20 September 2014

An irritated abbot and a call to authentic community in parish life

What may well be my favorite scene in Mel Brooks’ (???) Robin Hood: Men in Tights comes almost at the end of the movie. As the Abbot greets certain persons as processes up the aisle in full ceremonial vesture for the wedding of Robin Hood to the Maid Marian, one man cries out to him, “Hey, Aabboott!” The displeasure of the Abbot – his disgust, even – clearly shows on his face (which is, thankfully, in front of and away from the man crying out to greet him) and in his four, muttered words: “I hate that guy.”

Notice, particularly, that the man who shouts, "Hey, Abbot!," remains completely oblivious to the Abbot's displeasure.

Each of us may not have such a person in our lives whom we hate, but, likely enough, each of us has such a person in our lives who simply drives us crazy and whom we would rather avoid. In fact, if we are honest, we do avoid such people. I am guilty of this, both in the past and in the present and, because I, too, am a sinner, will likely be guilty of this in the future.

We cannot always say with any precision what it is about the person that makes us roll our eyes when we hear their voice and duck through a doorway or make a beeline out of the store, but two possibilities come immediately to mind.

There are some people try so hard to be friends with other people – often with no sense of social cues - that they feel clingy and we do not like feeling smothered. I think the phrase today for such people is “co-dependent.”

Others only ever complain about the unhappy circumstances of their lives. After a time we grow weary of hearing the same complaints day after day after day, especially when there is nothing we can reasonably do to relieve them.

As I think about it, the second sort of person – who is often quite unaware of his or lack of social skills or of the constancy of his or her complaints (often about a lack of friends) - is very often the first sort of person as well.

In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Saint Bonaventure distinguishes between three kinds of company or society, what we would today call community:

One is disturbing and holds one back, such as the company of evildoers. Another kind is the company of those needing support or solace, as in the company of wives and the sick. Yet another group is a kind helping and causing one to advance, as in the company of the perfect. One must flee from the first, tolerate the second, and desire the third (IV.13.3).

We hear a lot about tolerance in the present day. The general – and incorrect – understanding of tolerance is that we simply accept another person as he or she is, with no judgment and with requirements or requests for a change of sinful behavior (because, for the truly tolerant, there is no truly sinful behavior – except, of course, those of us who dare judge a person’s actions and call him or her to conform his or her life to the life of Christ).

What was it Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. said of tolerance? Oh, yes: “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.”

In our daily living we only really tolerate those things which drive us crazy. For example: the place where a family member insists on keeping his toothbrush or leaving her shoes, the way our children load the dishwasher, the organizational “system” of our spouse. These are the little things that – if left unrealized – often lead to an eruption of anger while a real difficulty makes us anxious or frustrated (we rarely “blow up” over the big things of life, but instead over the little things). We tolerate these annoyances because we love; otherwise we would remove them from our lives.

What are we to do with those people who irritate and annoy us? We should tolerate them. We should tolerate them because Jesus first loved us even though we have surely caused him much annoyance and frustration (cf. I John4:10; Matthew 8:26 and Matthew 16:9, among others).

As I read the words of the Seraphic Doctor, my thoughts returned to recently released results contained in the report, Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese: Results from Online Surveysof Active and Inactive Catholics in Central Illinois, where these two answers to open-ended questions have remained with me since I first read the report last week:
  •  “I’m still seeking a church with a sense of community, friendliness. I joke with my friends that I’ve gone to a church for 7 years and no one has spoken to me”; and,
  • “My parish was a cold place. You could walk in on Sunday, go to mass [sic] and walk out without speaking to another soul, I longed for fellowship.”
First, let me point what should be glaringly obvious: If these two individuals – and there are surely others with similar experiences – could leave Sunday Mass without another person speaking to them, it also means that these two people did not themselves speak to another person. The responsibility for a lack of conversation through which Christians should be manifest and share and a sincere charity cannot rest solely with the community; a dialogue of charity is, as it were, a two-way street.

While it is difficult to imagine a situation where, in seven years’ time, not a single parishioner would have spoken to one of these people (unless they routinely came late to Mass and left after receiving Holy Communion), but it is possible. Still, we cannot simply excuse the entire community for never – or rarely - speaking to these people.

Perhaps these two individuals fall into one of the aforementioned categories. And maybe they do not. Even if they do, we cannot allow this to be either a reason or an excuse. Jesus loves them as much as he loves us, and we are all one in the Body of Christ, different members though we may be (cf. ICorinthians 12:12-13). One part of the body may not always seem necessary or important to the Body, but it is still a part of the Body. We cannot say to one another, “I do not need you,” but, rather, we should to learn how that part contributes to the good of the Body (cf. I Corinthians 12:15-19).

The Church has long been aware of this difficulty, a difficulty in lived discipleship that has perhaps become more acute today as our personal relationships are weakening. Back in November of 2007, in an audience with the Bishops of Portugal Pope Benedict XVI observed:
In this long pilgrimage, the most frequent observation on the lips of Christians has been the lack of participation in the life of the community, and the proposal to find new forms of integration in the community. The password has been, and is, to build roads of communion.
He went on to note that participation in the community of the Church "depends absolutely on the existence or lack thereof of the encounter with Jesus Christ." Christianity is, after all, "not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person [Jesus Christ], which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (Deus caritas est, 1).

How, then, are we to do more than tolerate those who irritate us? How are we to reach out with genuine charity and welcome them into the community of the one Body of Christ? We must follow the example of Jesus.

When Jesus "withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself" after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, "the crowds followed him on foot from their towns" (Matthew 14:13). Looking upon the crowds, in his time of grief, "his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick" (Matthew 14:14). We are given no sense of any frustration felt by Jesus at this moment. He does yell out the crowds, asking, "Won't you even let me grieve? Can I not have a moment's peace?" These are the questions we ask, and even demand, but not the Lord.

When people come to us - even those who, as it were, cry out, "Hey, Abbot!!!" - we would do well to heed the words of His Holiness Pope Francis:
Jesus does not react with irritation; he does not say: “These people are bothering me”. No, no. He reacts with a feeling of compassion, because he knows they are not seeking him out of curiosity but out of need. But attention: compassion — which Jesus feels — is not simply feeling pity; it’s more! It means to suffer with, in other words to empathize with the suffering of another, to the point of taking it upon oneself. Jesus is like this: he suffers together with us, he suffers with us, he suffers for us. And the sign of this compassion is the healing of countless people he performed. Jesus teaches us to place the needs of the poor before our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, are not as urgent as those of the poor, who lack the basic necessities of life.
Naturally, we cannot do this on our own. We are sinful. We are weak. We are selfish. And we are not as loving as we ought to be. We need someone to help us do this and so we should turn to the example of Saint of Francis.

Fully aware of his own sinfulness and how much people praised him in spite of his sins, the Poverello commanded one of his friars, saying, "In obedience I order you to insult me harshly and to tell the truth against their falsehoods" (Tomaso di Celano, First Life, 1.53). Saint Francis, we are told, "would smile and reply approvingly, 'God bless you, because you say very true things that the son of Pietro Bernadone should rightfully hear.'" When someone rightly points out our sins to us, what is our response? Anger, or a smile?

We would do well to ask - even to command - a trust friend, one who will help us and cause us to advance, to tell us when we sin, especially when we do not welcome another with the love of Christ but instead roll our eyes and mutter under our breath. We ought not resemble the abbot, but Jesus.

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