April 30, 1997
Within the West kingdom of the SCA, Siobhan Medhbh O’Roarke was to be elevated into the Order of the Laurel on May 3, 1997.
As part of the ceremony, she asked certain knights and other gentles to speak on some of the chivalric virtues at her vigil, to be held the evening prior. As I have had the pleasure of knowing Mistress Siobhan for many years, I readily agreed.
The ceremony was suitably beautiful, her recognition for cooking and for her gracious tenacity in seeking the best in herself and in Society balanced by her humble self-criticsm that goes far to give all nobles the most important quality they can possess–grace.
Below you will find the words I spoke to her on the occasion of her elevation; I must at once thank her for the opportunity to speak and the rest of the Laurel council for recognizing her longtime contributions to the Society and the World, service only mirrored by her steadfast service to that most important of units–her family.
Many have said that that pride, that opposite resident to humility, is at fault for our failure as human beings to act nobly. It is said that pride brings men low. But I submit that pride also raises men above themselves; without pride, striving to be superior to what we were, we would remain savage beasts with no sense of responsibility, of duty. Pride can beget excellence, quality, prowess.
The difficulty with pride is that there is no obvious barrier between constructive pride yielding excellence, and destructive vainglory yielding boastfulness. Vainglory, the older sibling to pride, is the most puissant enemy a knight or noble will ever face. Vainglory cannot be killed; it strikes unseen by the victim, but is obvious to those around them who are often powerless to lend any assistance. Vainglory is a plight that blinds, quietly seducing men to cover their own eyes with blinders of woven rationalization. These blinders are indeed works of art in their own right; for the individual strands are truths, woven together with logic such that the finished whole whispers pleasant falsehoods directly to the innermost self. And though it is false, this comfortable fantasy finds ready acceptance because it is what we has human beings want to hear—that we are right.
Because we are human, most of us struggle against the specter of vainglory, of self-deception, for our entire lives. But also being human, we are provided with tools used in defense of the soul against such assaults, namely: integrity, faith, humility.
Integrity is personal honor, consistence in applying your personal values to every action.
Faith is the belief in the ideal ‘rightness’ that gives you the strength even with a complete absence of evidence.
And finally humility, humilitas. Because humility is not flashy, it gains less respect as a weapon of virtue than do courage, loyalty, largesse or fidelity. But none of these other virtues are of any assistance when it comes to combat with vainglory, with the mirrored ghosts of our own righteousness. Although vainglory cannot be killed, it can be held at bay if the gentle wields humility with sincerity. For used sincerely, humility makes the invisible specter more plain to see, refuses the comfort of praise, keeps you listening to the quiet ring of truth in your own heart, and confers a measure of grace.
Sincerity is the key to humility. Humility that is play-acted, even if you yourself are the audience, is powerless; indeed it becomes a weapon of vainglory rather than being used against it. To seek sincerity requires the onerous duty of peering inside yourself to see both the light and the dark, the good and the bad, the excellent and the poor. To accept these things as truths is a daunting, yet ennobling task. Once the truth is seen, the knight has the further duty to seek to improve those virtues in which he is lacking. I think we agree that it is the traveling towards the ideal that makes the knight; there will never be one who reaches the ideal, and yet all may be ennobled even though the ideal itself remains unreachable.
Sincere humility keeps the noble alert; observant; on guard. The only way to keep vainglory distanced is by vigilance. The noble man must look first within himself, then to those around him for clues as to how the battle progresses.
How is all of this done?
Avoid the comfort of praise. Should you strive to behave as a noblewoman, you will in due course earn honor and praise from those who see you as virtuous. And yet, you must avoid placing too much weight on this praise, even if it is purchased on the authority of your own integrity—vainglory is too clever for that; it can easily short-circuit perceptions both sensory and emotive. As soon as you are comfortable that you are a virtuous person, that you have acted with righteousness, you are as vulnerable as a babe to vainglory’s jaded charms.
Listen for the ring of discord in your own heart. This quality of sincere humility enables you to hear rings from that quiet bell of truth that resides within your own conscience. Sometimes the bell rings with a ‘rightness’ that is at once comforting and fulfilling, but there should be other times when it rings with discord; listen most carefully at these times, because this is an alarm against which vainglory may have transgressed. If you hear no discord at all then you are certainly in danger.
When such a discord is discovered, some wrong committed in the service of a good cause or through neglect, it is the duty of a nobleman to seek to right the wrong by making an amend. Such an amend is, most familiar to me, a ‘knightly gesture’ that demonstrates continued service to the ideals even as it acknowledges the error as being part of human nature. The noble goes further, accepting responsibility for the flaw and, spurning the comfort of pinning the difficulty on someone else, determines to make it right. Some kind of communication and gesture is always required; but there is great power in this, in the humility to say, “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry,” provided they are spoken with sincerity. In so doing you turn a weakness into a strength.
Finally, humility confers what has been called by many respected ladies of the gallery the most important virtue a noble can possess—grace. Humility is a virtue that confers a gentleness that does not denude from strength, courage, loyalty or any virtue of the noble. Indeed it enhances them by harmonizing the bearer with those around them and striking a contrast between the lack of boasts and the quiet excellence that resides within them.
Mistress Siobhan, you have been a noblewoman for a long time, earning accolades in pale measure to your accomplishments. You have accomplished much; many folk respect you. Therefore because you have earned much, and will soon have your renown increased more owing to this great service, it will be even more difficult to see the vainglorious spirit as it stalks you.
I would charge you this evening to consider two things; your accomplishments and their merits—and your foibles, and how you might combat them. On balance you have largely succeeded in making yourself an example of grace and excellence that a noblewoman should strive for—on accepting this token, I would counsel you to set for yourself the task of finding three times when your heart rings with discord over some misdeed, turning these small defeats to victories.