Reverence: The Mother of All Virtues
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Catholic News Agency
April 26, 2016
One of the many ethical gems that Plato has left us is to be found in his last work: The Laws—a work alas often neglected by scholars. Born in the fifth century B.C.—the glorious century of Greece—Plato died in 348 B.C. when Athens was on a declining slope. Deeply sorrowed from witnessing this decadence, and referring to the glorious century of Pericles, and also of Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Plato wrote the following words: “… reverence was then our queen and mistress.” These golden words give us a key to moral decadence: lack of reverence. He seems to be addressing the twenty-first century: “Irreverence will be your downfall.”
These words alone fully justify the fathers of the Church in honoring him with the words: “a preparer of the ways of Christ.” They also fully justify the role that he played in the thought of St. Augustine. Plato perceived with matchless clarity that respect for the natural moral law is the thermometer that will determine the future of a country. This should give us food for thought. Alas, one of the laws of history is that we never learn from the eloquent lessons it gives us.
Plato saw clearly that reverence is a key virtue. Dietrich von Hildebrand calls it, “the mother of all virtues,” because none of them can possibly blossom without being animated by a feeling of awe for the greatness of creation—a creation that clearly points to a creator.
Reverence is the virtue reminding us constantly that we are “creatures”—that everything is a gift calling for gratitude toward the Gift-Giver. Reverence opens our eyes to the mystery of being, of life, of beauty. In his own unique style, Chesterton tells us about his enchantment as a child over the fact that he existed, and once for the mysterious beauty of the world surrounding him… but to his regret—not being at that time religiously awakened—he deplored the fact that he did not know to whom he should address his gratitude. A gift calls for a gift-giver. How tragically poor is the life of those who choke on the words, “Thank you.” Such people are metaphysical beggars—and do not know it.
The young child is born with a sense of “marveling,” be it the discovery of its own toes. Each day opens up a window that makes him grow wings. The Greeks were right indeed: “Philosophy begins in wonder.” How incredibly sad to be living in a world which no longer “wonders” and chokes on the words, “Thank you”: a world in which we are told that thanks to “science” there is nothing that modern man cannot unravel and “explain” away. How true is the French saying: “A little science separates us from God; true science brings us back to Him.”
How desirable it is for all of us to go back to spiritual childhood and wake up every morning with a heart open to marveling.
I recall that as a tiny little girl, I once went to the kitchen, watched the cook cut an onion, and marveled with enchantment at all its admirable layers. To this very day, I have a special relationship with it. I also recall taking an egg in my hand, and once again being overwhelmed by its beauty. This enchantment still increased when the cook cut it open, and I witnessed this admirable combination of yellow and white—the papal colors—which I still experience today.
Another awakening to “wonder” was my first conscious perception to the enchantment of springtime. We lived one hundred yards from the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, where I took my first steps. My mother took us there daily to play. Upon entering the park, it must have been in late March, I noticed that the earth that was dark the day before, had broken open to permit the entrance of a crocus. I was so overwhelmed that I bent down and kissed it. To this very day, I have not lost my special relationship with this modest flower. I realized that grateful wonder and happiness are deeply connected.
The curse of modern men, is that so many of them have lost their sense for wonder and gratitude. Boredom is a punishment for irreverence. Alas, our mind-boggling technological progress has brought with it the curse of taking things for granted and assuming with blind stupidity that there is nothing we cannot know—nothing that he cannot master. Having a small gadget in his hand, one feels that he is the master of the universe. He can click on a button and have the world at his fingertips. Regretfully, we never hear homilists say a word about the sin of being “blasé.” It is a sin because it is a consequence of ingratitude—because it is a fruit of pride and metaphysical arrogance. Every sin brings with it its own punishment.
Alas the spiritual climate of our scientific age has killed our sense of wonder. We have become so convinced that (thanks to the mind-boggling development of science, especially in the course of the twentieth century that has invented the atomic bomb) we no longer need to “marvel.” There is no mystery that we cannot not only unravel but control. In fact, nothing deserves our “wonderment.” Being blasé is a twentieth-century sickness. Why are so many of us “bored” and unhappy? To have too much money is a curse; we can have anything without effort, just by paying the bill. I have reasons to assume that the children of peasants are never bored; nature keeps fascinating them. But I know children of the very rich that are always complaining of being bored; having everything, they enjoy nothing. A very rich financier who had one hundred ties in his closet, passing Brooks on Madison Avenue, might be tempted to get another one: of course, he will buy it, but will hardly ever wear it, if at all. Those of us who have worked hard to get a nice outfit, once we wear it, enjoy it and are grateful. There are children whom their parents take to Florida for Christmas, to California for Easter, and spend the summer in Europe traveling from country to country: they saw everything; “Of course, I saw the Parthenon—what about it? Of course I saw Santa Sophia; of course one short weekend I saw the Pyramids.” They do not know how to contemplate: the key concern is to brag about it to their “friends” at school: “I know it all. Nothing impresses me.” In a different context, this has been admirably sketched by Anthony Esolen in his book showing how “imagination” can be and has been killed in children. I am tempted to say because of our having lost our sense of marveling, we are feverishly looking for substitutes such as drugs which give one a “high”; rock and roll, the brutal sounds of which awaken in us—to quote Socrates—the monster that lies dormant in every one of us.
