Lowell once told me that I was being pissy. He was thinking of the times he saw me cut someone off at the knees during a training event. Like the time the new priest said, “What the hell is this stuff about stability? Christian faith is all about transformation, it's all about change.”
I wish I had been more gentle. I wish I had been kinder. Maybe his comment wasn’t as stupid as it sounded. And even if it was, I could have said, “Say more.” I might have wondered if there was something within what he was saying that was worth considering. I could have thanked him for the comment and moved on. I could have engaged him, asked if he’d be willing to consider an alternate view, and offer him a few minutes on the Benedictine Promise. I could have paused before reacting. I wish I had been kinder.
In the not-too-distant past I found myself on the other end of it. I was doing something to serve the parish. Was wrapping up a project that I had set in motion. I didn’t want to dump it on the parish priest (I’ll call him John). Then I received an e-mail from John accusing me of trying to move myself into an unauthorized leadership role. I was told, “do not continue in this vein.” Oh my!!! I seem to have crossed a line someplace even though I thought I was doing Fr. John and the parish an act of service. Moving myself into a new leadership role wasn’t something I wanted; in fact, it was something I had decided to avoid.
On the following day at coffee hour another retired priest (I’ll call her Mary) came up to me and introduced herself. She was a few years older than me. I had been sitting near her, and exchanging the Peace with her, for at least the last year. Then she said, “I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut in the parish. They don’t want to hear it.” That set off a flashback as I recalled an event in coffee hour about six months earlier when Fr. John delivered a curt and harsh response to a suggestion Mother Mary made regarding parish hospitality. I decided to affirm the need for us retired types to guard our tongue instead of doing a, “Yea, listen to what he did to me!!”
I think there’s value in not going down the resentment road. To step aside from the temptation to grumble. That then drifted into thoughts of how I was tough enough to handle such abuse—I had experienced people with raised fists, guns, and knives; I had an honorable discharge from the Marines; I had stepped between gangs with their weapons in hand, and I had served parishes in South Philadelphia and Trenton; when young I had broken the bones of others and had my own nose busted — I was tough enough. Well … “sticks and stones may …” You get the idea. I was whining.
It took me about 36 hours to move on from the exchange. I was aware of feelings of hurt and pain and thoughts about being unjustly accused. Worst yet, when I pointed out to Fr. John that he was misreading things, he didn’t even acknowledge what I said. I recalled a piece of my early behavioral science training regarding how being discounted was much more damaging than being attacked. Resentment was stirring in me. Whining and resentment — this wan’t good.
Then I was preparing to walk to the grocery story and stop for coffee on the way home. I wanted to take a book that would fit in my back pocket. Found one. Set off on my errands. Got to the coffee shop, bought an Americano, sat down and proceeded to read a commentary on Job.
I’m an introvert so when laughing at myself I do it very quietly.
Don’t go on the attack. Don’t get pissy with the other person. Allow your feelings to be what they are and manage them. Put a guard on your tongue. Pray for the person offending you. Forgive before they ask for forgiveness. Don’t seek apologies before being willing to let go. Better yet, don't seek apologies. Find the lightness in yourself. Above all pause. And then pause again.
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking *
and your lips from lying words (Ps 34:13)
For Saint Benedict this gets grounded in learning to be silent.
To nurture in ourselves the habit of silence and stillness is to be ready to listen to God and others. It is to step aside from shallow and bitter talk, from gossip and grumbling. Benedict understands that silence is related to humility. It feeds humility and is also an expression of humility.
None of us always gets this right. We continue in human limitation and sin. But we can develop habits, patterns of behavior, of harmony and peace. We can learn the rhythms of silence and pausing.
For the health of the parish
We’re all called to the rhythms of silence and pausing. It’s part of what it means to grow in faith and become a more apostolic Christian. If a parish is to nurture a climate of harmony and respect the focus needs to be on the center — the Apostolic core and the institutional center.
There are four elements to that institutional center. The list is in order of impact on parish climate.
1. The rector (vicar, priest in charge)
2. All the other clergy in the parish —paid associates, deacons, unpaid priest associates, and those retired and bi-vocational clergy who are simply attending.
3. The connectors - lay leaders with responsibilities that have them interacting with others as representatives of the parish. This might include wardens, the treasurer.
4. Parish staff such as office workers and child care workers.
These are the people who have a disproportionate influence on shaping the parish climate. Their listening and kindness or their dismissiveness and harshness has a greater impact. They need to be equipped for that influence by training in listening, silence and pausing; by receiving careful feedback on the impact of their behavior; by being expected to live the church’s rhythms of prayer and reflection; and by being loved.
Caesura The web page
A program for parish churches
Vaccinating against conflict
Nurturing healthy relationships