One of the bloggers I regularly follow published amea culpa today for how he has written his columnof late.
I took particular note for a couple of reasons: first because I have from time to time called him to task in the combox for the very things he publicly repents of—and second because in him I have a kindred spirit. His faults and gifts are mine: a sharp tongue and a sarcastic wit which, unfettered, can step over the bounds of Christian charity.
My training—in law, in medical politics and in political lobbying—was definitely of the no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle, go for the jugular, fight to the death variety. And I was very, very good at it. In my former life, I regularly crossed that line, usually without remorse. Winning my point was, in those days, pretty much everything.
Having stepped back from that world and into a relationship with Christ’s Church that I expect to change me, it’s that trait I bring forward more often in penitence than not: Here, God: change this dreadful, pugilistic aspect of my personality. It is a source of great frustration that, in the heat of discussion or in the passion of writing, that old, acid self surfaces and I end up saying, doing, or writing something I later regret; I then beat myself over the head with it for a few days until I get bored with it and move on to some other infraction… and there always is another one because, at some level, that wit, that passion, that need to articulate and teach, even in a caustic way, is hard wired into me.
In some ways, I am asking God to make me someone fundamentally different than the woman he actually created. Not usually a successful plan.
A recent conversation with a friend put this into a different perspective for me. His daughter, who has the family reputation of being the demanding and sharp and difficult one to live with, is an advocate for disabled children, and she does her job exceptionally well. She was relating to her father a recent conference in which she obtained for her client exactly the services he needed—but left at least one of the attendees in tears. “You know,” she reflected, “I hate it when that happens, but sometimes it’s just part of the job.” In relating the story, her dad chuckled and said with great pride, “She’s done a great job of using to good effect the gifts God gave her.”
It made me think about myself and it makes me think about that blogger. Sometimes the gifts God gives us are not entirely pleasant in the short run, for ourselves or for others. Even used well, they can result in pain. Used badly, they can wreak great havoc, true of any gift, even the pleasant ones but more true of gifts like this.
The trick is to use them as God intends. I’m not sure we always know when we are doing that. Certainly I don't, especially when caught up in passions or reacting to the pain of any given situation—either pain I perceive or pain I cause. Pain clouds perception, always.
This man’s recent columns have engendered a good deal of discussion because he has been strong and unrelenting in discussing the uncomfortable fact of Catholic teaching that an evil means cannot ever be used to achieve a good end. His rhetoric has ramped up on occasion—to the point that I would sometimes stop reading either column or thecombox in frustration, and he rightly repents of that—but his points have been clear, consistent and good, and he has made me think—not so much about the issue addressed in the columns but about the other areas of my life in which I fall into the same trap. As annoying—even sinful—as some of his comments were, the made me pause and they have made me change.
I am reminded of a similar instance in my not too distant past. In a public discussion of an otherwise relatively benign topic, one of the participants spoke at length of how badly she had been treated by a prior priest who did what he thought was both best and proper in the course of administering the sacraments. The discussion became a bit heated, and I delivered a sharp and reflexive rebuke: You are just angry because he gave you an answer you didn't like! The discussion petered off into uncomfortable silence. It was far from my finest hour and I wasted no time taking it to confession.
But the strangest thing happened: a few days later, that individual publicly apologized for her treatment of the priest and her unguarded comments about him and asked for help in changing. Go figure. All I can conclude is that both as people and as a people, we all try to God’s work; we all fall short in some measure or another, and somehow God ‘s love and power and grace shine through anyway.
So it is with this blogger. His passion for holding himself and others to the inconvenient truths of the faith, and his clear vision of how easy it is to be seduced by the wider culture have been an invaluable gift to me. He shakes me out of my complacency (that always hurts) and reminds me when I am tempted to compromise with the world at large. I don’t always agree with his analysis of things-as-they are—but he always, always leads me to think more deeply about myself and my relationship to God and I always come away from his columns changed, even if in a small measure. I find, over time, that I no longer read him just to be edified but to be moved, enlightened, challenged and changed. He can be caustic, but he is not often very wide of the mark. His teaching is solid if his delivery can be a bit bellicose.
When I have called him to task it is because he has too closely entangled sin and sinner and thereby loses the force of his teaching. I know all too well how easy it is to score rhetorical points with clever characterizations and scathing comments—but these sometimes pass into the realm of calumny and detraction in the heat of the moment.
How easy it is for me to think God is more like me than He is Other and to think in turn that those around me are more “other” than they are like me and thus to dismiss them. In the heat of a good argument, I am inclined to think that God simply must see things my way; it is too easy to make my point by casting (sometimes well deserved) aspersions on an individual or situation that I see so very clearly as out of line. The reality is: no matter how clearly I see things, odds are there’s an element of error in any truth I try to put forth, if only the error of incompleteness.
The funny thing is, God seems to manage pretty well even in those circumstances. Look at St. Paul—there’s an element of braggadocio in his writing. He seems to take great pride in the fact that he confronted St. Peter over the Judaizers and—in the blog of his day—calls him out publicly and none too charitably.
A look at the Fathers, Doctors and Saints reveals the same passion and the same risk. St. Jerome is known not only for his spirituality but for his temper; Saint of the Day puts it as well as anyone: Jerome was a strong, outspoken man. He had the virtues and the unpleasant fruits of being a fearless critic and all the usual moral problems of a man. He was, as someone has said, no admirer of moderation whether in virtue or against evil. He was swift to anger, but also swift to feel remorse, even more severe on his own shortcomings than on those of others. A pope is said to have remarked, on seeing a picture of Jerome striking his breast with a stone, "You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you." Butler's Lives of the Saints
The reality is that God needs strident Jerome as much as he needs gentle Therese. Some things need to be said passionately and clearly because that is the only way some folks hear messages. To do so takes a gift of insight, a gift of courage and a gift of directness. Can a gift like that—like that of Jerome and of this penitent blogger—be misused? Of course. That’s why everyone with an incisive and ascerbic bent needs good advisors: it is easy to cut too deep and too wide, but sometimes, cutting is needed and those who can, must.
But just as it is possible to be too hard on others, it is possible to be too hard on one’s self. It is important to listen to criticism but it is just as important to make certain it is balanced. There’s an old Southern expression: only the hit dog hollers. Sometimes criticism means a writer has done his job well.
The gift of cutting wit is still a gift. Better to learn to use it rightly and well than to abandon it or to remake it into something it neither is nor is intended by God to be, for to do so is to give in to the voice of the Accuser and to commit the sin of pride.
Keep writing, Friend Blogger, and from the heart. But do keep the stone handy.