The Execution of Formality

Written by Ann Burns

March 15, 2021

When the Villains are Beautiful

Cancel culture is not a new phenomenon; we have been slowly erasing ideals, standards, values, and what-have-you to fit an all-inclusive society. However, erasing or “canceling” pieces of history or ideals gives one reason to pause and wonder: how all-inclusive can society really be? 

Along the road, one of the attitudes that was deemed not only antediluvian, but also boorish, was reverence.  To hell with pomp and formality, just be you. This achievement of not adapting or conforming (providing that it fits within the confines of the all-inclusive culture) is lofty. How many individuals upon saying something uncouth, foul, degrading, or downright bratty just laugh it off with a coy little “that’s me!” Or worse yet, how often do we see individuals praise the abrasive and tactless comments of others as “genuine” and “unapologetic.”

Culture would have you believe that there is no virtue as noble or awe inspiring as genuine individuality. This is the apex we must achieve. It is the anti-reverent crusade, but also a mendacious crusade at that. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about you. The price of unapologetic individualism is not cheap.  For one thing, as previously stated, it costs us our reverence, a price which even Plato warns against: “Irreverence will be your downfall.”  A life of irreverence would mean a life consumed by hubris; a vice that Greek poets and philosophers knew turned any hero into a tragic figure. 

But our meta-open-minded world embraces hubris under the innocuous guise of “living your truth.”

Why is it a big deal that we’ve forked over reverence for unapologetic hubris? Well, for one thing, instead of being seekers of truth we can just be fountains of opinions, since that alone constitutes “truth” these days.  The irreverent individual occupies his own personal realm, where his main aim is self-gratification. Irreverence massacres humility, wisdom, and awe.  Without reverence, we are unable to see past ourselves.

Arrogant Ignorance

According to the philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, reverence “is the attitude that can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.”  

Reverence reminds us that there is something greater than us: God.  It bequeaths an attitude of thanksgiving, humility, wonder, and awe. It opens our eyes to the profound dignity of life, and the marvel that is creation. It reminds us that life is worth living; that goodness conquers, and hope abounds. Reverence encourages us to live morally and thoughtfully.  

Without morality we are devoid of values or principles; we lose our way on a journey to live meaningfully. You see, when reverence is considered so out of touch with reality, we blindly assume that our immediate emotional reactions and ignorance are more profound and wise than anything that had been set as a standard in the past.  “This,” our world promptly affirms, “is your truth.”  We become arrogant over our own ignorance. 

How often do we place the importance on what we get out of things, rather than the good of the thing in and of itself.  What did this give me?  What did I contribute?  Our primary concern is often on ourselves. To illustrate this point, one might think of the mass. When talking to Catholics about what mass they attend; many are quick to assert that if the mass is in a different language they will not get anything out of it; therefore, it is not good enough for them. Essentially, we may be ignorant about the history or theology, the reason for things to be how they are; but we don’t like it, and that’s what matters to us.   In doing so, we ignore the theological purpose of the mass and liturgy; these infinitely more sublime truths are entirely lost.  

We have become obstinate in our likes and dislikes, and we use them to navigate the world around us. 

This thinking— my opinion trumps the purpose behind things—  is quite common.  Yet, it stifles us. It does not allow growth.  It does not allow wisdom.  It is anti-reverent and it is arrogant ignorance. 

Conversely, reverence pulls us out of our self-consumed bubble and orders us to something higher; it challenges us to be better than we are.  It forces our attention upward.  How glorious it is to be! What a gift life is. Reverence etches meaning into the everyday because it acknowledges our God-given dignity. It looks with eyes of wonder and love. Reverence inspires a life of constant gratitude. Without it, life is dark. 

“The basic attitude of reverence is the presupposition for every true love, above all, the love of neighbor, because it alone opens our eyes to the value of men as spiritual persons, and because, without this awareness, no love is possible.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand 

The Irreverent and Profane 

Our world tends to demonize guilt or shame, unless it relates to white guilt, which is a topic for another day.

I recently read a modern intrigue novel that took pains to express the ever-insidious shame that consumes people.  It may be one’s guilt about work, parenting, health, Catholic guilt, or so forth; but it seemed to posit that this corroding shame seeks to destroy our happy lives that are meant to be uninhibited from anything that challenges us to be better than “you do you.”

When we try to make our universe orbit around ourselves, we find ourselves in an awkward conundrum. 

First, we encounter the fact that the self is broken.  While this might encourage some to shout loudly, “Your flaws make you beautiful!” Thus, we should not feel shame.  The truth is that our brokenness cannot heal itself.  If something is damaged, the damaged thing needs something outside of itself to bring healing. For example, Sleeping Beauty needed to someone to wake her.  Or, on a more personal level, Jesus died for us because we cannot save ourselves. Yet, our ego-prison blinds us from recognizing the healing that comes from Christ.

It is a lie to believe that your broken self, with all its pain, must be bedazzled and adored, and then you will feel better.  No wonder our world is so bereft of joy. Dare I say, if you are made in the image and likeness of God, you are worth more than the sum of your parts?

Secondly, we lose sight of anything that is sacred. Modernity loves to over-share.  It makes sense that when we place ourselves at the center, we start to brush over etiquette and “social boundaries.”  Etiquette starts to appear as contrived social convention, and oftentimes contrary to what the self desires. Why should I dress up for Church? Why should I temper my rude jokes? It is as if to say, there is nothing so good or beautiful or special in this would make you strive to a higher standard.

Social media is notoriously guilty for encouraging this mentality.  Suddenly, within the past twenty-some years we’ve all been given platforms on the internet to “self express.”  We’ve created our own little self-shrines that inform others of when we wash our face (self care), if we are feeling cute, our health and dieting methods, women go so far as to share their menstrual cycle.  People discuss their marital issues.  The list goes on. No topic is off-topic.  No question is too personal to ask.  All of this falls under the guise of being genuine and real — virtues in our irreverant world. Yet, when we share the most intimate moments of our lives with anyone and everyone, we simultaneous reveal that we view don’t our personal lives as special and sacred. Our personal lives are devalued. Life is deprived of mystery. Some things are not our business.  Not because we don’t care, but because we recognize the beauty and mystery life has to offer.  And we wish to preserve that. 

Another consequence is the shift away from etiquette. Etiquette becomes an exhaustive list of inconveniences, rather than a natural extension of charity. “If someone really loves me, they will accept me for who I am.”  But love extends to the beloved, and in all true love, we should be happy to better ourselves for the sake of the loved one.  For example, if a husband informs his wife that it bothers him the way she squeezes the toothpaste from the center of the tube, a loving wife would aim to ameliorate the quirk out of love for her husband.  It is those tiny acts of thoughtfulness that stem from reverence. It is a rejoicing in the being of the other and desire to show consideration towards him. Yet, ignoring this and choosing to identify as a middle-of-the-toothpaste-tube-squeezer by getting offended over the comment would not only be a waste of time, but a self-belittling response.  Really? That is who you are?

Ultimately, the world of the profane and irreverent is stifling.  It can only go so far before it completely crumbles into hate and self-loathing.  

If we restore reverence, we restore hope. We restore love. 

Reverence frees man from the shackles of arrogance and obstinacy.  It enables him to explore a world full of wonder, joy, and selfless love. Reverence takes man out of the finite chains of egoism, and into the limitless world of beauty and wisdom.  In each encounter with another, we recognize their goodness, we rejoice in their talents, and we acknowledge we have something to learn from them. With grateful hearts, we can grasp the goodness of life. 

Reverence is the mother of moral living, and with it, we are free to live beautifully. And who wouldn’t want to live more beautifully?

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