Whereas the St. Matthew’s Passion brings tears to our eyes and teaches us how to pray. Violent, deafening sounds act like a narcotic on the human soul and paralyze it spiritually. How right Plato was once again when he wrote that decadence starts with music (or rather brutal noise now called music) and prevents us from being “recollected”.
Modern man assumes that he has a key to the universe, he is the master and should only marvel at himself; “wie herrlich weit wir es gebracht haben” (how wonderfully far we have made it) (Goethe, Faustus Wagner).
We live in a mendacious world which promises that “technology” gives us a key to the universe, and that, being given time, man can solve all problems and conquer death. Indeed, man can become sicut dii (like God).
The punishment is that we constantly need more fun, more noise to make us forget at least for a while—how bored we are. These palliatives are addictive: the more we take them, the more we need them. This has produced the "Drug Culture.” Drug it is indeed, but “culture”? It should be called anti-culture. We have lost the art of marveling because there is nothing worth marveling at. Man is a bored “creator,” and has totally—and possibly willingly—forgotten that he is a creature who should recall daily that there is nothing that he has not received. The sacredness of receptivity has been destroyed because the latter calls for gratitude.
Every sin—and metaphysical arrogance is a major one—brings with it its own punishment: modern man can no longer “marvel” and has lost the art of rejoicing over the blinding fact that there are things greater than we are. Boredom is a modern plague. Now it should be obvious that there is a deep bond between gratitude—a key to happiness—and reverence. What a beautiful topic for a doctoral dissertation. As far as I know, it has not yet been done.
Assuming that because we have the world at our fingertips (thanks to modern gadgets) and only need to click on a key to “be in China” and also find answers to all questions: we are condemned to eternal boredom, and often turn to perversions to have some fun—something that makes us forget, be it only for a few hours, how boring life is. This fact explains the scary epidemic of devilish practices and of every conceivable perverse invention.
What is “reverence?” It is an uplifting and joyful feeling of awe, a response that man is called upon to give to God’s creation which clearly points to the Creator; it is an ever renewed and grateful discovery of the mysteries of being; it is an overcoming of one’s moral blindness preventing us from perceiving the glories of the universe that we live in. It is a joy to perceive how marvelous it is “to be,” and consequently, should make us respond with horror at abortion, willingly and brutally denying existence to others (for I doubt that abortionists would have chosen to be aborted themselves had they had a chance of doing it). They deny life to others; not to themselves. We all should tremble with respect at perceiving a little creature making its dramatic entrance into our world.
This increasing lack of reverence is, alas, strikingly expressed in our churches since Vatican II. No one will ever convince me that in destroying the communion rails—many of which were artistic masterpieces—our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament increased. And this is apart from the scandalous expenses that this iconoclasm involved. The question we should raise is why was it done? It is not only pitiful, but shameful that people in authoritative positions did not say clearly and loudly, “We do not want this act of irreverent iconoclasm.” Alas, their silence was deafening. Man is made up of body and soul, and it is dignum et justum (right and just) that the body in harmony with the soul should express its trembling reverence toward the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist. If any one of us were blessed with a divine apparition, the first thing we would do would be to kneel in trembling adoration. How right Chesterton was when he wrote that modern man forgets “how tall he is on his knees.” But one “profanation” leads to the next. Now not only were communion rails destroyed, but others changes—for example, singing the same discordant music of irreverence—were introduced one by one. Why is it that people no longer beat their breasts while reciting the “Confiteor”? “Mea Culpa” calls for the beautiful duet sung by the soul, with the accompaniment of the body. Why is it that when reciting the “Credo” people no longer bow while uttering the words; et incarnatus est (and was made flesh)?—the glorious words of Christian revelation. Why is it that in a modern Belgian church the benches are so close to one another that it is physically impossible to kneel when the words of consecration are uttered? In the same church, people no longer get up for the reading of the Gospel, and when the words of consecration are uttered, they get up mechanically for a minute and then sit down again. Why is it that since Vatican II many are those who come to Sunday mass in their beach attire? Something they would not dream of doing if invited to the White House by Barack Obama. Would that be such an honor?
Religion should have a sacred language: a language which being limited to the cult is inoculated against slang and vulgarity. How tragic is the loss of Latin, uniting all Catholics all over the world—the precious bond of a sacred language. The construction of the Tower of Babel brought about its own punishment: the difficulty for men now to communicate. By abandoning Latin in the liturgy, we have chosen the punishment. Let me repeat: vulgarities are inconceivable in a sacred language. When one hears a visiting priest giving the homily at Sunday mass and referring to God as “the nice guy upstairs,” I know that if angels could weep, they would sob. It is nothing short of shameful.
