One thing Mr Trump’s visit to the UK has undoubtedly done — reminded us of the importance of good manners. The media have had a lovely time recording every awkwardness, every outburst, every snub on Mr Trump’s part as well as the protests, the ‘Trump baby’ balloon tethered above Parliament Square, and the angry comments of those who are unhappy that he is on an official visit to these islands. We British wondered among ourselves how the Queen would cope with it all, knowing perfectly well that her good manners and a lifetime of being diplomatic would enable her to deal with whatever happened; as indeed they did.
Good manners, that set others at ease and smooth over difficulties, are often derided as being ‘insincere’ or even ‘hypocritical’, but I question whether that is true. Most of us don’t actually want to live in a society that is inherently brutal, where power is the only quality that is valued. St Benedict was aware of the tensions that can arise in any group, especially where backgrounds are dissimilar and age differences can magnify the differences. The Rule of St Benedict, therefore, has rituals of courtesy that are designed to contribute to the well-being of the community. No one is allowed to use the bare name in addressing another; so there can be no setting up of divisions, no talking de haut en bas. In the silence of the cloister we acknowledge one another by a mutual bow of the head: a gracious acknowledgement of Christ’s presence in our brother or sister. The order in which we do things is determined not by age or status before we came to the monastery but by the date of our entrance — literally when we came through the door. Older members of the community are to be treated with reverence; younger members with kindness; all are to have special care for the sick and make allowances for their sometimes capricious behaviour. And when we fail, as we often do, there is the beautiful ritual of the Chapter of Faults, where we apologize to each other for our failures without seeking to justify or minimize our behaviour.
I often examine my conscience with regard to my own manners. I am aware that I am not as well-mannered as I was; that, despite all the helps monastic life gives me, there are times when I am curt or insensitive or just plain horrible. Unfortunately, I also register when other people are rude or deliberately unkind, too. It may well be that you are the same. Perhaps, therefore, there is a resolution we could all make: to try to be, if not courteous, at least polite to one another — to try to be tolerant, less anxious to assert our own right to speak and act as we please, more concerned with allowing everyone to flourish. Manners makyth man, yes, and woman, too.