Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, Fr. John Baptiste de La Salle

“(H)ow little true Christianity is found in the world and how few among those who live in the world are guided by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” - Fr. John Baptiste de La Salle, 1703


Selected excerpts from

The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility
In Two Parts
For Use in the Christian Schools,1703

From the Introduction to the 2007 reprint

He (Fr. Lasalle) believed that although good manners were not always the expression of good morals, they could contribute strongly to building them. While he envisioned acts of decorum and civility as observing the established customs and thereby protecting the established social order, he envisioned them more profoundly as expressions of sincere charity. In this way the refinement of the gentleman would become a restraint on and an antidote to self-centeredness, the root of individual moral transgressions as well as the collective evil in human society.

The practices he encourages require considerable discipline and self-denial, as well as a solid understanding of what is required if one is to be civil and refined. We can be certain that before he proposed these numerous rules to others, De La Salle had practiced them himself. He was born into a wealthy family with a long tradition of refinement; he was not one of the nouveaux riches. He learned the rules of decorum and civility from his upbringing in a Christian family and from a disciplined education during his formative years. Having acquired a sense of refinement almost imperceptibly from his earliest years, he considered it to be inseparable from Christianity and was perfectly at ease in writing about it. So, while neither boasting of his background nor denying it, De La Salle could set forth the basic rules of propriety quite naturally. Further, a major guiding force in his life was the awareness of the presence of God, which led him to submit to what he perceived to be proper and right.

Les Règles de la Bienséance also reveals De La Salle’s inner harmony. Undisturbed by undisciplined emotion and characterized by firmness joined to stability, De La Salle possessed the tranquility and evenness of disposition that he recommended to others. Throughout his book we see an admirable succession of observations and directives, all solidly based on a reasonable consideration of oneself and others. Evident throughout the text is De La Salle’s awareness that the rules of decorum are relative. He does not pretend to legislate for all ages or countries but only to provide a detailed and methodical code of conduct for civilized people living in France early in the eighteenth century. Many of the prescriptions, more suited to De La Salle’s own era, have changed or disappeared altogether; others, based on reason or on charity, have relevance and value today

For De La Salle the rules of decorum and civility are inspired by love of God and love of neighbor.

De La Salle insists that parents and teachers must teach the many details of politeness in a manner that will motivate children to be courteous and civil, not through worldly ambitions or fears but by an awareness of “the presence of God.” “In other words, children ought to do these things out of respect for God, in whose presence they are.”

De La Salle believed that Christians motivated by the awareness of the presence of God and acting out of respect for themselves and for others would “live like true Christians, for their exterior behavior will be conformable to that of Jesus Christ and will correspond with their Christian profession.”

From the preface

(A)ll 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.

Parents and teachers ought never to fail, while teaching children the rules of decorum, to remind them that they ought to observe these only through purely Christian motives, which concern the glory of God and one’s own salvation.

If all Christians make it a practice to display goodwill, esteem, and respect for others from considerations of this kind only and from motives of this nature, they will sanctify all their actions and make it possible to distinguish, as ought to be possible, between Christian decorum and civility and what is merely worldly or almost pagan. Thus they will live like true Christians, for their exterior behavior will be conformable to that of Jesus Christ and will correspond with their Christian profession. They will thereby show themselves to be different from infidels and from those who are Christians only in name.

Christian decorum is, then, that wise and well-regulated conduct which governs what we do and say. It arises from sentiments of modesty, respect, union, and charity toward our neighbor. It leads us to give due regard to proper times and places and to the people with whom we have to deal. Decorum practiced toward our neighbor is properly called civility.

In the practices of decorum and civility, we must give due consideration to the times in which we are living, because there are many practices which were in use in past centuries, or even in rather recent years, which are not now accepted, and whoever follows these will be considered eccentric and far from being regarded as a polite and courteous person.

It is also necessary to conduct ourselves in matters of decorum according to what is acceptable in the country where we live or where we happen to be, for each nation has its own particular customs of decorum and civility. It happens often enough that what is considered improper in one country is regarded as polite and courteous in another.

