Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Proper 19 - Year A - Sunday, September 10, 2017
|Br. Roy Parker|
Today’s readings are about the options for communicating difficult truth in the community of faith, and my rather brief remarks will endeavor to unpack those options a little bit without pretending to cover all the bases.
As to critiquing, we are cautioned about doing anything of this sort in unawareness of our own faults: How can you presume to remove the speck in another’s eye when you do not perceive the log in your own eye? In eye treatment, are we really equipped for a delicate procedure which risks damage to the cornea? Speaking the truth in love is also governed by the admonition in the Letter to the Romans “Owe no one anything, except to love one another . . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Also worth consideration is the opinion of a religious sister associated with the House of Representatives who, when asked how the Congress might be able to restore its bipartisan capability at a time when congressional comity had broken down, recommended each House precede debate by a ten-minute observation of silence. The sort of communication envisioned here, I suggest, might well follow Emily Dickinson’s poetic advice:
“Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant —Success in Circuit liesToo bright for your infirm DelightThe Truth’s superb surpriseAs Lightning to the Children easedWith explanation kindThe Truth must dazzle graduallyOr every (one) be blind — ”
“Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant” is the magic formula within all tales of morality of which we see an early example in the prophet Nathan’s oblique rebuke of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The prophet’s tale of power’s abuse of the vulnerable produces a self-condemnation from the king’s own mouth, a far more effective outcome than a direct confrontation could ever have been. This folkloric incident represents one of the more reliable templates for interpreting today’s Gospel passage.
Experience of this sort of communication in monastic life suggests that it sometimes works better if you start right off with the third option, the gathered community of faith. Does the gathered community represent the Body of Christ? Maybe yes, maybe no. Or, as the saying goes, “The wrath of God is a church meeting from which the Holy Spirit has withdrawn.” Nevertheless, at its best, the gathered faith community is the primary sacrament of Christ, in which the members can converse according to the rubric Success in Circuit Lies, with Circuit denoting a circular line as well as a way of speaking; Success in Circuit Lies is a way of referring to a method of communal conversation as circle practice, which we don’t discover so much as remember.
Our species’ memory is filled not just with circles we painted on pots and cave walls long ago, but also the formations in which we arranged ourselves as we got to know one another. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana writes that humans first developed language when we moved into familial groups. The closer we got to one another, the more curious and expressive we became. Circle is the way humans have always sat together and gotten to know one another.
It’s important to remember this long lineage as we daily sit in rows in classrooms, buses, planes, and churches, looking at the back of each others heads, or as we sit along the straight edges of tables and desks, struggling to find a way to communicate and reach one another. After centuries of separation and isolation, circle welcomes us back into a shape where we can listen, be heard, and be respected, where we can think and create together. Circle is the means to draw us away from the dramatic and angry public exchanges that are not just commonplace but seemingly the only option available for discourse.
The Gospel passage contains another important detail: the outcome of successful communication between you and your sister or brother is that you have regained them, a term meaning that both of you newly reenter the communion of Christ’s Body, which is refreshed and renewed through your reconciliation. Obviously, in terms of refreshing and renewing the communion within Christ’s Body, inappropriate language has no place. St. Paul uses that same verb about regaining another in stating that he becomes like those to whom he speaks in order to more readily gain them for Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might gain more of them.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to gain Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law so I might gain those under the law. To those outside the law I became as those outside the law so that I might gain those outside the law. To the weak I became weak so that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (1Cor.9:19f.)
Paul’s behavior, his method of gaining, requires the renunciation of any sort of arrogance, superiority, or self-satisfaction of expression or attitude. The disposition to become as the one to whom we speak, a way of loving your neighbor as yourself, works a kind of long-term alteration in our personality as if grace came to the assistance of our original resolve. One of the best illustrations of this occurred for me at a Jewish wedding ceremony I attended in Virginia several years ago. At the point in the service when the groom crushes the wine glass underfoot, the rabbi explained to the congregation that this was the last time in this relationship that the man would put his foot down.