WHILE couples, communities, and even nations become increasingly divided, perhaps there is one thing that we nearly all agree upon: civil discourse is rapidly disappearing.
From the President of the United States to the anonymous poster, cordial communication is disintegrating. Whether it is the way talk show guests and hosts cut each other off, or how Facebook, Youtube, or forum discussions frequently descend into personal attacks, or the road rage and other flares of public impatience we see… people appear ready to tear complete strangers apart. No, it is not the increase in earthquakes and volcanoes, the beating of war drums, the imminent economic collapse or the growing totalitarian climate of governments—but the love of many growing cold that perhaps stands as the chief “sign of the times” at this hour.
…because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. (Matthew 24:12)
And thus, even against our will, the thought rises in the mind that now those days draw near of which Our Lord prophesied: “And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). —POPE PIUS XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor, Encyclical on Reparation to the Sacred Heart, n. 17
But just because this is the social climate of our day does not, therefore, mean that you and I must inevitably follow suit. In fact, it is imperative that we become leaders and examples of good communication more than ever.
THE WRANGLING OF WORDS
In today’s first reading, St. Paul’s words bear a striking relevance to this hour:
…warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. (2 Tim 2:14)
With the advent of social media, a narcissistic inclination has seized this generation: all of a sudden, everyone has a soapbox. With Google on their left and a keyboard on their right, everyone is an expert, everyone has the “facts,” everyone knows everything. The problem, though, is not sufficient access to knowledge, but possession of wisdom, which instructs the heart and discerns and weighs knowledge. True wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and as such, is sorely lacking in our know-it-all generation. Without wisdom, without a willingness to be humble and to learn, then indeed, conversation will rapidly devolve into a wrangling of words as opposed to listening.
Not that disagreement is a bad thing at all; that’s how we challenge paralyzed thinking and broaden our horizons. But so often, dialogue today is descending into ad hominem attacks whereby “genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.” wikipedia.org When this takes place in the public sphere between Christians, it is damaging to those who are listening. For:
This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
It’s as if this generation no longer believes that patience, courtesy, and humility are important in dialogue. Rather, that the real “virtue” is the assertion of oneself and one’s truth, no matter how it appears and no matter the cost to the relationship or the dignity of the other.
How opposite this to the example Christ gave us! When He was misunderstood, He simply walked away. When He was falsely accused, He remained silent. And when He was persecuted, He let His gentle response and forgiveness do the talking. And when He did engage His enemies, He let His “yes” be “yes” and His “no” be “no.” cf. James 5:12 If they persisted in their stubborness or arrogance, He did not try to convince them, even though the stakes were high—their eternal salvation! Such was the respect Jesus had for the free will of His creation.
Here again, St. Paul has some relevant advice for us regarding those who want to fight:
Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes. From these come envy, rivalry, insults, evil suspicions, and mutual friction among people with corrupted minds… But you, man of God, avoid all this. (cf. 1 Tim 6:3-11)
WHAT CAN I DO?
We need to learn how to listen again to the other. As Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty once said, “We can listen another’s soul into existence.” When conversing in person, do you look the other in the eye? Do you stop what you are doing and focus solely on them? Do you let them finish their sentences? Or do you fiddle with your smartphone, change the subject, turn the conversation back to yourself, look around the room, or judge them?
Indeed, one of the most damaging things that continually happens in social media today is that the other person is judged. But I heard this wise little tidbit the other day:
Years ago, I once entered a forum debate with a woman on the subject of modesty in country music. She was very sharp and bitter, attacking and mocking. Instead of responding in kind, I calmly replied to her acidic diatribe with love in truth. She then contacted me a few days later, thanked me for being kind, apologized, and then explained that she had an abortion and was acting out in anger. That began a stunning opportunity to share the Gospel with her (see The Scandal of Mercy).
When you are engaged in person or on the internet with another, don’t just hear what they are saying but listen. You can even repeat what they just said and then ask if you are understanding them correctly. In this way, you are not just listening but loving them—and that allows God’s presence to enter the conversation. This is what Pope Francis means by “accompanying” others:
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives…. Reaching a level of maturity where individuals can make truly free and responsible decisions calls for much time and patience. As Blessed Peter Faber used to say: “Time is God’s messenger”. —Evangelii Gaudium, n. 171
But then, if someone is not willing to engage the truth, or merely wants to score debate points, then walk away—like Jesus did. As Christians, we must never force the truth down people’s throats. That’s what the popes mean when they say we should not “proselytize.” If someone is not interested in tasting, much less chewing the Word of God, then walk away. Don’t cast your pearls before swine, as the saying goes.
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 170
Their conversion is God’s problem, not yours. Your concern is to not lose your peace and fall for the trap of being dragged into a slugfest. Trust me—I’ve been there before, and rarely have I ever convinced somebody of the truth in that way. Rather, it is not what I say, but how I say it, or how I ultimately respond, that has moved the heart of another.
Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
I may be “unfriended” on Facebook. I might be scorned by my friends and family. I might be ridiculed and mocked by co-workers. But whenever I respond in love, I am planting a Divine seed in their midst. It may not sprout for years or even decades. But they will remember someday that you were patient and kind, generous and forgiving. And that seed may suddenly germinate, changing the course of their life.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)
But it must be a seed of love because God is love.
Love is patient, love is kind… is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Cor 13:4-5)
MY MINISTRY TO YOU
After reflection, prayer, and discussion with my spiritual director, I have decided at this time to withdraw somewhat from my interactions online. While I have been able to encourage and help some people on Facebook or elsewhere, I also find that it can be a caustic environment, as it frequently engages me with some folks who have a “morbid disposition for arguments.” This can erode my peace and distract me from my main mission, which is to preach the Gospel—not convince others of it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. For my part, God has placed me in the solitude of a spiritual and physical desert for this time in my life, and it is necessary to remain there—not to avoid anyone—but to better serve them with the Word of God, as opposed to my own.
And so, while I will continue to post my writings here and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. to reach as many souls as I can, I will not be engaging in comments or messages there. If you need to contact me, you can do so here.
I am a feisty person. I have a natural fighter instinct in me whenever I see injustice. This can be good, but it has to be tempered by charity. If I have, in my personal communications with you or on public forums, been in any way impatient, haughty, or uncharitable, I ask your forgiveness. I am a work in progress; everything I’ve written above I am trying to live better myself.
Let’s become a sign of contradiction in this world. We will be so when we become the face, the eyes, the lips, the tongue, and the ears of Christ…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
—The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi
Therefore, you, apostles of my love, you who know how to love and forgive, you who do not judge, you whom I encourage, you be an example to all those who are not going on the way of light and love or who have diverted from it. By your life show them the truth. Show them love because love overcomes all difficulties, and all of my children thirst for love. Your unity in love is a gift to my Son and me. But, my children, remember that to love also means to desire the good for your neighbor and to desire conversion of your neighbor’s soul. As I am looking at you gathered around me, my heart is sad, because I see so little brotherly love, merciful love… —Our Lady of Medjugorje allegedly to Mirjana, June 2, 2018
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