It is the same thing regarding matters which decorum requires in certain special places but which are entirely forbidden in others. What must be observed in the presence of the king or in the royal apartments must not be done elsewhere, because the respect we must have for the person of the king demands that certain signs of reverence be shown when in his house that would be out of place in a private home.

We ought to act in our own home differently from the way we act in the homes of others, and so too in homes of people whom we know as opposed to those whom we scarcely know.

Because politeness expects us to have and to show special respect for certain people that we do not owe to others and because it would also violate decorum to show the same kind of respect to everyone, whenever we meet or converse with a person of some social standing, we must pay attention to his rank, dealing with and treating him according to what the rank calls for.

We must likewise consider ourselves and who we are, for whoever is inferior to others is obliged to show submission to those who are superiors, whether by birth, by official position, or by social rank. We ought to pay them much greater respect than we would to someone who is our equal.

A peasant, for example, ought to show more respect for a lord than would a working man who does not depend upon that lord. Similarly, a working man ought to show greater respect for a lord than would a gentleman who happens to be visiting that lord.

Strictly speaking, decorum and civility consist only in the practices of modesty and of respect for our neighbor. Modesty is especially shown in our deportment, and respect for our neighbor is shown in the ordinary acts that we usually perform in the presence of others; therefore, in this book we will treat these two separately. In the first part, we examine the modesty that must be shown in the deportment and the care of the body and of the various parts of the body. In the second part, we examine the external marks of respect or special consideration that must be manifested in the various actions of life with regard to all the people in whose presence we may be and with whom we may have to deal.

1. Deportment and Care of Your Body

In a person’s deportment, there must always be something sedate, even majestic. You ought to take care, however, that there is nothing in this to suggest pride or arrogance of spirit, for such attitudes greatly displease everyone. What will produce this sedateness is the simple modesty and wisdom that as a Christian you display in all your conduct. You are truly of noble birth, for you belong to Jesus Christ and are a child of God, the Supreme Being. Hence, in your exterior there ought to be nothing vulgar. Everything in you ought to denote a certain air of nobility and greatness, a reflection of the power and majesty of God, whom you serve and who gave you being. This dignified appearance ought not to flow from arrogance or lead you to prefer yourself to others. Every Christian wishing to act according to the laws of the Gospel ought to show honor and respect to all others, considering them as children of God and brothers of Jesus Christ and himself as one burdened with sin for which he must constantly humble himself, placing himself beneath everyone else.

2. The Head and Ears

To hold your head in a proper manner, keep it erect without bending it forward or letting it lean to the right or to the left. You must be especially careful not to hunch your shoulders or to turn your head repeatedly from side to side, for this indicates a flighty mind. Furthermore, making frequent gestures with your head is the sign of a disturbed and confused person. It is also a sign of arrogance if you hold your head in an affected manner. It is entirely against the respect due to another person to lift your head high, to shake it, or to wag it from side to side while someone is speaking to you. This indicates that you are not showing the respect the speaker deserves and that you are not prepared to believe or to do what you are being told.

A liberty you must never allow yourself is to support your head on your hands, as if you could not otherwise sustain its weight.

The most beautiful finery for your ears is to keep them unadorned and clean. Ordinarily, men keep their ears covered by their hair, while women more frequently have their ears uncovered. It is sometimes the custom, particularly for women of rank, to wear earrings of pearls, diamonds, or other precious stones. It is, however, more modest and more Christian not to have any accessories attached to your ears, because it is through them that God’s word reaches the mind and the heart. The respect you must profess for that divine word ought to lead you to avoid anything that suggests vanity

3. The Hair

You must not fail to adopt faithfully the rule and the practice of combing your hair daily. You must never appear before anyone at all with tangled and dirty hair.

4. The Face

Your face ought to be happy, with no sign of either intemperance or dissipation. It ought to be serene but not too easygoing; open, without giving signs of too great a familiarity; gentle, without softness, and never suggesting anything vulgar. To everyone it must manifest your respect or, at the least, your affection and goodwill.

