but the latest example of such a tendency. I can’t imagine any of my family thinking in that way. The legacy they left their grandchildren (of whom I am one) was the conviction that war is a terrible evil, to be avoided at all costs; but if one is called upon to serve, one must do one’s duty but never make the quarrel personal or one will never be free of the hatred and suspicion that led to war in the first place. I am not sure that I have always managed that (my dealings with whoever is the Enemy of the Moment, especially if encountered just after emerging from the confessional, tend to give the lie) but I acknowledge it as an ideal, above all, a Christian ideal.
Why do I link courtesy and forgiveness? The answer is very simple. The word ‘courtesy’ originally meant manners fit for a royal court but subsequently came to have overtones of something granted as a gift, not by right. We all live by the mercy of God, freely given. We have no ‘right’ to grace or forgiveness, but we have the duty of sharing both; and if we do, we have our place in the court of heaven. Long after Mr Tusk’s little jibe has been forgotten and the memory of the First World War is just one more of those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’ a courtesy, a kindness, a refusal to bind another with unforgiveness will shine as brightly as the stars.