"You may not think that living with others is an art, but it is the finest and most difficult of arts. . . . Courtesy is a way of living inspired by thoughtfulness, consideration, and respect for others and yourself."
- Mary Mercedes in A Book of Courtesy

In an article on nytimes.com, Tamar Adler shares her delight in manners books; she finds them absorbing and has read all of any age that have crossed her path. The very first such resource was by the Egyptian Ptahhotep around 2350 B.C. where the author provides guidelines to wait to be served by your host and to avoid staring. Later in the fifteen century, Erasmus recommended giving up your seat to an elder.

Adler points out that kindness is the root from which the entire family tree of courteous behavior has grown. Serving others first at the table is a standard in the repertoire of manners. Other universal practices acknowledge togetherness, but some customs vary by culture. She suggests that "whatever unites merits keeping, and what divides can be folded and stored away with the linen too old and ornamental to use."

In Mary Ann's childhood home, everyone was expected to wait to begin eating until the host did, especially if that person was busy carving or dishing out food for others. A story often told about her was when she was about six. The family had been invited to dinner at some friends' house. As the food was passed around, little Mary Ann asked the all-important question: "Has the head lady bit yet?" Everyone laughed, but they also recognized that she had learned her manners.

Spirituality is about good manners. Now more than ever we need a revival of courtesy practices to lubricate both private and public interactions between people.

Next Post: Inhospitable to Human Beings