The Grace of God in Courtesy

Author: John Saward


by John Saward

Of Courtesy, it is much less Than Courage of Heart or Holiness, Yet in my walks it seems to me That the Grace of God is in Courtesy --Belloc, "Courtesy"

Courtesy is the mark of a Christian knight. To be more than a mere warrior, a man must be gallant in considerateness as well as courage. In late medieval literature, the exemplary knight is decked not just with iron mail, but with the whole armor of the virtues, of which courteous chivalry is the helm. Of Sir Gawain it is said that "his cleanness and his courtesy crooked were never," and in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's Knight is praised as a "worthy man" who loved "chivalry, truth and honor, freedom and courtesy." When he was ritually blessed by the bishop, the new knight made promises touching chiefly on faith and charity: unfailing obedience to the Church and a constant readiness to defend the widow and orphan. The secret of chivalry was in the soul.

There is evidence to suggest that it was not in the court, but in the cloister that courtesy was first practiced and promoted. In the Dark Ages, long before there were civic structures in the world, there were civil manners in the monastery. The first to teach the value of refinement of conduct in the small matters of daily life were St. Benedict and his sons, the authors of the monastic rules and customs, the soldiers of spiritual combat. There is without doubt a natural courtesy to be found outside of Christendom, a gentlemanliness which, as Newman saw in may attach to the man of the world, but the nobleness of soul celebrated in the late Middle Ages is thoroughly Christian, formed by explicit faith and charity. The Grace of God is in Courtesy.

Courtesy among Men

Courtesy is not strictly distinct from the other virtues, but rather a quality to be found in them all. It has something to do with reverence, humility, and chastity. It is shaped by charity, the form of all the virtues, into the quality of mercy. It is the beauty of a brave and generous life.

Courtesy is, first of all, reverence for one's fellow man. In the Christian knight, it is a habit of seeing made possible by faith and charity, an eye which sees in every man, great or small, the shining image of the Trinity, the brother for whom Christ died. The courteous person has an attitude of "worship" toward his fellows: by small deeds of kindness, he acknowledges their worth, their dignity, as human persons. In the Sarum marriage rite, the husband vows reverence and thus courtesy toward his wife in the very acts of married love. "With my body I thee worship." Chivalrous respect is of the very essence of husbandly love.

Secondly, courtesy is closely tied to humility. In fact, Chesterton defined courtesy as "the wedding of humility with dignity" and gave us an example of the Black Prince, who waited like a servant on a man who was his own prisoner (). The courteous man has dignity, but he does not stand on it. He does not lose his throne, and yet he is ready to leave it. There is something in courtesy that deserves to be called self-emptying, the noble refusal of self-worship. The proud or self-centered man may be polite, but he can never be courteous, because he refuses to serve. is the defiant cry of the prince of death and discourtesy.

Thirdly, courtesy is the first cousin of chastity, what the Middle Ages called "cleanness." A man blinded by lust cannot see his lady as the fitting recipient of his courtesy. She has become a thing to be used rather than a person to be served. Malory's Sir Lancelot does not consort with paramours "for dread of God." The debauched knight will not only be distracted in the short term, but disappointed in the long: "Knights that are adventurers should not be adulterers or lechers, for they would not be happy nor fortunate in wars." (Sir Thomas Malory, Works.)

The knights of the courtesy literature are not saints, but they do strive to be saintly. They can be deceived by the world, racked with concupiscence, and tempted by the devil, but in Christ's power they struggle to overcome. The courtesy and cleanness are measured by the wholeheartedness of the struggle. Before all else, the Christian knight strives to remain in the state of grace. He does not presume to know whether that is indeed his condition, but like the greatest knight of the Middle Ages, the knight who was a woman St. Joan of Arc-- if he be not in God's grace, he prays God to put him there.

