Courtesy

Sometimes, standing in a check-out queue, I have been tempted to murder the person in front — not because they are in front of me but because of the way in which they are treating the person at the till. Most people, most of the time, are polite; but there are those who seem to make it their business to be as rude and difficult as possible; and then there are the rest of us, who want to be polite, but who have occasional stunning lapses. Where, then, does courtesy come in, those manners fit for a royal court? I think Chesterton captured its essence when he said that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’. Politeness can be a mere exterior polish applied to our rough and ready selves but courtesy, real courtesy, must come from within. I like to think of it as a sacramental. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it is an outward expression of an inward grace. The opposite, alas, is also true. Rudeness shows only too well what is within. For a Benedictine, the ritualised courtesies of the cloister protect us from the grosser manifestations of selfishness, but unless they become internalised, so that they are a genuine expression of what is within, they do not rise above the level of a formal politesse. Even so, I don’t think they should be despised. After all, we don’t really want to live in a world where might is always right, and the young, the old, the frail and the vulnerable must go to the wall, do we?

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