It is, however, proper to allow the expression on your face to reflect the various business matters and circumstances that arise. Because you ought to sympathize with your neighbors and show by your appearance that you share what afflicts them, you must not put on a happy and cheerful countenance when a person brings sad news or when a misfortune has befallen someone, nor must you exhibit a somber countenance when something agreeable is said or a happy event has occurred.

In your own concerns, as a person of good judgment, always try to be even-tempered and to display a serene countenance. Just as adversity ought not to cast you into dejection, prosperity must not make you unduly elated. Maintain a tranquil countenance that does not readily change its disposition or expression, no matter what happens, agreeable or disagreeable.

People whose countenance changes at every occasion that comes along are most disagreeable; it is hard to put up with them. Sometimes they appear with a happy look on the face, sometimes with a melancholy air and countenance. Sometimes they show plainly that they are upset; sometimes, that they are in a great hurry. All this serves to reveal a person who has little virtue and who does not strive to keep his passions in check. This way of acting is entirely human and natural and shows little of the Christian spirit.

It is something very improper, something that shows great vanity and is not at all becoming in a Christian, to apply beauty spots and paint to your face, covering it with powder and rouge.

5. The Forehead, Eyebrows, and Cheeks

It is very unbecoming to show a wrinkled forehead, which is ordinarily the sign of a disturbed and melancholy mind. Take care not to let anything harsh be seen in your appearance; instead, you ought to manifest wisdom, kindness, and goodwill.

It is impolite to knit your eyebrows; this is a sign of haughtiness. Instead, you ought to keep your brows relaxed all the time. To raise them indicates scorn, and to let them droop over the eyes is characteristic of the melancholy person.

The finest ornament of the cheeks is a modest reserve, which makes wellborn people blush when an indecent word, a lie, or a slander is uttered in their presence. In fact, only brazen and shameless people can tell lies with ease or say or do something unseemly without blushing.

The finest ornament of the cheeks is a modest reserve, which makes wellborn people blush when an indecent word, a lie, or a slander is uttered in their presence. In fact, only brazen and shameless people can tell lies with ease or say or do something unseemly without blushing.

It is unbecoming to move your cheeks in an exaggerated way or to let them sag; even worse, to puff them out, for this is the effect either of arrogance or of some very violent surge of anger.

When you eat, take care that you do so in such a way that you do not allow your cheeks to fill out. It is extremely unrefined and unbecoming to keep both cheeks full of food. This is a sign, when it happens, that you are eating voraciously, the effect of gluttony completely out of control.

You must never touch your own cheeks or those of someone else, even if this is done out of flattery. You must never pinch anyone, no matter who it may be, not even a child; that would be most ill-mannered, nor ought you to take the liberty of touching someone on the cheek, even as a joke or in jest. All such mannerisms are unbecoming familiarities, which are never permitted.

To slap a person’s cheek is to give him a grave insult. In the world it is considered an intolerable affront. The Gospel urges us to endure this and suggests that Christians who seek to imitate Jesus Christ in his patience ought to be willing, even ready, to turn the other cheek and to receive another blow after having been struck. It forbids us to strike first; only some violent rage or a feeling of vengeance would lead us to do that.

As a person of good judgment, you must never raise your hand to strike another on the cheek; decorum and propriety never allow this, not even toward a servant.

6. The Eyes and Glances

We often know, says the Wise Man, what is in the depths of the soul by observing what appears in the eyes (Eccl [Sir] 19). We can also discern good or evil dispositions, and even though we cannot be absolutely sure of this all the time, it is, nevertheless, a fairly common sign. Thus, one of the first things you must attend to in your exterior deportment is to keep control over your eyes and to regulate your glances. If you wish to be considered a person of humility and moderation and to appear wise and composed, you must try to keep your eyes calm, peaceful, and controlled.

