16 September 2017

On the failure to forgive

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel/OLR, NOLA

In Dante's Inferno, those who lived and died as slaves to anger are consigned to the Fifth Circle of Hell.* The violently angry spend eternity attacking one another on surface of the swampy waters of the River Styx. The sullenly angry sulk beneath the slime, forever stewing in their self-imposed loneliness. Though they share in the sin of inordinate anger – expressed in different ways – what these sinners have most in common is their stubborn refusal to forgive. . .while they could. Rather than release her offender from his debt, the violently angry sinner slashes out in a rage, causing him harm. And rather than release his offender from her debt, the sullenly angry sinner retreats into a silent, brooding resentment that slowly consumes all of his charity. When our Lord urges us to forgive our offenders as many times as necessary, he's not giving us some Hallmarkish therapeutic advice for Better Living. He's telling us outright that the failure to forgive – in the end – is tantamount to choosing to live for all eternity basting away in the slimy waters of the River Styx, Hell. The failure to forgive another is the failure to receive forgiveness from God.

If forgiveness were easy to give, we wouldn't need our Lord to command us to do it. We wouldn't need that image of the master turning his unforgiving servant over the torturers. That forgiveness is difficult to give is part and parcel of our fallen humanity. But why is forgiveness so hard to give? It might be b/c we are afraid that forgiving someone who has offended us might come to believe that his/her offense wasn't really all that offensive to begin with. If I can easily forgive being hurt, then maybe I wasn't that badly hurt in the first place. Maybe forgiveness is hard b/c we are afraid of being hurt again by the same person, by the same offense. If I forgive this hurt, maybe he/she will hurt me again in the same way. Or perhaps forgiveness is hard b/c we like the feeling of another being in our debt for sin. She hurt me and I'm not forgiving her b/c I like that she owes me. As our Lord makes clear, my failure to forgive is a trap for me. There is no justification, no way to make right, my refusal to grant to another what God has freely given to me. Yes, I've been sinned against – terribly wounded – and my fallen nature urges me to seek justice, to seek balance. But when I seek that balance w/o acknowledging that my own sins have been forgiven, what I am truly seeking is vengeance. 
And unrepented vengeance earns me a dip in the River Styx, or a visit with the master's torturers. Our Lord recounts at the end of his parable: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'” The obvious answer here is: “Yes, Lord!” If you can't bring yourself to answer that question in the affirmative, why not? The most common reason I've heard as a priest goes something like this: “I could say that I've forgiven, but I don't feel like I've forgiven.” Our Lord requires us to “forgive from the heart,” meaning a genuine forgiveness that relieves the other person of his/her debt to us. No where does the Lord require us to feel good about forgiving another. No where does he demand that we be happy about it. Forgiveness is an act of the will – from the heart – we just do it. And then we go on with our lives knowing that no one owes us a debt of sin, knowing that we ourselves owe no one a debt of forgiveness. “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” Sirach tells us. And only a sinner holds them tight.

*Cantos VII - IX

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10 September 2017

Discerning a priestly vocation?

For those discerning a vocation to the Order of Preachers, there's a new website operated by the OP friars of Memphis, TN. . .

Priest Vocation

Check it out!

Don't be a stubborn mule!

23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Long after celibacy and poverty have become routine for us priests and religious, obedience remains a struggle. We can get used to not having that one special someone, and we can get used to relying on the community treasury for our basic needs. But surrendering my stubborn will to the authority of another? That's a very different story! When I'm asked to do something I don't want to do, I can hear that sneaky spirit of rebellion whispering to me – You're an adult! You're well-educated and entitled to your opinion! You know what's best for you! You have rights too, you know! That's the Self rising in pride to war against a vow made long ago. And because I am being perfected and not yet perfect, I need to be reminded of the wisdom of humility. Constantly reminded. The hand cannot grasp without the wrist. Nor the wrist bend without the arm. And so on. Humility – at the least – is 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 just because we don’t like the rules of the game. We’re in this game of holiness 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.

Despite our discomfort with delivering or receiving such a message, deliver and receive we must. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die [for disobeying me],’ and [if] 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 stick a knife into my enemy’s heart because my enraged brain sends the order; however, I am held responsible for his death – Me, body and soul. Not just my hand, not just my brain. And when I am brought to justice for murder, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: who knew he was capable of murder? Who failed to teach him the sacredness of life? Who failed to speak out and dissuade him? 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 inseparably bound together. Love without obedience is just sentimentality. Obedience without love is just groveling. 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, lays out a process for 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 stewardship. 
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 rural working class family. Persons are highly autonomous individuals. Freedom is the unhindered right to choose whatever I want. And whatever I want is right for me. Years in religious life have done a lot 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 envy, or control issues, or a personal dislike, or political enmity, so he can't be 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 just 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 I 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 freedom violated by a questionable 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 an over-the-top reaction. But 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.

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