This will probably be my last blog post for the week. Later today I will get on a plane to Regina Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies. We have a Madonna House there which runs a soup kitchen for the men of the streets; I am going out to give them a three-day retreat. I return Sunday and will be back to normal blogging from then on.
But I thought I would do my ‘work of mercy’ post today, then, before I go off-line for the rest of the week. We are moving right along with these works, and now come to the most difficult, tricky, easy-to-do-wrong, really-hard-to-do-right work of all.
And that work is to admonish sinners. When I wrote the post about visiting the sick, and I was listing some of the genuine nuances of how you can biff that one up and end up being more of a nuisance than anything else, I hastened to say that I wasn’t trying to discourage anyone from actually doing that work of mercy.
With this one, I do fully mean to discourage people from doing this one, if you don’t think you can do it correctly. The damage that can be done to a person’s soul if they are rebuked for their sins badly, harshly, without mercy and with hard judgment is terrible. People can be driven away from God and from the Church, for years, if someone admonished them for their sins in a way that was hurtful, demeaning, loveless.
So don’t do it… unless, that is, you can do it with love, with peace, with compassion, with great care, prudence, and discernment. If you lack any of the above qualities in any situation where you may feel some admonishing is in order, do not move on it until you have them. Ask God for them.
Now, there are situations in life where this work of mercy actually is part of one’s job. Parents simply have to do this, and God bless all you parents reading this for taking on that hard part of the job. You gotta tell your kids when their doing wrong, and it’s no fun. But it has to be done. And others are in similar situations. Religious superiors, spiritual directors (gasp!)—when one person has a responsibility to some extent for the moral and human formation of another person, then there is an obligation to admonish the sinner. But again, always with compassion, mercy, love.
Personally, I am very slow to correct a directee on something, my experience being that they usually know what they are doing wrong, and that there is great delicacy required to tell them so when it that is not the case. Lots of prayer, lots of waiting for the right moment, the season when the word of truth and correction can enter into their mind and heart. It’s tricky!
But in general, we have to be very slow to move with one another in this matter. Internet culture specializes in people shrieking at one another about how much the other person sucks, and I suppose at times in the Catholic blogosphere that kind of intemperate yelping of one another’s supposed sins can be justified by appealing to this work of mercy.
Well, nonsense. If you are going to correct someone for some misdeed of theirs, for one thing you do it in private, in the context of a face to face relationship. Your motivation must be the genuine good of the person you are correcting, and you have to really care about them. There must not be any trace of malice or anger, vengefulness or sarcasm or snarkiness—none of these can be part of any work of mercy we do, and certainly not this most delicate one.
So yes, I am definitely trying to discourage people from doing this work of mercy (odd project for a priest in the Year of Mercy). Unless, that is, you are doing it rightly, not lightly, with much prayer and love and care.
Of course the most profound way to ‘admonish the sinner’ that all of us are supposed to engage in continually is simple enough: it is to live a sinless life. When we respond with love of God and love of neighbor, when we strive daily to conform our acts, words, and thoughts to the demands of justice and charity, when the Law of God, both the negative precepts of the moral law (the shalt nots) and the positive commands of Christ (the Sermon on the Mount, the New Commandment of Love) is continually on our minds and hearts and guides every decision we make—all of this is a great admonishing of both the sinner who we ourselves are and of sinful humanity.
Become a saint, in other words. And then you will know when to speak and when to be silent, when one of your fellow sinners may need to have something said to them, and when the best way of correction is to simply love them and radiate the goodness of God to them through your own choice of the good, the true, and the beautiful in you life.
We want to get this work of mercy right, right? Well, that’s the way to do it, at least as best as this poor sinner can understand it himself. I do ask your prayers for me as I travel today and give the retreat to the good folks in Regina who serve the poor every day in their house, and I will be back on the blogosphere… well, sometime next week.