[A continuation of Respect (1)]
The importance of respect can be easily seen when we think of routine encounters. Love is too freighted a term for the way we interact with, say, the person at the checkout counter of a store. It is obvious that courtesy and respect are called for but not love as it rests (and twists and turns) in the popular imagination. We all know how much we appreciate doing business with people who are respectful and how much we avoid doing business with those who aren’t. In such cases, respect isn’t much of a feeling but it is a set of actions and a manner of speaking. Although receiving respectful treatment gives us a low grade sense of well-being, disrespectful treatment tends to make us instantly angry and all sense of respect flies out the window or through the wall. Disrespect makes the smallest exchanges seem big and highly significant while we don’t think of much of respectful encounters. The thing is, both respect and disrespect are highly contagious but the latter is especially so. We tend to think we are owed respect just for being people and feel violated if we are not treated respectfully. Yet we are apt to think other people should earn our respect. This looks like a double standard but I can sympathize. This sort of attitude comes naturally to me. However, if God’s unconditional love for us is taken as a model for human relationships, it follows that we should give unconditional respect, which is harder. We can fool ourselves into thinking we only hate the sin but love the sinner, but how about respecting the sinner while hating the sin?
The chapter on the Cellarer of the monastery in the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 31) is the most concise and articulate view of respect and courtesy that I know. The cellarer is the monk responsible for providing for the community and guests. To do that, he needs to respect the tools and all other material goods to the extent of treating them as if they were “sacred vessels of the altar.” Here is an indication of the continuum from respect to God in prayer to respect for material reality in one’s work. The cellarer should provide “the allotted amount of food without any pride or delay lest they be led astray.” That is, the cellarer should be respectful of the needs of others and should not take advantage of his position to play petty power games with people the way some bureaucrats will with their tiny turfs. The Latin for “leading them astray” is scandalizaverit which means scandalize, place a stumbling block before the other. “Scandal” is a word imported from the Greek New Testament and is the word Jesus used when he warned against causing his “little ones” to stumble, a verse Benedict goes on to quote. Jesus and Benedict are alerting us to a human tendency that René Girard has more recently pointed to: the human tendency to make oneself a stumbling block for another by making a simple encounter a contest of wills. This is precisely what Benedict wants the cellarer to avoid. (I discuss scandal in Girard and Benedict in my book Tools for Peace.)
On the contrary, if the cellarer does not have a requested item, he should “offer a king word in reply.” When I was guestmaster for the monastery, there were times when I did not have room to accept any more guests and I kept this admonition in mind and tried to speak kindly and give encouragement for coming at another time. If the cellarer should be the one who suffers discourtesy, he should “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” The onus is on the cellarer to stem an escalation of disrespect by treating even a disrespectful person with respect.
Continued in Respect (3)