The answer is tragically obvious: we have lost our sense of reverence—the trembling reverence that animated Moses when he was told to take off his shoes… for this place is sacred. How can Muslims possibly be convinced that we Catholics believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist while witnessing the posture of very many Catholics coming to Sunday Mass? Sunt lacrimae rerum (There are tears for things). Any religious revival should begin with a re-awakening of our sense of wonder, awe, and trembling reverence for the sacred and whatever is greater than we are. He who walks on arrogant stilts faces the danger of breaking his neck.
Again, no one would convince me that to give communion in the hand has increased our faith. Ever since I was a child, I heard the words: “Do not touch. This is precious.” If there is one thing which is not only precious, but sacred, it is the Body of Christ. Why are the hands of priests consecrated? Because this consecration allowed them to touch the body of our Savior. Apart from the fact that this dangerously unfortunate decision has decreased our sense of the sacred, it has also weakened the difference between priest and lay people—a Lutheran victory. All are called to holiness, but the fact remains that someone who can pronounce the words, “This is my body; this is my blood,” is granted a special dignity which today, while not being officially not abolished, has decreased our reverence for the priesthood. We should not forget that there are many ways to holiness: all claim our being transformed in Christ, but the vocation to the priesthood differs greatly from the vocation to marriage and parenthood. There are holy priests; there are holy fathers and mothers. A holy father, by his holiness, is much closer to a holy priest than the latter is to a mediocre one.
Let me add: allowing the faithful to receive under the two species, while done in the past, was permitted at the time when “reverence was our queen and mistress.” Today it has in fact decreased our reverence not only for the Holy Eucharist, but also for the priesthood: it in fact has abolished the difference between consecrated and non-consecrated hands. How difficult it is for young Catholic children today to have this sense of mystery, sacredness, and trembling reverence when their parents no longer have it?
I will only make a brief allusion to the way people dress coming to Mass on Sunday. Once again, years ago, out of reverence for the Eucharist, people covered themselves respectfully. Today many are those who come to church as to popular restaurants; “Come as you are”—how can Protestants and non-Catholics possibly believe that we believe that Christ is physically present?
Inevitably this lack of respect will impact our reverence not only for our own body, but also on the relationship between man and woman; how is a male to respect a woman who has no more sense for the mystery of her femininity and never thinks that she is privileged to have a body identical in “architecture” to the body of the holiest one among human creatures?
One thing is certain: old age is no longer respected. When I was a child in Belgium, in public transportation it was the rule that when at “rush hour” or when the trolley car or the bus was full, men would immediately give their seat to an elderly person or to a mother with young children. It was a matter of course. In a materialistic society like ours, youth is glorified, and old age is looked down upon as no longer productive or efficient. When one reads stories of Indian tribes, it was a matter of course that when they were facing a threatening situation, they turned for advice to the elderly because having lived longer, they had more experience, and were better acquainted with human problems and suffering.
It is saddening indeed when young children in grammar school age address elderly persons with, “Hi, Joe.” It would have been inconceivable in my youth, not to address them as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” If I were to tell them that it is not the proper way of addressing the elderly, they would be baffled. “Why? We are all equal.”
This lack of respect is also manifested in the silly conviction that thanks to our amazing technology we are infinitely superior to people of the past—be it Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare or Dostoyevski. A student of mine had the arrogance to declare in front of the whole class that he did not think that Shakespeare was a great writer. Horrified, I could only mutter: “Poor Shakespeare. Mr. X of the Bronx would, at best, give you a C-minus!” One thing is certain; none of these famous men was a computer expert!
It is pathetic when a grammar school child looks down upon his grandmother because she had difficulty handling a computer. But one thing is certain: many are grown up today who cannot write properly. Recently, I received the letter of a “big shot.” Looking at his signature, I would have sworn that he was in the first grade.
Technology has no respect for nature: we have incredibly efficient and comfortable airplanes (let us think of Air Force I), but we are no longer capable of producing beautiful means of transportation: luxury and comfort have replaced beauty. I am tempted to say that one of the reasons why the British monarchy survived “modernity” is because of their sense of tradition; when the Queen goes to the Parliament, she is driven in a horse-drawn, beautiful carriage. How grotesque would it be if, to be modern, she rode there on a bicycle! How disappointed we would be if we were told by the Vatican that the Swiss Guards uniforms would soon be replaced by waiters’ attires, in a spirit of poverty. These beautiful clothes are too expensive to make. A Franciscan monastery of the twelfth century had neither electricity nor running water, but it was beautiful. It is still is. Can machines and tools ever be entitled to be called “beautiful”? The modern man builds up incredibly fast, knowing full well that in the near future, it will be demolished and replaced with something more efficient, more comfortable, more modern.
We ruthlessly destroy nature. Understandably because of population growth, certain pieces of land must be available for new buildings, but I am far from certain that profit making does not “trump” a practical need.
While reading this brief essay, it is most likely that I will be dubbed a “Cassandra.” Alas, she was right.