Fourthly, we can define courtesy as a species of mercy, a kind of compassion. "Pity maketh a king courteous," says John Glover, "both in his word and in his deed." The courteous man has fellow-feeling. His heart senses the possibility of pain and embarrassment () in the other person, and he spares no cost in avoiding it. Chaucer associates courtesy with , at once gentility and gentleness. The courteous man is "a very perfect gentle knight." The bruised reed he does not break. According to Cardinal Newman, "it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain." At the same time, we must add that there is nothing effete or timid about the courteous man. He is, after all, a knight, a crusader. When he needs to fight, he does so. The gentle kindness of his courtesy is very precisely directed especially toward women and children-- that is to say, toward the defense of innocent life and everything small and vulnerable. In the heart of courtesy, lion lies down with lamb. As an example of this coincidence in courtesy of strength and gentleness, we might cite Maurice Baring's friend, the Imperial Russian Ambassador in London before the Great War, Count Benckendorff, "the first gentleman in Europe." His "beautiful manners" and "the perfection of his courtesy" came, said Baring, from an "absence of style;" he was "natural and unaffected with everyone." On the other hand, he was combative in the extreme in the cause of truth and goodness. He hated pessimism. He hated the Oriental, passive view of life, especially if it was preached by Occidentals....He hated everything negative. Suicide to him was the one unpardonable sin....He was extremely argumentative and would put his whole soul into an argument on the most trivial point; and he was as unblushingly unscrupulous as Dr. Johnson in his use of the weapons of contradiction, although, unlike Dr. Johnson, however heated the argument, he was never rude, even for a second; he didn't know how to be rude. (from The Puppet Show of Memory)

Finally, we must say that courtesy has beauty. It is an attribute of the whole person, at once graceful bodily gesture (the "curtsy") and gracious attitude of mind. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the spiritually beautiful and the morally right (the ) were really identical, because when a man is righteous, the splendor of reason shines through his actions. Now courtesy as we have seen, is inseparable from the morally right. Therefore, the courteous person is beautiful and sheds beauty on those to whom he shows courtesy. To display courtesy to a brutal man, as Dostoevsky's Father Zosima does to Old Man Karamazov, is to show him the loveliness God gave him in his nature and the even greater loveliness he could have if only he allowed God's grace to change him. Even that old Victorian pagan George Meredith glimpsed the secret:

See ye not, Courtesy Is the true alchemy, Turning to gold all it touches and tries Like the true knight, so may we Make the basest that there be Beautiful by Courtesy.

Courtesy in the Soul after Death

Courtesy does not die at death. According to Dante, the living man shows himself cortese toward the souls of the departed by praying for them, so that they may purge their guilt and "leave the load behind." In paradise, the pilgrim of the life to come finds a sweet lack of envy in the saints. Each of the blessed accepts his own degree of glory and rejoices, without jealousy, in the merits of his fellows. This heavenly magnanimity is courtesy. According to Dante's report, Bonaventure the Franciscan is so moved by the courtesy with which Thomas the Dominican praises Francis that he lifts up his voice to celebrate Dominic:

To emulous praise of that great paladin The modest speech and glowing courtesy Of Brother Thomas moved me, and therein Moved all his fellowship to join with me

The Middle English poem Pearl describes the same blissful absence of envy:

The court of the Kingdom of the Living God Hath in itself this property- Each one that may arrive therein Is king or queen of all the realm, And yet shall not deprive another; But each is glad of others' weal, And would their crowns were worth five such, Were their enhancing possible.

Courtesy in the Angels

The angels are the courtiers of God. In one medieval view, it was they who first brought courtesy from heaven to earth at the time of the Annunciation:

Clerks that know the sciences seven Say that courtesy came from Heaven When Gabriel our Lady did greet And Elizabeth with her did meet All virtues be closed in courtesy And all vices in villainy.

When we look at the artistic images of the Annunciation in the 15th century, the great age of courtesy, we find all the tell-tale signs of courtesy. In a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi in the Uffizi, Gabriel bends his knee and bows his head in the presence of the Holy Virgin, and his arm appears to strike his breast as if to say, 'Madonna, my Lady, I am not worthy to come under thy roof.' In fact, in all of the iconography of Christendom, the angels of God are courteously content to keep their wings in the wings and leave center-stage to the God-Man and his human saints. In the angels, person and mission are one--the very name "angel" describes an office, not a nature. Everything in the angelic world is centered on God. Self-effacement and thus courtesy are the secret of the angels.

The Courtesy of our Lady Our Blessed Lady, God's Mother and ours, is medieval man's first thought when he hears the word "courtesy." She is the object of the courtesy of Gabriel and Elizabeth, but among creatures she is also the virtue's most perfect embodiment. Here is incandescent purity, sublime humility, the most tender motherly mercy. If courtesy is self-emptying, then no created person is more courteous than she whose every thought, word, and deed is centered on her son. "Do whatever he tells you." In Pearl, the Gawain poet finds the soul of his little daughter in the presence and service of the Queen of Courtesy, "Matchless Mother, Merriest Maid, Blessed Beginner of Every Grace." Our Lady is the Church's supreme model in courtesy, as she is in everything that is Christian.

