07 September 2008

Can you be corrected?

23rd Sunday OT: Ez 33.7-9; Rom 13.8-10; Matt 18.15-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Priests and religious of long experience will tell you that long after celibacy and poverty have become routine for them that obedience remains the most difficult vow to honor. We can get used to not having just one person in our lives to love intimately, and we can get used to relying on the community treasury for basic needs. However, who among us ever truly becomes accustomed to relinquishing a stubborn will to the authority of another? If anything, we get more willful as we grow older, watching those with authority over us become suspiciously less and less interested in our welfare. Or so it seems. Or so the voice of that sneaky spirit of rebellion whispers to us when we are told something we do not want to hear. What do we say? I’m an adult! I’m well-educated and entitled! I know best for me! I have rights, you know! You are just as bad if not worse! That exertion of self, that pretense of individual autonomy rising in pride against a promise made long ago. And because we are being perfected and not yet so, we need to be reminded of the wisdom of humility. Constantly reminded. The foot cannot walk without the ankle. Nor the ankle bend without the leg. Nor the leg without the knee. And so on. So, a good working definition of humility might be: the submission of one’s body and soul to the necessity of playing well with others. In other words, as Christians we don’t get to take our ball home and refuse to play just because we don’t like the rules of the game. We’re in this game together (like it or not) and sometimes that means (like it or not) that we have to hear that we aren’t playing well with others. That is a message, I dare say, that 99% of us will refuse to hear. And just as many will refuse to deliver.

Despite our discomfort in delivering such a message and despite our anger at hearing such a message, deliver and hear we must. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die [for disobeying me],’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” My hand may thrust the knife into my enemy’s heart and do so because my enraged brain sends the order; however, I am held responsible for his death—I am, body and soul. Me. Not just my hand, not just my brain. And when I am brought to justice for murder, it is perfectly reasonable for the law to ask: who knew he was capable of murder? Who failed to teach him the value of life? Who failed to speak out and dissuade him from this heinous crime? The law will call this “culpable negligence.” Our Lord will call it “a failure to love.”

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, referring to Christ’s teaching on the greatest commandment, writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . .Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Taking Ezekiel and Paul together we can see that love and obedience are inextricably bound together. Love without obedience is mere affection leading to raucous license. Obedience without love is mere compliance leading to belittling deference. Love with obedience is fraternal correction done well. This why Jesus, all too aware of our fragile egos and nonetheless painfully aware of the consequences of our failure, allows for the elaborate process of calling another to obedience in love: first, one on one; then, one with two or three more; then one with the whole Church. If the Church cannot extract obedience in love from the dissenter, then “treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector,” that is, treat the stubborn one like an unclean stranger or a traitor to the family. This is not cruel. It is responsible. If you doubt this, read Ezekiel 33.7-9 one more time.

Reflecting on why fraternal correction is so difficult to deliver and receive, I am forced to look carefully in the mirror. I won’t claim to be an average American Catholic since most Catholics aren’t Dominican priests. However, my stubborn will was trained in the modernist assumptions of a working class family complete with highly individualized notions of the person and consumerist definitions of freedom and liberty. Years of education and the religious life itself have done much to inform my intellect about the problems I face as a stubborn mule, but they have done little to move my will. What does Paul say, “I do what I do not want to do. . .” Essentially, the problem is this: when confronted with fraternal correction I immediately argue myself to two conclusions: 1). the person correcting me is not qualified to correct me because he is sinful too, and 2). I refuse to listen because my corrector is motivated by ___________ (fill in the blank with “envy,” “control issues,” “personal dislike,” “political enmity, etc.) and therefore he is not correcting me in love. In one fell swoop I have committed two sins: presumption and lack of charity. And the dry well I have dug for myself gets deeper and deeper.

That explains why I don’t hear correction well. Why don’t I deliver correction well. Basically, I distrust my own motives and fear that the one I am correcting will point them out to me. Who wants to hear the ugly truth about one’s prejudices? There’s also the danger that the other guy will rebut with a correction of his own. And that correction might be true! Ouch. Like most of you, I do not want my autonomy violated by a dubious correction, and I certainly don’t want my freedom restricted by someone with an agenda that fails to take love into account. . .even if what my corrector is trying to tell in love me is true. . .maybe especially if what he is trying to tell me is true! My experience tells me that it is truly the extraordinarily holy person who can deliver and hear a correction without the sins of pride and rebellion stirring up a devilish and over-the-top reaction. Alas, holiness is required of us. For better and worse, we are nothing without love and we cannot grow in holiness without obedience.

Paul’s wisdom is our salvation here: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. . .” Said another way, possess no debt except the debt of love that you owe to those whom you have promised to love. Alone, we are nothing. Together we are Christ, made one body in one baptism for the preaching of the Word. The discipline of humility that comes from fraternal correction is made possible by and strengthened by a closed mouth and an opened heart. Difficult? Not at all. It’s almost impossible. But if this life in Christ were easy we would have no need for the Church, no need for one another.