Monday, October 22, 2007

From Stephen Fry to Thomas Merton

Most of you probably already know this, but Stephen Fry now has a blog, and it's very good. (And if you're wondering how come I'm managing to read lots of blogs today it's because the meeting I had scheduled for 10am in Colchester got cancelled so I have a bonus couple of hours to navel gaze;-)

In the midst of a really interesting essay (he calls them "blessays") Fry writes this:

The entire interaction works better if there’s a little understanding on each side. You might be the fortieth person that day to approach your sleb. They might have just heard that their favourite aunt has been diagnosed with cancer. On the other hand, the famous person should remember that it takes courage to approach a stranger, especially one you’ve only seen on TV or at the movies. They could so easily squash you. Many newly made slebs fall down especially in the area of compliments. It’s perhaps a very English thing to find it hard to accept kind words about oneself. If anyone praised me in my early days as a comedy performer I would say, “Oh, nonsense. Shut up. No really, I was dreadful.” I remember going through this red-faced shuffle in the presence of the mighty John Cleese who upbraided me the moment we were alone.
‘You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?’
‘Well, you know …’
‘Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, “rubbish, I was awful!” You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.’
‘Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?’ (which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.)
‘It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?’
You must think me the completest kind of arse to have needed to be told how to take a compliment, but it was an important lesson that I (clearly) never forgot. So bound up with not wanting to look smug and pleased with ourselves are we that we forget how mortifying it is to have compliments thrown back in one’s face.

Now this reminded me of something I read by Thomas Merton a week or so ago, which I wanted to record (it was in the 'Celebrating the Saints' volume that we use at Evening Prayer):

A humble man is not disturbed by praise. Since he is no longer concerned with himself, and since he knows where the good that is in him comes from, he does not refuse praise, because it belongs to the God he loves, and in receiving it he keeps nothing for himself but gives it all, with great joy, to his God.

…The humble man receives praise the way a clean window takes the light of the sun. The truer and more intense the light is, the less you see of the glass…There is danger that men in monasteries will go to such elaborate lengths to be humble, with the humility they have learned from a book, that they will make true humility impossible.

How can you be humble if you are always paying attention to yourself? True humility excludes self-consciousness, but false humility intensifies our awareness of ourselves to such a point that we are crippled, and can no longer make any movement or perform any action without putting to work a whole complex mechanism of apologies and formulas of self-accusation.

I suppose the word being looked for here is grace.

Fr Christopher Jamison has an excellent analysis of humility in 'Finding Sanctuary' which I continue to ponder.

Of course an analysis of fame that I find most interesting is Robert Pirsig's. But perhaps another time on that.

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