Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

Fraternal correction! It’s difficult to do, and even harder to receive. In my favorite comic strip, “Peanuts,” Lucy is a tyrannical, overbearing fuss-budget. One day she goes 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 by his response, Lucy continues in a loud voice that everyone can hear, “The whole trouble with you is that you won’t listen to what the whole trouble with you is!”

It is Christ who tells us to practice fraternal correction saying: “Go, point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” (Mt. 18:15). If we do it with love we are more likely to see a change of heart. Henri Nouwen in his book, The Genesee Diary, tells a story about Br. Anthony Weber. Brother Anthony overheard a hired construction worker frequently using the name of Jesus in a profane way. 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.

Christ teaches fraternal correction, not only to do it well, but to receive it well. Charlie Brown wasn’t willing 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.”

Giving and receiving fraternal correction is a difficult thing. But when two people come together to work out their differences with willing hearts, Christ is there in the midst of them, helping them to see the goodness in each other. That’s what heaven is like, discovering the beauty and goodness in God and one another.