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Posted May 10, 2011

A Reflection on the Virtue of Respect

Taken from The Promise of Virtue, Ave Maria Press. Notre Dame, IN by Eugene Hemrick

How often these days do we hear the outcry, “There isn’t respect anymore!” What would our existence be like if we practiced more respect than we do? I dare say that most of us would be bewildered by the dramatic change this would cause. What does the word imply and what makes its so valuable?

The meaning of respect is much more complicated than people think. This is because it is a combination of two concepts, honor and fear. An excellent example of how these two notions complement each other is found in St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. Luke begins: “About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”

We have to wonder if the sayings to which Luke refers were the reality checks Christ frequently gave his apostles. No doubt, they loved him dearly, but being human they also gloried in all the attention they were receiving. Lest they be carried away with external trappins, Christ directs them to the reality of being his disciple.

“You want to come after me, do you? Then you must take up your cross daily and let go of your life for my sake. You should know that you won’t have a place to lay your head, and know too, as I am about to suffer, so, too, will you.”

These are tough words when compared to those in which Christ speaks of his kingdom starting like a mustard seed and growing into an enormous community in which peace and justice will reign.

In order to sort through these thoughts in a more peaceful environment, Christ says to Peter, James and John: “Let’s leave here and go to the mountaintop yonder where there is more breathing space.”

Peter, James, and John are Christ’s inner circle who will be the same three persons to accompany him to another mount before his death, the Mount of Olives.

As they ascend the mountain, the apostles ponder the meaning of Christ’s puzzling sayings and hardly notice the beautiful scenery. Nor do the notice the fatgue that is setting in due to the climb and lighter air. Finally, the summit is reached. Finding an inviting spot to recline, they settle down and take in the rolling clouds overhead.

Before long, the release from tensions and a tranquillity induce drowsiness and the apostles fall asleep.

Meanwhile Christ slips off to be alone with his Father.

Suddenly the apostles’ sleep is broken by the sound of voices. Startled, they look around and see Christ’s face and clothing like they have never seen them before, “dazzling white.”

Their amazement is further heightened in seeing Christ conversing with Moses and Elijah.

At first, all of this seems like a dream, but as they look closer they realize it is real. Cautiously, they move nearer and hear Christ talking about his need to go to Jerusalem to fulfill what was prophesied about him.

None of this makes sense except one thing — that this is an awesome moment. Overwhelmed by its ecstasy, Peter looks for words to express his feelings but finds that all he can say is: “Lord, it is good to be here!”

He gropes for more to say and then it comes to him: “Let’s build three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

This is a sacred, joyous event similar to the Feast of the Tabernacles, and just as holy tents were erected to commemorate it, so, too, should sacred tents be erected to mark this awesome moment.

As these words fall from his mouth, a cloud appears and envelopes them, and we are told, “The apostles were afraid as they entered it.”

A voice speaks: “This is my son, my chosen one, listen to him!”

Moments later, all is back to normal and Jesus is once again alone with his apostles.

What Luke next includes in this story seems ironic. The apostles, who were usually outspoken, “kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.”

But why keep silent? This is an amazing event, and the normal thing to do in such a situation would be to tell it to the first person who comes along. This did not happen. There was something so sacred about the moment that it demanded silence.

When we examine St. Luke’s story of the Transfiguration in detail, we learn it epitomizes the root meaning of respect. The German word for respect is Ehrfrucht, meaning “honor and fear.” In the Transfiguration, respect is the honor Peter feels compelled to give to Christ, Moses, and Elijah. This need to honor emanates from the feeling of being in the presence of greatness. The sublimity of the moment is so breathtaking that it calls for a sacred monument to mark its awesomeness.

The word respect also contain the notion of fear, the same type of fear the apostles had when they entered the cloud. It is not that which comes from being afraid of getting hurt; if it did, the apostles probably would not have entered it. Rather, fear in this instance is understood as a profound sense of awe that says: “I am in the presence of greatness and need to keep a reverential distance. I dare not touch or get too close to that which is sacred, nor do I speak.”

We would think that after this heavenly experience the apostles would want to tell everyone about it, but they don’t. They keep a distance from it through silence and counter the tendency to possess greatness by telling others about it. Respect prompts them to avoid being glory seekers wanting to rub shoulders with greatness in hopes of sharing in its spotlight.

Romano Guardini gives us a beautiful summary of the respect depicted in the Transfiguration:

“Repect is a strange word, this combination of fear and honor. Fear which honors; honor which is pervaded by fear. What kind of fear could that be? Certainly not the kind of fear that comes upon us in the face of something harmful or that causes pain. That kind of fear causes us to defend ourselves and to seek safety. The fear of which we shall speak does not fight or flee, but it forbids obtrusiveness, keeps one at a distance, does not permit the breath of one's own being to touch the revered object. Perhaps it is would be better to speak of this fear as "awe."

From the thesaurus, we learn that the word respect is associated with a variety of words like: reverence, adoration, idolization, worship, deification, admiration, esteem, amazement, homage, honor, adulation, praise, veneration, deference, regard, courtesy, civility, manners, etiquette, politeness, and emeritus.

When we look at the use of these words in scripture, they translate into powerful sacred images. For example, in the Book of Joshua we read,

“Joshua looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies.”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

This need to lower oneself in the presence of the sublime is also found in the psalms where we read, “But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple.”

These images and synonyms of respect ring with awesomeness and contain a sacred weight that strikes us with admiration and the need to bow before it.