Now it would be a crass error to see the devotion of medieval man to heaven's Queen as a mere transposition of the courtly honor he paid his earthly mistress. On the contrary, the veneration of Mary was a constant source of renewal and purification. It challenged men to love and look upon women in a more than merely erotic way. She who is uniquely both Virgin and Mother somehow cast her radiance upon all those who were separately virgins and mothers. There is a whole genre of writing that sings the spiritual beauty of women for the sake of the Mother of God. According to a 15th- century ballad, this Mary inspired courtesy toward women graced the life of Robin Hood.

Robin loved Our dear Lady; For fear of deadly sin Would he never do company harm 'That any woman was in.

Courtesy in God

The triune God is the source of all the perfections to be found among his creatures, and so in him is infinite courtesy. This is the teaching of the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. One of the "showings" she received from the Lord was of his courtesy. "Our Lord himself is sovereign Homeliness. But as homely as he is, even so courteous he is; for he is very Courtesy." Lady Julian only translates into English what St. Thomas Aquinas had already said in a sermon expounding the parable about the king who held a wedding feast for his son. God the Father, he says, displays "generosity, courtesy () and familiarity" in inviting us to the nuptials of his incarnate son. "Great is the courtesy when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords invites us to his wedding feast."

According to Lady Julian, we belong to Christ through the courteous gift of the Father.

For the Father is well pleased with all the deeds that Jesus has done concerning our salvation. Wherefore, we are not only his by his buying [work of redemption], but also, by the courteous gift of his Father, we are his bliss, we are his prize, we are his worship, we are his crown. Like St. Thomas, Julian sees Christ as the Head of all men. Everything he does in his human nature is for us, his members. Somehow he includes us all. And when he ascends into heaven, still bearing us in the flesh, the Father in his courtesy gives us back to him. The Word incarnate maps the heavenward path by his teaching and opens it by his death, resurrection, and ascension. And thus Christ is our way, us surely leading in his laws. And Christ, in his body, mightily beareth us up into heaven. For I saw that Christ, us all having that shall be saved by him, worshipfully presents his Father in heaven with us, which present with full thanks the Father receiveth, and courteously giveth it unto his son Jesus Christ. Courtesy is a kind of compassion in man, and in god it pertains to his mercy: He is courteous above all in forgiving our sins. Lady Julian prescribes meditation on the divine courtesy as a cure for scrupulosity. The Father is so rich in mercy that he forgives our repented sins and so large in courtesy that he asks us to forget them once they are forgiven. For just as by God's courtesy he forgets our sin from the time that we repent, just so does he wish us to forget our sins and all our depression and all our doubtful fears. Divine courtesy was first made manifest when God the Son took flesh from the Virgin Mary. His and the Father's gentility were revealed with a wonderful clarity in the manner of his conception and birth. The divine Word did not force himself into human nature, but considerately asked mankind in the person of the Blessed Virgin to give its consent. He came mildly into her womb without seed and left it gently without corruption. Incarnation is not invasion. From his mother's womb, the divine redeemer establishes courtesy as his style.

Jesus, true God and true man in one person, has the divine courtesy in common with the Father and the Son, but also a perfect human courtesy emanating from the unique sensitivity of his Sacred Heart. "Our courteous Christ," as an early 15th-century poem calls our Lord, shows his courtesy every time he meets the lost sheep he has come to seek and to save. It particularly graces his encounters with women: the Samaritan woman, the widow of Nain, Mary and Martha of Bethany. Langland finds courtesy in the Lord's conduct with the woman taken in adultery. "Christ of his courtesy through clergy her saved." "Clergy" here means "learning." Through the characters he drew in the sand, Jesus taught the woman's accusers that they were more guilty than she. By this simple symbolic act, sparing the woman's shame, he who once wrote the Law on tablets of stone reminded the Scribes and Pharisees of that Law's demands on them. As St. Augustine says, in this incident Jesus reveals himself as both justice and gentleness.

The God-Man is a gentle-man.

Courtesy is an essential attribute of the Godhead and therefore common to the three divine persons, though each possesses it as the person he is, in his own distinctive way. The Father and the Son are courteous, and so too is the Holy Spirit. He works delicately, indwelling in our hearts, enlightening our intellects and strengthening our wills. Without him we can do nothing for our salvation, and yet he does not save us without us. The Paraclete empowers our very cooperation with him, and so the work of our hallowing and healing becomes one long dance of divine and human courtesy. The "giving" work of the Holy Spirit is, according to Lady Julian, "a courteous working, of grace, full filling and surpassing all that is deserved by creatures." The grace of the Holy Spirit is in courtesy.

