A priest in a far away place, a friend, thinks that any priest is terribly odd and ill-equipped for dealing with the real world if he does not always and at every time have a dinner table in a dining room dedicated to the purpose set for, say, ten guests, and in the exquisite fashion pictured above (and more so). He’s actually an excellent priest, very dedicated to everything priestly. And yet, I feel utterly foreign to all this non-barbaricness. Mind you, my mom could dress up a table for Thanksgiving much better than this and I was enthralled as a four year old little boy, feeling very special indeed to be sitting at such a table. The kids sat with the important grown-ups for Thanksgiving. But having this all the time puts me off. I feel foreign to it. It’s almost insulting. I’ve always thought that manners that were all too proper were self-serving and meant to kick others in the face. That’s not always the case, of course, just how I feel (’cause feelings are important!).
In the South American country of Colombia there is an “American Restaurant” which only serves chicken, which is served without utensils. You have to eat with your hands, because, you know, Americans are barbaric and it’s ever so exciting to go slumming every so often; it’s what cultured people do, but, you know, not really. The Colombian cultured elite could never ever eat with their hands, and so, instead of utensils, plastic food prep gloves with which to eat are supplied to the customers. I kid you not. If I ever ate there, I wouldn’t use the gloves. I just couldn’t, being, you know, a North American. My Colombian priest friends joked about going there. Ha ha ha. Even they thought that this was too much in the way of manners.
When I was teaching up in the Pontifical Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, an etiquette course was required of the seminarians. Ugghh. But, I must say, the seminarian who introduced that is now an excellent priest, very dedicated to everything priestly. I rather appreciate the manners, however, of another seminarian who was the cause of all this etiquette, for he would, say – elbows on the table – twirl a whole pork chop on the end of his fork, chomping on it occasionally as he twirled it about. I mentioned this to an old priest in Maggie Valley last night, and he said that he had the same etiquette course when he was in the seminary in the earlier part of the 1900s (he’s really old), and he liked it a lot. That he was a military chaplain his whole life didn’t take that away. I’m amazed. I must be missing something somewhere.
A South American Cardinal friend back in the day took me under his wing, with me being pitiable and uncultured. He would bring me to museums all over the Italian peninsula in an attempt to make me a man of culture. Ha ha ha. He was no match for this North-woods and now back ridge mountain boy. He was a Scripture Scholar there in Buenos Aires and environs, edging ever so slightly in the direction of marxism, surely having a certain Jorge Bergoglio as a protégé. The whole culture thing didn’t work on me at all. It’s not easy to have manners when one speaks of, say, El Che (as we did, a lot, as he knew him really well). At any rate, this Cardinal was very appreciative of – of all things – proper table manners. I think I’m just a failure with all this, never knowing which fork or spoon or knife to use when, or which glass to pour water into.
Note well that, as with martial arts and guns, you can actually never be “the best,” which is a danger. For instance, I can easily put everyone to shame with their pride in etiquette and culture by recalling being invited to a dinner at “The Bishop’s House” in Lourdes. Besides the table setting pictured above, there was a little rack next to the plates to be used to cantilever a knife after it was used, as it is never placed on a plate (which would indicate that one was done eating). At this point I start to think of the police rolling into the little town of Lourdes when the Pilgrimage of the Gypsies would take over the Sanctuaries, the fights they would get into, blood and broken bones… I would think of anything but etiquette and manners and being civilized, thinking that such things are themselves a bit surreal and odd and meant to amaze. It bores me.
Trying a different tack to get me civilized, one of our parishioners just the other day, noting Laudie-dog at the rectory, bought a pooper-scooper so that I might become a civilized dog-poop-slave. I resisted, of course, but there comes a time in life when resistance is futile. I caved. And I notice that this is happening with many aspects of my life. Am I heading in the direction of etiquette and manners and being civilized? Perhaps I am just learning not to be the odd man out so as to become all things to all men, as long as faith and morals are not jeopardized. And that’s perhaps not a bad thing, all things being equal. It’s a slow process, so I beg the indulgence of others. I hope it is not a step in the direction of political correctness.
I hope I would still do the priest thing of being a man who, by the grace of God, at least tries to be a man for all seasons, preaching the truth in charity with no respect for persons, that is, with respect for all persons, whatever office they hold, offering them what is the best of our faith and sharing the greatest love of my life, the Divine Son of the Immaculate Conception, regardless of the consequences.
There is, however, one aspect of this barbaric child that I’m guessing that, with the grace of God, will not ever be ripped out of me, a certain cleverness that some might see as being bad and evil and be perceived as having too close an affinity to Bre’r Rabbit, who was born and bred in a briar patch, which was scorned by others but loved by himself:
Ah yes. Such a trickster. That clip was sent in by a very classy lady, who has the blessing of having all the best of etiquette and manners in the very best of ways, that is, with real class that hesitates not one second to be concerned with the likes of me, who am rather on the darkest peripheries of whatever is defined as culture.
One may indeed take such a scene to make an analogy with the irony which must be lived as a priest, the irony which explodes any pretense of out-of-place self-referentiality, the irony by which one will always be marginalized by others as being the odd man out, you know, as a way to be kept safe, away from having to bother with the irony he presents to all and sundry, both rank and file. We priests must have a sense of this irony, of Him who is Irony Incarnate, made to be sin for us, truly the odd Man out. I haven’t cited this for a while, so now’s the time:
To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have a quality of something evil, and so it has, for […] it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used – nay, can hardly exist – save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed. […] It suggests most powerfully the evil against which it is directed, and those innocent of evil shun so terrible an instrument. […] The mere truth is vivid with ironical power […] when the mere utterance of a plain truth labouriously concealed by hypocrisy, denied by contemporary falsehood, and forgotten in the moral lethargy of the populace, takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken in the past. […] No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing it and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul. [Hilaire Belloc, “On Irony” (pages 124-127; Penguin books 1325. Selected Essays (2/6), edited by J.B. Morton; Harmondsworth – Baltimore – Mitcham 1958).]
Even Jesus was made to be sin, right? ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν (2 Cor 5:21).
Irony is what priests are supposed to do. It’s what Jesus did. It’s the charitable thing to do. Something about justice and mercy being one in God.
Now, what was that about holding one’s pinky out when sipping a cup of tea at 4:00 PM? Perhaps the 3:00 PM experience is more important…