Monday, March 06, 2006

Woe to Me When I'm a Pharisee

Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography, part 38

When he arrived at Salamanca he went to pray in a Church where a pious woman recognized him as belonging to the group, four of the members of which had already been there some days. She asked him his name and brought him to the inn where his companions were staying. When in Alcala they passed sentence that they were to dress like students, the pilgrim answered: “When you bade us dye our clothing we did so; but we cannot now do what you bid us because we have not the means with which to buy them.” The Vicar, therefore, himself provided them with clothes and headgear, and everything else like the rest of the students. Clad in this manner they left Alcala.

In Salamanca he confessed at St. Stephen’s to a friar of St. Dominic. One day, after he had been there some ten or twelve days, his confessor said to him: “The fathers of the house would like to talk with you.” “In God’s name,” he answered. “Well, then,” said the confessor, “it would be good for you to come and have dinner with us on Sunday. But I warn you of one thing: they will ask you many questions.” On Sunday he came with Calixto, and after dinner, the subprior, in the absence of the prior, together with the confessor, and I think another friar, went with them to the chapel where the subprior began pleasantly enough to tell him what good reports he had heard of his life and practices—that he went about preaching like the apostles, and that he would be glad to know something more in detail of what he had heard. He began by asking him what studies he had made, and the pilgrim answered: “Of us all, it is I who have studied the most.” He then gave him a clear account of the little he had studied and the poor foundation he had.

“Well, then, what is it you preach?” “We do not preach,” replied the pilgrim, “but we speak familiarly of spiritual things with a few, as one does after dinner, with those who invite us.” “But,” asked the friar, “what are the things of God you speak about; that is what we should like to know.” “We speak,” answered the pilgrim, “sometime of one virtue, sometimes of another, to praise it; sometimes of one vice, sometimes of another, to condemn it.” “You are not educated,” observed the friar, “and you speak of virtues and vices? No one can speak of theses things except in two ways, either because he has studied, or through the Holy Spirit. You have not studied; therefore, you speak through the Holy Spirit.” The pilgrim kept cool at this, as this method of arguing did not meet with his approval. After a moment’s silence, he said that there was no need of going further into the matter. But the friar was urgent. “Even now, when there are so many errors of Erasmus about, and of others which have misled the world, you don’t want to explain what you mean?”

Sound familiar? Some days as I’m reading through blogs, catching up on Church news, and having discussions with my Jesuit brothers it can get a little depressing. The Church is so filled today with reactionaries and people who are certain that they are right (both left and right)—and I know that I can be one of them sometimes—that it sometimes seems that their purpose in life is to determine how everybody else is doing things wrong. And when my attention turns back to the life of Jesus and the Gospel, it seems to me that this attitude is missing the point. Do we not have enough confidence in God to believe that he can work through us despite how uneducated we are or how badly we mess things up? That had to be the case with the apostles, as they never quite seem to get it, but lead people to Jesus anyway. On my best days, I realize all too well that I don’t know it all, and that I’m bound to make mistakes, but I also trust that God is going to work through me in spite of all this.

I think back to the days when I was in high school and college doing retreat ministry. I certainly didn’t know then a lot of the things I know now. God knows what heretical or suspect things I might have said in my retreat talks, if they were examined carefully. Yet, as far as I know, I never led anyone to apostasy. Indeed, many of our retreatants became closer to Christ as a result of our efforts, no matter how unexpert they were. The fact of the matter is, you don’t have to have a PhD in theology, or have memorized the Catechism in order to touch people’s lives in the service of Christ. Ignatius knew that, because he was doing it, but he also knew that he wasn’t qualified to argue theology with the likes of these friars. Also, it seems he sensed what seems apparent. These guys were trying to trap him, trying to get him to make the claim that he had been schooled by the Holy Spirit (which, in truth, he probably was!).

The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in much the same ways, trying to get him to say something that they were sure was wrong, so that they might have something to accuse him of. Unfortunately, it seems the Pharisees and the Inquisitors are never far from us, especially because sometimes they are us. I pray that my despite my years of education and my feelings of affinity with the Spirit of Christ, that I will never become so certain of my right opinion as the Pharisees were. Rather, I pray for the humility to know that I cannot possibly know it all, that I cannot know the mind of God, and that despite these limitations God will find a way to work through me.


Blogger Susan Rose, CSJP said...

Oh Mark, as far as I can tell God is working through you. Thanks as always for the post. A good reminder for us all.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cork said...

Great thoughts, Mark. I get caught up in pharasaism sometimes myself; lately, I've been thinking about my approach to my faith.

Two of the people who had a huge influence on my becoming Catholic ten years ago were the priest and the nun at the Newman Center at UMass. The nun would be called a "Cafeteria Catholic" by many of us, but she taught me a lot about grace and God's mercy. And just last year I found out that the priest had been accused of molesting a couple of boys a long time ago, and was no longer in active ministry. And yet, at a time in my life when I was stuck in the gutter, he pulled me out by hearing my first confession.

I could go on. There are a lot of people who wouldn't score well on the "St. Blog's Litmus Test of Authentic Catholicism." People who don't sit at mass with a checklist of "What The Priest is Doing Wrong;" who don't complain about people holding hands, chattering, or wearing jeans to church; maybe they even voted for John Kerry (gasp!).

But God doesn't require any litmus tests; he calls people into his church regardless of how holy we think they are. These people that we mock and insult--these normal, ordinary, flawed people--God used them to accomplish the miracle of bringing me into his church. By mocking them, do we not mock God? Are we not like that Pharisee in the temple who said, "Thank you, Lord, that I am not a sinner, like that tax collector?"

8:26 AM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

I have a daughter who is autistic, and has trouble staying calm in new situations. Once on vacation she was struggling to stay calm in a new Church, so I was talking quietly to her throughout the mass. The couple behind us actually moved because the woman was so incensed that I was talking in Mass.

I was humbled. But that woman was the one who had the problem. My daughter and I were coping the best we could in a new situation, the woman behind us didn't even bother to try to understand.

I think because of my children I am much more welcoming in Mass. I used to tell people with small children: unless your child is three pews away before you realize he has crawled under the pew, I win. (true story of my older son). We do what we can and trust that God is merciful. Mercy means God will treat us better than we deserve. Don't we wish people understood mercy the way God does.


9:44 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Good insight.

I never thought of political extremism as a manifestation of contemporary "Phariseeism" but so true!

Bravo to you for conscientiously searching yourself for these tendencies.

3:28 PM  
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1:41 AM  

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