Etiquette and Ceremonial: Why?

In a society ever more given to banality, technological gadgets, utilitarian education, vulgar treatment, and unbridled sensual pleasure, what role does ceremony and etiquette play? Are manners really important anymore? Would not life be easier without them?

The answer to these questions can be found in the wise and scholarly work by St John Baptist de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers. Other enlightening explanations can be found in lectures given by Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, Catholic leader, writer and founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP).

During the lifetime of a man, millions of actions take place -- great endeavors like writing a book or small ones such as brushing one's teeth. Is there any action, great or small, that does not have a purpose or a way to perform it that is more perfect or pleasing to God?

St John Baptist de la Salle answers the question with a passage from St Paul’s epistle:

“According to the same Apostle, because all our actions ought to be holy, there are none that ought not to be done through purely Christian motives. Thus, all our external actions, which are the only ones that can be guided by the rules of decorum, must always, through faith, possess and display the characteristics of virtue.”

There is a profound lesson contained in this counsel. Virtue or vice is present in everything we do or say. Therefore, etiquette has a vital purpose, because it refers to our external actions, whether we are speaking with a friend, dining at our own table or writing a letter to the editor of a large newspaper. There is a proper and an improper way to do things. The great Marian apostle, St Louis de Montfort, expresses this idea in his work True Devotion to Mary. He states that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave more glory to God by turning a doorknob than the holy St Lawrence being martyred on the grid iron. Why is this? Because Our Lady acted with such perfection, purity of intention and love of God that her simple actions were more pleasing to the Creator than Saint Lawrence’s supreme offering.

This reflection gives us food for thought in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our times full of gadgets and distractions.

When we are speaking with someone at table, should we pull our smart phone out of our pocket and look at it? Someone may object, “Where in the catechism does it say this is not permissible?” True, the catechism does not mention this sort of thing, but the action itself can be a breach in etiquette and has spiritual ramifications. Let’s analyze this one incident. First, the action may give the impression that one finds the conversation at table uninteresting and boring. Second, the action may be the result of one not paying attention to the one who is speaking, thus causing resentment in the other and feeding our laziness. Third, the action could become a nervous habit brought about by the frenetically intemperate society we live in.

A doctor or priest may have a higher reason to answer the phone at table; a medical emergency, for example. But this action is a noble exception in the midst of many unnecessary interruptions in the course of a simple meal. Go to any restaurant and observe how technology governs our lives.

Now, that which deals with basic etiquette also applies to ceremony, which is linked to the same. In reality, etiquette is a collection of small ceremonies. To stand up and give one’s seat to a lady or tip one’s hat is a small ceremony.

Ceremony does in fact play a role in our spiritual life. But why? Would it not be easier to just put a crown on a King’s head and be done with it? Why have a coronation ceremony?

Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira answers:

“Because original sin, having degraded human nature, leads man to do many trivial and caricatural things which lack the beauty appropriate to his nature. So, there has to be something called education, something else called protocol, and still another thing called ceremonial to fix that which men would not do well of themselves.”

Truly, original sin has left in the souls of men tendencies that are not appropriate to the sublime calling of each one. If each person is an heir to a throne in Heaven, certainly he is called to live a life of dignity proper to this high calling. Each one has a great reward awaiting him in the next life if he corresponds. When one sees things in this light, ceremony takes on a truly sublime aspect.

Dr. Plinio Correa de Oliveira continues: “What is a ceremonial? It is a set of gaits and movements idealized according to a structural and calculated plan in which all persons adopt attitudes that are beautiful, aesthetic, those which men would take had they not fallen into original sin. During a ceremony, a kind of recapitulation of paradisiacal nature takes place. Hence the beauty of the ceremonial, which expresses wonders that ordinary human life does not have. That is ceremonial.”