Those whom nature has not blessed with these qualities and who lack this disposition must strive to correct the deficiency by cultivating a happy, modest countenance. They must avoid making their eyes even more disagreeable through negligence. Some people have frightening eyes that betray an enraged or violent temper.

Others always keep their eyes wide open and look around everywhere brazenly; this defect is found ordinarily in impudent people, who show no respect for anyone. There are some people whose eyes wander constantly, looking here, looking there; this indicates a giddy mind.

There are also some who stare so fixedly at an object that it seems that they would like to devour it. Yet it frequently happens that people of this kind pay not the least attention to objects in front of them. These are usually people who are preoccupied by something dear to their heart or whose minds wander readily, never coming to focus on anything definite.

Other people look fixedly at the ground, sometimes casting glances to the right or to the left as though looking for something they had lost. These restless and disturbed people do not know what to do to overcome their anxiety. 

All these ways of looking at things are entirely contrary to decorum and refinement. The first step to correct these defects is to hold your body and head erect and to keep your eyes modestly cast down, while striving to cultivate a free and cordial manner.

7. The Nose and the Manner of Blowing Your Nose and Sneezing

It is unbecoming to wrinkle your nose, for this is something that scoffers do. It is also rude and impolite to twitch your nose; do not even touch it with either the palm of your hand or your bare fingers. It is required by decorum that you keep your nose very clean; it is disgusting to let it get filled with mucus. Therefore, you must clean it often to keep it properly clean, for your nose is the honor and the beauty of your face and its most prominent part.

You must always use a handkerchief, never anything else, when blowing your nose. When doing this, ordinarily use your hat to cover your face, or if few people are present and you can easily turn your face from their view, do so, and blow your nose away from their presence. When blowing your nose, avoid making a lot of noise by blowing too hard or by snorting. All this is very uncouth.

When you are at table, it is proper to use your napkin to cover your nose as much as possible, for it is lacking in decorum to blow your nose without covering it.

When you are about to sneeze, do not try to prevent it, but it is proper to turn your face slightly to the side while covering it with your handkerchief. Then sneeze as gently and with as little noise as possible.

Finally, courteously thank the others present for their signs of goodwill by making them a slight bow. When someone else sneezes, do not say aloud, “God bless you,” or, “God help you.” Merely take your hat off, and without speaking, make a slight bow, a deep one if it is a person to whom great respect is due.

8. The Mouth, Lips, Teeth, and Tongue

Do not keep your mouth either too widely open or too firmly shut. When eating, do not have your mouth full; rather, eat with such moderation that you will be ready to speak easily and will be understood distinctly when the occasion presents itself. Refinement requires that your mouth always be clean, and for this purpose it is proper that you wash it out every morning.

Decorum, requires you to keep your tongue always in your mouth and never to let it stick out, for teeth are an enclosure that nature has given us for this purpose.

9. Speech and Pronunciation

Because speech is formed by your mouth, lips, tongue, and teeth, it would seem that this is the place to mention it.

To speak well and to be understood by others, you must open your mouth wide and take care not to speak too fast or to say a single word heedlessly and frivolously, because this prevents people, especially those who are active by temperament, from pronouncing well.

In speaking, make it a point to use a gentle and relaxed tone of voice, loud enough to be heard by those to whom you speak, for we speak only to be understood. It is not polite, however, to talk too loudly or to shout as though speaking to deaf people.

One thing you must be careful about when speaking is not to let anything harsh, bitter, or disdainful creep into your voice, no matter to whom you are speaking. You must always speak with refinement and goodwill.

Speaking through your nose is ridiculous. Although this might be caused by illness, make sure that your nose is not stopped up and that it is kept clean and free from obstructions.

Those who have a heavy tongue and who wish to correct this condition must learn to strengthen their voice by taking pains to stress the letters or syllables that they are not able to pronounce. This will make enunciation easier for them.

It is important to make the effort to correct such defects at an early age, because such habits are almost impossible to overcome later on, once you have developed your own way of speaking. Even if you realize when you are older that this way of talking is improper and disagreeable, you will find it impossible to get rid of it and to change.

