November 23, 2011

Gossip, Detraction, etc.

One of my disappointments with religious life as I have found it is that in some ways we seem to have abandoned the classic concerns of the spirituality of our state. Not that I think old-fashioned ideas about spirituality are good just because they are old, but sometimes I feel that common life is very much in need of listening to our spiritual fathers and mothers from the past.

One area where I think this is especially true is in the use of speech. Writing from the tradition of religious life is full of admonitions, warnings, and invitations to ascetical practice (we would say 'spiritual practice') in the use of speech. The dangers of gossip, detraction, and idle chatter have long been recognized. And yet, in the course of my own training and formation in religious life, I have never heard anyone recommend examination of conscience on these sorts of things, nor indeed much concern for their harmfulness at all.

I was thinking about this and confessing to God my own sins in this area as I said my prayers this morning. In the Office of Readings today, St. Columban reveals that he knew well these temptations and dangers: "Men like nothing better than discussing and minding the business of others, passing superfluous comments at random and criticizing people behind their backs."

It's a very destructive business, and not only rampant but more or less uncriticized in religious life as I have experienced it. Here's a real-life example: Apparently two brothers had a tense and unsuccessful conversation. This conversation was reported to me several times by various other brothers. In each case, the details, setting, and motivations presented were different in such ways as to present one of the brothers at fault and the other innocent. In one telling one of them was totally open and good, and the other dismissive and cruel. In another the analysis was reversed. What really happened? I don't know. But what I do know is that in the reporting of the incident it got to be about blaming rather than anything spiritually useful. The devil is quite happy to make use of our idea of right and wrong, so long as it convinces us that what is wrong with our communities is someone else's fault.

Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 115-116)

Beyond all of the well-known negative effects of gossip, detraction, and calumny, the ultimate spiritual problem is that we become to one another not the persons created by God, but the narratives that are told about us. We begin to treat each other according to this constructed identity, because it's easier than getting to know each other in all of our complexity. At worst, we can begin to act ourselves either in conformity or reaction to this false and shallow caricature of our true self. If we do this long enough, we can even forget who we really are. Because this false self is also unknown to God, we will also always feel like there is something fundamentally amiss with our prayer life, but not be able to name it.

Let us rather accept the admonition of our holy father Francis: "Blessed is that religious who takes no pleasure and joy except in the most holy words and deeds of the Lord and with these leads people to the love of God in joy and gladness." (Admonition XX)

5 comments:

Sarah said...

A. MEN.

Anonymous said...

"we can begin to act ourselves either in conformity or reaction to this false and shallow caricature of our true self. If we do this long enough, we can even forget who we really are. Because this false self is also unknown to God, our prayer life will also begin to die." As someone who grew up with an abusive father with no escape, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. You eventually become what you are accused of being. The journey toward rediscovery is long, painful and fraught with doubt.

Jordan said...

I walked into church late yesterday after helping a friend with a few work reporting tasks. Because I missed confession at the scheduled time I asked Father after mass if he would take just a few minutes to listen to mine. He looked down at his watch and said he was sorry he was late for an event. I left feeling rejected and little bitter. Your words this morning…”The devil is quite happy to make use of our idea of right and wrong, so long as it convinces us that what is wrong..is is someone else's fault.” Were exactly what I needed to hear.

My insecurities keep me from being who God wants me to be. I will keep surrendering the past to my Heavenly Father and trying to focus on the light of his love.

Thank you Father Charles this was exactly what I needed to hear today.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving.

Greg said...

An echo of Taming the Wolf. In the book (which I am polishing, revising and then republishing next week) I address these ideas... as well as the specific sources, Merton and the Admonitions.

I have been blessed to have the opportunity to address these issues in workshops with religious and clergy. Next March I will give a five-day workshop, which will include two panel discussions on conflict resolution for clergy.

If you can steal away for a week... would love to have you present your thoughts.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Thanks for the post. It reminds me that all too often we dismiss the wisdom of the past in favor of the trivial of the present. You're right, we don't just accept the old stuff because it's old. We verify the truth of the teaching and then live it. You note St Francis; let me note that St Benedict strongly admonishes us not to murmur. None of us is exempt from purity of heart and a poverty of spirit: no detractions, no distractions. Perhaps we can follow the sage advice for the health of our souls.

I am mortified by the lack of pastoral solicitude shown to Jordan by a priest. Not only is an example of the devil being more influential among the clergy but it strikes me that this is another example of an American atheism: indifference.

PAX