In the late Middle Ages "courtesy" becomes synonymous with sanctifying grace, the grace that makes us pleasing to God and gives us a share in his Trinitarian life. For example, in Pearl it is by divine courtesy that we are incorporated into Christ.

By courtesy, as saith Saint Paul, All are we members of Jesu Christ... Thy head hath neither spleen nor spite, On arm or finger though thou bear ring. So fare we all in love and joy, By courtesy, to King and Queen.

The Trinity is courteous toward us, and we, in the Spirit and through Christ, are called to be courteous toward the Father. We are sons-in-the-Son and may approach God with the confidence of children, and yet, Lady Julian reminds us, we must never be presumptuous: And thus we shall, in love, be homely and near to God, and, in dread, gentle and courteous to God, both qualities united equally....For our courteous Lord willeth that we be as homely with him as heart can think or soul can desire. But we must beware lest we take this homeliness so recklessly as to forsake courtesy. The courtesy of reverence governs the way the Church worships God, especially in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Through the wonder of transubstantiation, heaven comes down to earth, and the sanctuary becomes the court of the Great King. Since God-made-man is really, truly, and substantially present under the sacramental species, the Church venerates the Blessed Sacrament with the worship due to God, and her members express this in beautiful gestures of courtesy-- the profound bow in the Eastern Churches and the genuflection in the West, an action which, as applied to the Eucharist, entered the liturgy in the golden age of courtesy. Priests, since they are in a special way icons of Christ the Priest and act in his person, also receive special marks of esteem; they are censed, and in some rites, their hands are kissed. The courtesy is not directed at the person of the priest himself, but at Christ our Lord, whom the priest represents as image and serves as instrument. The priest, as a public person, acting in and for the whole People of God in the liturgy, is required by the Church to maintain the highest standards of reverence in his approach to God. Like St. Joseph, he is privileged to hold and carry the incarnate Son of God, and so he must imitate the guardian of the redeemer in the gentle courtesy with which he touched "the true body born of the Virgin Mary."

The Discourtesy of Antichrist

If God's grace is in courtesy, the devil's disgrace lurks in discourtesy According to the author of Piers Plowman, discourtesy will be one of the marks of Antichrist. William Langland prophesied a terrible falling away from Christ and his Church, and the sign of that apostasy would be discourtesy. Intellectual arrogance would lead men into infidelity to Holy Mother Church, contempt for the little and weak, and depravity of morals--in a word, into what Scripture calls "the pride of life," the deadly opposite of courtesy.

Loud laughed Life.... And armed himself in haste in harlot's words And held Holiness for a jest and Courtesy (Hendenesse) for a waster, And Loyalty a churl and Liar a free man, Conscience and Counsel he counted it a folly

The prophecy of Langland--who was no heretic, but a man radical through his roots in orthodoxy was fulfilled first of all in the Reformation onslaught on Catholic faith and life. It has come even more terribly true in our own times. A new worldly wisdom preaches dissent from Christian truth, destruction of the innocent, and the rights of perversion. During the Middle Ages, courtesy was built upon the sexual order of God's creation, but in modernity and post-modernity manliness is derided, womanliness denied, and androgyny admired. Even the Holy of Holies is not spared. For the last thirty years, at least in the Latin Church, all manner of discourtesy has been inflicted on the Blessed Sacrament. Even the celebrants of the Sacred Mysteries have neglected the reverence due to the Real Presence of the Lord, and the Divine Liturgy has often become an ugly and crude performance. Instead of chivalrously effacing themselves before the One in whose person and power they act, they project their own personalities. The knight-crusader has become a mercenary.

The disaster of discourtesy seems to have engulfed us. And yet we must not relinquish Christian hope. The situation appeared desperate to Langland, and so, like all the best generals, in the spirit of the bravest knights, he ordered an attack. Anticipating the message of Don Quixote, he issued a call to a new kind of chivalry, a fellowship of men who, in a world puffed up with false knowledge, would be ready to don the livery of Christ's fools and so do battle with Antichrist. For Langland, as for all his contemporaries (Chaucer, Lady Julian, the Gawain poet), the devil is discourtesy, and so only with the gentle weapons of Christian courtesy can he be vanquished: reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, gentle devotion to our Lady, faithfulness to Mother Church, humble charity, chastity, the championing of the innocent. The grace of God is in Courtesy, and so is his Power.

Come with me ye foots, Into Unity of Holy Church and let us hold ourselves there, And cry we to Nature to come and defend Us Fools from the fiend, for the love of Piers Plowman, And cry we on all the commons that they come to Unity, And there abide and do battle against Belial's children.

John Saward teaches dogmatic theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.

This article appeared in the December 1994 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.