My wife was charmed: whenever she walked into a room, the boy choristers would stand.
This was at the choir school of Saint Thomas Church in New York City. We lived in the choir school for several years. Because of her disability, the headmaster extended to her an invitation to eat with the boys from time to time. Sometimes she would be late to arrive. Walking into the refectory, moving to her spot at a table, the boys already there would stand. She would smile. They would all sit.
I was charmed too. Older boys whose voice had changed would serve as acolytes. They would be sitting in our verger’s office, say, when I would enter with a question about the upcoming service. They would halt their conversation and stand. “Thank you,” I would say.
To stand when one’s elder enters a room, or to stand for a woman, is an old-fashioned way of showing respect. It also raises everyone’s dignity. If you stand, you acknowledge the dignity of the person who is before you. At the same time, you show you have such dignity yourself as to recognize it in others.
Such actions are outward signs of inward reality. What we seek is inward character that manifests respect in courageous and self-denying action.
Peggy Noonan has written that the common thread in all the recent stories of sexual predators is “The men involved were not gentlemen. They acted as if they’d never heard of the concept.” She then samples some definitions. I particularly liked this one: A gentleman “does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity.”
“America,” she writes, “needs more gentlemen.” We need more people whose respect for others transcends their immediate desires.
Back to standing: it is the posture of attendance, of being available for service. At the Last Supper, Jesus stood to wash his disciples’ feet. We serve one another with such signs of respect. Those with authority are to lower themselves in service, and thereby elevate others. After washing their feet, Jesus told his disciples they were to do likewise with one another.
In my time here in Dallas, I have been impressed by the widespread use of “ma’am” and “sir.” Where I used to live, such words were used ironically, if at all; they would create distance. Here their widespread use is a sign of respect, of lifting up one another to a dignified, common level of human address. They don’t feel formal or off-putting, but rather leveling and uplifting at once: they show us as equal possessors of human dignity, mutually acknowledged.
Yes ma’am, we need more of that.
Out & About. This Sunday, January 28, I am preaching at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, 5100 Ross Ave., Dallas, at the 8am and 10:30am services. At 9:30am I will continue the class on the Song of Songs.