If there’s something I can’t stand (well I admit, there are several things I can’t stand; but this one grates me in a particular way) is selfishness willfully masked under a veil of goodness. “I think too much of my colleagues and too little of myself”, says the chap interviewed for a new job and you know he’ll never be sincere on the workplace, because decent people just haven’t the gut to lie in such a way; “I want to stay near my children”, says the father moving out with his mistress but hey, not too far away from the family he has abandoned; “I will bicycle in the Cotswolds against leukemia, do you want to sponsor me”? says the colleague who wants to have the holiday paid and look good at the same time.
Now let us be clear: everyone has his own frailties, but I think that those who say “I want to try to stay as much as I can near my children as I am hurting them enough already” does make a better impression; gravely weak, but at least not sanctimonious.
Today I stumbled upon another, even more pernicious example. You can read here on First Things of a “modern” nun who in the Seventies decided to avoid the clerical garb and dress in ordinary clothes.
The nun in question explained her wanting to go around dressed like your aunt Agatha who lives down in Portsmouth with the argument that this way she would, say, stop starving Italian ice cream sellers and leading them to certain ruin. The argument goes as follows:
“When we were in our habits, a fellow with an Italian ice barrow would always insist on giving us free ices, but why should he? Why shouldn’t we pay like anyone else? Why should we deprive him of his living because we were in a costume?”
Please stop for a moment and admire the self-effacing gentleness of the lady, desirous to not be recognised as a nun not to be free to do whatever she pleases instead of carrying with her at all times the duties (and the dignity) symbolised by her habit, but merely desirous to avoid the poor chap being “deprived of his living”. When I read it I was moved to tears. If this is not Mother Teresa, it’s only half a notch below.
Please also stop for a moment and consider the cruelty of pre-V II times, when legions of nuns avidly charged towards Italian ice cream sellers and cruelly expected that the poor chap said to them “fooore youuuu theeere iiiise noo chaaarge, siiiister” whilst thinking of his shoeless six children, desperate wife and unpaid rent; all due to the insatiable cravings of the ice cream-loving sisters. And yes, if we think of it: how many Italian ice-cream sellers have we seen in our days, begging on the sidewalk?! How many times have we thought – our hand clenched in a fist of rage – “that’s another one ruined by those damn ice cream-loving nuns…..”?! No, this must be at par with Mother Teresa…
I also notice that the sister didn’t choose any of the complicated and utterly selfish alternatives (like avoiding getting near to the ice cream seller; or even insisting to pay). This would have been too arrogant of her as it would have put Luigi in a position of utter social inferiority, showing all the glory of her exalted station in life!
No, sister “stracciatella-and-nougat” chose the hard way; made the difficult choice; sacrificed herself on the altar of neighbourliness; she bravely threw away her religious habit to switch to a humble pair of jeans. How selfless, democratic and sooo charitable!
Forty years later, we laugh at this sanctimonious arrogance and – healed by forty years of post Vatican-II stupidity – clearly see through the hypocrisy of Sister Selfish. But I wonder how many, forty years ago, saw this with the clarity of our days. Methinks, many have given to such ladies the benefit of the doubt, or even thought than in times in which it seemed that everything was supposed to change a nun should be authorised to change, too. I can feel the sense of confusion, the shame at being the one who “thinks ill of another person”, the sad feeling of revered customs going away forever. I can feel it, because I have felt it myself.
In this and in other matters (say, false Archbishops) we must say things as they are instead of being ashamed of thinking that what looks wrong and sounds wrong can’t be right.
I am often reminded of the saying of the very Catholic, but very cynical Italian statesmen Giulio Andreotti: “he who thinks ill commits a sin, but he is very often right”.