It is unbecoming to talk to yourself. This is something you must seldom do, for it would mark you as irrational, as lacking in good sense, or as someone scheming and hatching a plot and trying to figure out how to do it.

Something most important to observe when you speak is to sound all the letters and syllables and to pronounce all the words distinctly, one after the other. Take care that you do not neglect to pronounce the final consonant when the word is followed by another one that begins with a vowel; however, do not pronounce the final consonant when the first letter of the next word is a consonant.

Two defects are to be avoided in pronunciation. One has to do with the pronunciation itself, and the other refers to the manner of enunciating.

As to pronunciation in ordinary conversation, it ought to be even and uniform. Do not change your tone of voice at every moment, as a preacher might do. The tone must always be firm, so that you do not drop your voice at the end of a word. Instead, strive to bring out the ending of words and sentences more distinctly than the beginning, so that you can always be well understood. Pronunciation must also be complete; do not omit or slur any letter or syllable, so that you pronounce everything well. Finally, your pronunciation must be so precise that one letter is not mistaken for another.

There are several improper ways of enunciating. Some people speak in a slow, slurred, and listless manner. Such speakers are very disagreeable to listen to; they always seem to be complaining about something when they speak. This kind of enunciation indicates great slovenliness and laxity of conduct. The defect is more common and also more tolerable in women than in men, but everyone ought to try to avoid it.

There are other people whose pronunciation of words is clumsy and harsh, in the manner common among peasants. They can correct themselves of this defect only by softening their tone of voice and by not stressing words and syllables so strongly.

There are some people whose way of enunciating is hard and brusque; this manner of speaking is very rude. To overcome this defect, always speak gently, paying attention to yourself and showing much kindness for others.

Others speak in a shrill and hurried manner. You can change this by always taking a firm tone of voice and striving to enunciate all the syllables distinctly and attentively.

Enunciation must be at once clear, gentle, and pleasant. To learn how to enunciate well, you ought to begin by speaking little, saying all the words one after another at a moderate pace, enunciating all syllables and all words distinctly. It is especially useful to converse ordinarily only with people who speak well and enunciate properly.

10. Yawning, Spitting, and Coughing

Decorum requires you to refrain from yawning when with others, especially when with people to whom you owe respect. Yawning is a sign that you are bored either with the company or with the talk of your companions or that you have very little esteem for them. If, however, you find that you cannot help yawning, stop talking entirely, hold your hand or your handkerchief in front of your mouth, and turn slightly aside, so that those present cannot notice what you are doing.

Above all, take care when yawning not to do anything unbecoming and not to yawn too much. It is very unseemly to make noise while yawning and much worse to yawn while stretching or sprawling out.

You need not refrain entirely from spitting. It is a very disgusting thing to swallow what you ought to spit out; it can make you nauseated. Do not, however, make a habit of spitting often and without necessity. This is not only uncouth but also disgusting and disagreeable to everyone. Take care that you rarely need to do this in company, especially with people to whom special respect is due.

As much as you can, avoid coughing; especially avoid it when at table, when you are speaking to someone, or when someone is speaking to you. This respect is owed especially to the word of God when you are listening to it, so as not to prevent others also from hearing it easily. But if, like everyone else, you do have to cough when in company, do so rarely and without a lot of noise.

11. The Back, Shoulders, Arms, and Elbows

It is unbecoming to go around with a stooped back, as though carrying a heavy load on your shoulders. Instead, develop the habit of holding yourself erect at all times; make children do the same. Carefully avoid lifting your shoulders and hunching them up, holding them crooked, or lifting one higher than the other.

Decorum does not permit you to move your shoulders from side to side when walking, making them look like a pendulum on a clock, or to swing them back and forth. This gives the impression that you have a haughty attitude and are a person who is conceited. Turn neither your back nor your shoulders, even slightly, when speaking to someone or when someone is speaking to you. It is most impolite to stretch out your arms, to reach out with them, to twist them one way or another, to keep them behind your back, or to hold them on your hips, as women sometimes do when they are angry and are scolding someone.

