Friday 27 February 2015

Flight Attendant Smiles

I thought about Pope Francis' infelicitous remark about flight attendant smiles on my trip home from Toronto, as I now do whenever I am around flight attendants. The sincerity or insincerity of the smiles of flight attendants had never occurred to me before he brought it up. As it happens, I admire flight attendants very much, for they are at the beck and call of up to three (four?) hundred people in relatively uncomfortable circumstances and can't simply chuck out customers for bad behaviour.  It is also a female dominated profession, of course, and come to think of it, I have never heard anyone complain that the captains are always male. But I digress. 

People in service positions can make a real difference  to the people they serve, which I learned as a teenager working in a coffee shop. A kind word is rarely wasted. When I got on my red-eye flight to Heathrow Airport, an English stewardess looked at the two boarding passes I was clutching, observed that I was going to have a very long day, and assured me that I'd make it. These friendly remarks so touched me that I felt my spirits lift every time that attendant came into view.

Another attendant flashed me what was a not quite so sincere smile when I asked for coffee when she was still dealing with the tea request from the girl beside me. However, I felt slightly abashed that I had misread the situation and admired the stewardess for handling it so graciously.

Perhaps this is a cultural difference between Anglo-Saxon Seraphic and Latin Francis: I admire people for being gracious under pressure, no matter how they may be feeling, and Francis admires people for being honest about their feelings. The difficulty is that Francis seems to (and this could be an injustice to the Holy Father) demand that the women religious he was addressing feel sincerely  happy and generous all the time, which is surely impossible.

It reminds me of all the attacks on pro-life activists (i.e. anyone who says or writes or does anything to combat the evil of ab*rti*n), liturgical traditionalists and orthodox Catholic believers for being sad, gloomy, shocked and angry. This strikes me as very unfair, especially in other pro-life activists, liturgical traditionalists and orthodox Catholic believers.

As hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ab*rti*ns are committed all over the world and millions, if not billions, of people are fine with this, it is no wonder that pro-lifers are often sad, gloomy, shocked and angry. On the other hand, the merriest parties of my teenage years were with pro-life activists.

As priests and even bishops make snide remarks against beautiful Latin Catholic liturgies--while extolling the equally intricate and ancient rites of the Greek Catholics--it is no wonder liturgical traditionalists are sad, gloomy, shocked and angry. On the other hand, the merriest dinners of my married life have been with liturgical traditionalists.

And as orthodox Catholic believers read the scandals plaguing this current, if popular, pontificate, it is no wonder orthodox Catholic believers are increasingly sad, gloomy, shocked and angry. It would be very strange if we honestly greeted the actions and declarations of the German cardinals and bishops with loud hosannas. Oh look-- the obscenely rich German Church is practically schismatic! Hooray! Not. And yet the joy of orthodox Catholics after an encounter with an unmistakably orthodox pastor like Bishop Athanasius Schneider is profound.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern Christians, be they Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, are being imprisoned, raped, otherwise tortured, and killed. If you're not sad, gloomy, shocked and angry on their behalf--well, what can I say?

But I watch very carefully how I express my own sad, gloomy, shocked and angry feelings when I write for my archdiocesan newspaper, which is currently my primary service to the Church, and when I write my blog, believe it or not. This is because, like the flight attendants, my first thought is for the people I serve, namely readers. I have two tasks: to acknowledge and respect your sorrow, gloom, shock and anger (e.g. about Single life) and to give you food for joy.

"You must consider your audience!" I have said at least a dozen times to fellow blogger Vox Cantoris, although not for his blog so much as for his letters to editors, bishops et alia. As I have pointed out, although he is a Middle Eastern Christian--and suffering real agonies of mind right now about his fellow Middle Eastern Christians, on top of his feelings for unborn babies, the traditional Latin liturgy and suspiciously heterodox-sounding priests and bishops--the Church in Toronto has a very Anglo-Saxon understanding of communication. (Incidentally, although fawning over the rich and powerful may make you popular among the rich and powerful it does not endear you to Joe and Mary Ontario. We Anglo-Saxons admire moderation and wit above either passion or flattery, and that's a very Anglo-Saxon understatement.)

We Catholics pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary between the Joyful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries. I don't think we deserve to be chided for our sorrow---or  for our attempts to keep our sorrow private by polite simulations of happiness when necessary. As I have mentioned before, I was shocked when a very cheerful and well-beloved priest said he wanted to paint smiles on statues of the Sorrowful Virgin. The woman looked on as her Son--who was also God--was crucified and died. It is terrible to want to erase her sorrow, a sorrow which is paradoxically comforting to the sorrowful. Have you lost a child or seen your child hurt? Guess who understands what that feels like!

That reminds me that today is the feast of Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin. I was baptized in one of his churches--a very left-leaning, creation spirituality one, which is terribly amusing when you consider that Saint Gabriel is the patron saint of handguns. Hello and Happy Feast Day to Saint Gabriel! As a child in that intensely Spirit of Vatican II Church  I was enormously impressed by the woodcuts of the Way of the Cross. No matter how many jokes the pastor made or how jolly the music (which, being a child, I rather enjoyed), nothing erased the impact on my child's mind of the lean, ascetic, wiry body of Christ.

But to get back to the two flight attendants--"Mary" who said the extra kind word that really made the difference and "Martha" who dealt with a slightly gauche traveller (me) with laudably professional politeness--I see them as sisters of the same family. Given that I was a helpless traveller, more or less imprisoned in my seat (a middle seat at that), it was better that Martha should smile insincerely than that she should roll her eyes.  And given that I was a helpless traveller, had Martha rolled her eyes, I would have been justified in complaining bitterly in the British Airways survey I was sent just now.

I am sorry I didn't have a box in which to report Mary's kind remark. However, I did praise Martha's grace under pressure. If she was annoyed  by my interruption, she behaved very well, and I acknowledge that I was in the wrong, if only because it was way past my bedtime.

INCIDENTALLY: Although I recommend skipping  This Is Where I Leave You, a morally vacuous film, I do heartily encourage those of you who don't mind cartoon violence to see Scarlett Johanssen in Lucy. There's a lot of shooting and some blood, but no gruesome shots of heads exploding and, most importantly, although a bad guy sticks his hand down Lucy's top (the one sexual assault) and kicks her in the stomach, there is no rape. And Scarlett kicks butt.  I very much enjoyed seeing Scarlett kicking butt, not to mention gradually becoming way smarter than everyone else. And there's time travel. Truly a fantastic trapped-in-an-airplane movie. Thanks, British Airways! 

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