The Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20]
In “The Gospel According to Peanuts” Lucy is a tyrannical, overbearing fuss-budget. Going to tell the naïve and sensitive Charlie Brown his faults, privately, just between the two of them, she says, “You know what the trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?” He replies, “No, and I don’t want to know! Leave me alone!” Frustrated, Lucy continues in a loud voice for all to hear, “The whole trouble with you, Charlie Brown, is that you won’t listen to what the whole trouble with you is.”
Fraternal correction is really a very difficult thing. Few do it well. Many choose to nurse a grudge to the point of explosion, or to complain about someone behind the person’s back, or to inflict the silent treatment, or to retaliate with meanness for meanness. It is a rare gift to uncover a sensitive area, discuss it kindly and reasonably, and rebuild a relationship. St. Teresa of Avila taught that relationships in community are a better indication of one’s relationship to God than the heights of mystical prayer.
Christ teaches fraternal correction, to look for goodness in someone who has done wrong, to encourage reconciliation and a change of heart. In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen tells how Br. Anthony overheard a hired craftsman using the name of Jesus in a profane way. Br. Anthony went over to him, put his arm around the man’s shoulders and said, “Around here we love that name.” Embarrassed and shamed by this tender correction the man replied, “I do, too.” He listened. That was the end of his profanity. Br. Anthony won the man’s heart and a change in his conduct.
William Blake writes in his poem A Poison Tree, “I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe, I told it not, my wrath did grow.” Fraternal correction really is a difficult thing. Few do it, fewer still do it well. Once in a little village church, an altar boy dropped a cruet of wine. Irritated, the village priest gruffly told him to get out. He did, and later that boy became Marshal Tito, the man who established communist rule in Yugoslavia. In the cathedral of a large city another altar boy made the same mistake. The bishop, with a warm and forgiving smile shrugged his shoulders and gently said to him, “Someday I hope you will be a priest.” That boy became Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Expecting goodness from those who make mistakes brings out the best within them.
Last year the tragic events of 9/11 left our country shocked and angry. Asked how we should respond, perhaps the wisest answer came from a four year old girl, Laura Beth Kulbacki. She suggested a way to touch the hearts of terrorists who hate us. Quoted in the Nov. 19th issue of Newsweek she said, “Why don’t we just tell them our names?” It is harder to harm someone you know by name, who looks for what is best in you.
Christ teaches fraternal correction, not only to do it well, but to receive it well. Charlie Brown was unwilling to listen, “I don’t want to know, leave me alone.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, an English poet who died in 1861, was a gifted woman. By the age of ten she was reading Shakespearean plays, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Inferno. As a teenager she taught herself Hebrew, Greek, German and French in order to read Scripture and literature in the original languages. Yet, she experienced great suffering: migraine headaches since childhood, chronic respiratory disease, and a permanent spinal injury at age fifteen while saddling a horse. Nineteen years later she witnessed the drowning of her favorite brother. She was emotionally shattered and blamed herself. For the next five years she lived in deep interior pain, rarely leaving her room, distracted only by writing poetry about the suffering of slaves in the colonies and of children laboring in coal mines and textile mills. Then, at age thirty-nine, joy broke through her misery and isolation. The poet, Robert Browning, wrote to her, “Dear Miss Barrett, I love your verses with all my heart, and I love you too.” During the next twenty months they exchanged over five hundred love letters, keeping their romance a secret from her father who had forbidden her to marry anyone. They had to marry without his knowledge, and a week later Robert and Elizabeth moved to Italy. Her father refused to give his blessing, and never spoke to her again. For ten years until his death she wrote beautiful letters to her father every week, expressing her love and asking for reconciliation. He never replied. Returning to England for his burial she looked for some sign that her love had touched his heart. What she found was devastating. He had kept all her letters but never opened one of them. He was unwilling to listen, “I don’t want to know, leave me alone.” The existentialist Jean Paul Sarte was wrong. Hell is not other people. Hell is spending eternity alone, stubbornly nursing a grudge.
Giving and receiving fraternal correction is a difficult thing. But when two people come together to work out their differences in Jesus’ name, Christ is there in the midst of them, helping them see the goodness in each other. Isn’t that what heaven is like, discovering the beauty and goodness in God and one another?