Why did HarperCollins republish a 100-year-old book by a Catholic nun on the topic of courtesy?
Perhaps they bet that since Sister Mary Mercedes’ A Book of Courtesy provides practical tips on success in relationships, there might be a demand for it, even now, in this paced-paced twenty-first century.
Should we be surprised? Courtesy is not old in the sense of being outmoded. It is old only because it is perennial . . . and therefore biblical.
Of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), only the first three are “vertical,” about our relationship to God. The other seven are “horizontal,” addressing our dealings with other people. So it is no wonder that we find everywhere in the Bible passages on all aspect of personal relationships, within the family, Church, neighborhood, and workplace.
First let’s look at the gospels. The Sermon on the Mount contains the most oft-quoted Bible verse, the famous “Golden Rule” of Matt 7:12 “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”
In essence, this rule means demands we put ourselves in the place of another. It requires empathy and is based on the conviction that every person has the same inherent dignity as I, since we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Hence the second great commandment — “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31).
The Epistles are also full of instruction on relationships. Paul urges us to adopt the attitude of Jesus: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but . . . everyone for those of others.” ( Phil 2:3-4). He tells the Colossians to approach others with “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” Col 3:12-13. James devotes the entire third chapter of his letter to the power of the tongue to destroy others and ourselves as well.
James is echoing what he’d learned in his own youth, when biblical Proverbs like this one would have been drilled into him: “Those who guard their mouths preserve themselves; those who open wide their lips bring ruin” (Prvb 13:3). It wasn’t just the Jews who used the very practical wisdom books of the Old Testament to form character in their young. The catechumenate of the early Church focused so heavily on character formation that the book of Sirach came to be called “Ecclesiasticus” or the book of the Church. It covers everything from table etiquette (chap 31) to how to choose friends (chap 11) to conduct in both private and public life (Chap 7).
Many former Catholics say they left the Church because they found little in their Catholic experience that was truly relevant to their everyday lives. Perhaps part of the New Evangelization must be to recapture in our homilies and catechesis the practical biblical wisdom provided that would help people master what Sister Mercedes calls “the art of living with ourselves and with others.”