Do not swing your arms when walking, not even under the pretext of going faster and making up lost time, nor ought you to keep your arms folded. This is an attitude of modesty befitting religious but not laypeople. Decorum requires laypeople to hold their arms in front of them, resting lightly against the body, with one hand holding the other.

It is altogether against politeness to lean on your elbows while listening to someone speak. It is even more impolite to do so at table, and to adopt this posture while praying would be a gross lack of respect for God. Be careful not to strike or to poke anyone with your elbow, whether through familiarity or playfulness. Never do so, even when you want to speak to someone; do not even put your hand on the other person’s arm.

It would be a very uncouth manner of behaving to rebuff anyone who comes to speak to you by raising an arm as though to strike or push the person away or to shove the person with your elbow. Mildness, humility, and respect for your neighbor must always be apparent in your conduct.

12. The Hands, Fingers, and Nails

Decorum requires that you have your hands clean and always keep them so. It is shameful to appear in public with filthy, stained hands; only workingmen or peasants might be excused for doing so. To keep your hands clean and neat, wash them every morning, again before meals, and every time during the day when you happen to soil them while doing some work.

It is not proper, after soiling your hands or washing them, to wipe them on your clothes, on those of someone else, on the wall, or on anything where another person might pick up some of the grime. In the presence of people to whom you owe respect, you would be taking a considerable liberty to rub your hands together, whether it be because of the cold, out of joy, or for any other reason. Do not do this even in the company of your closest friends.

It is unbecoming for laypeople to keep their hands in their sleeves or to keep them clasped when speaking to someone. Such behavior is befitting a religious rather than a layperson. Decorum does not permit you to keep your hands in your pockets or to hold them behind your back. Such uncouth behavior might be expected of a porter.

It is not refined to tap someone with your hand, not even in play. This is acting like a schoolboy and is done only by a child who is flighty and not well behaved. When speaking in conversation, do not tap your hands together or make any gestures. Moreover, carefully avoid touching the hands of those with whom you are speaking, for this would show very little courtesy and respect. Still less must you pull on the buttons, the tassels, the neck cloth, or the mantle that another is wearing or even touch them.

It is a sign of friendship and special regard to place your hand in another’s as a gesture of politeness. Therefore, as a rule, do this only with a person of the same social rank, because friendship can exist only between people who are in no way inferior or superior to each other.

If you owe respect to a person, you are never permitted to offer your hand as a sign of esteem or affection. This would be to fail in the respect due to that person and to act with undue familiarity. If a person of high rank or in some way superior to you takes your hand, however, you ought to consider this an honor and immediately return the gesture, accepting this favor as a notable sign of kindness and goodwill.

When giving your hand to anyone as a sign of friendship, always present your bare hand; at such a time it is against decorum to have a glove on your hand. However, when you offer a hand to help someone who has stumbled or to a woman to guide her, it is courteous to do this with a gloved hand.

It shows that you know nothing about decorum if you point to a place, to the person you are talking about, or to another person at a distance. As a courteous person, never take the liberty to pull on your fingers, as though to lengthen them, or to make the joints crack. Also, it is ridiculous and suggests thoughtlessness to drum with your fingers, and it is most disgusting to spit on them.

As a person of good judgment, you must never strike anyone with either your fingers or your hand, and you must never give a person those little thumps that are called taps.

It is very important not to let your nails grow too long or to allow them to be filled with dirt. For this reason, it is good to cut them every week and to clean them daily. However, it is unbecoming to trim your nails when in company, especially the company of people to whom you owe respect, nor must you cut them with a knife or bite them with your teeth. To trim your nails properly, use a pair of scissors. Take care of your nails in private or when with people you see familiarly every day. Turn aside while cutting them.






In the next installment, The Parts of the Body That Must Be Covered; the Necessities of Nature.

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