The parish priest and I went to a family’s house for dinner. After a while, the lady of the house turned to me and said: ‘Father, having had enough wine I can tell you what I think about…’ and then she referred to a certain situation from a not-so-distant past; nothing really nasty or unpleasant. The sad thing about it was that she needed to partially incapacitate herself, to be honest in presenting her views. Another ‘popular’ way to express our dislike, displeasure or discontent is in angry outbursts. When neither enough alcohol is available nor flare-ups erupt, the main way of dealing with challenging relationships is by talking behind people’s backs. Which is pointless.
In today’s gospel, Jesus deals with the horizontal dimension of communal life. His teaching regarding people around us is usually far more challenging than the vertical aspect of the faith, i.e. the relationship between me and God. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’ (Luke 6:27-30) This is just a sample; for more disturbing guidance read the Gospel of St Matthew 5-7. Subconsciously we prefer dealing with God’s requirements because it’s easier: go to Mass once a week, say some prayers, try not to cross the line of the Ten Commandments; easy-peasy, particularly as God is merciful and forgiving, and a bit distant… Unlike people around us.
And yet, the horizontal aspect of the faith is how we can meet God’s commands. Firstly, seven out of the Ten Commandments refer to human interactions. The Old Testament prophets most of the time rebuked the people of Israel for their dishonesty, exploitation, and abuse in dealing with their compatriots while outwardly keeping their religious practices. Jesus himself warned his audience: ‘The truth is, anything you did for any of my people here, you also did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40) St John echoed and explained those words: ‘If we say we love God but hate any of our brothers or sisters […] we are liars. If we don’t love someone we have seen, how can we love God? We have never even seen him. God gave us this command: If we love God, we must also love each other as brothers and sisters.’ (1 John 4:20-21)
One way of showing charitable love towards others is by correcting them. My English was very poor when I arrived in Scotland so many years ago, and I knew that. Actually, one of my minor reasons for coming here was to improve my English, which in the north-east of Scotland proved to be a serious mistake. Anyway, local people were extremely pleasant and never corrected my linguistic mistakes; instead, they kept telling me ‘Father, your English is better than my Polish’ which was true but useless from my point of view. Then I found a tutor and paid her to tell me the truth; my English dramatically improved within a couple of years. To this day I appreciate when someone corrects me because I’m not perfect – and I’m not referring to just my linguistic skills.
Why do we struggle to correct people to their face? There are many reasons, but cowardice is the common factor. That’s why alcohol or angry outbursts (or both) are ‘honesty triggers’. I put this in inverted commas because there’s hardly anything honest in such exchanges. They’re venting one’s frustrations, anger, resentments, grudges and so on. Such outbursts are never driven by love but by animosity and bad blood. They might help to let off steam, but rarely solve problems; more often they pile up more resentment, bitterness, and grudges. Many marriages in crisis cannot point to a single event when the crisis started, because most of the time there isn’t one. It’s the silt of petty arguments imperceptibly filling up the hearts; people drift apart, and when a disastrous event does happen it’s the final consequence of being apart, not the reason for it.
Correcting people admittedly requires some courage, but it’s much easier to do when you take a few things into consideration. Firstly, who might benefit most from such a conversation? If it’s the person in question, that’s a good sign. Secondly, do I have good, logical arguments to support the case? And thirdly, am I ready to listen to the person in question? Sometimes things are not as they seem to be and I have to be open to revising my opinions.
What if you are at the receiving end of the correctional talk? It requires courage too because we are naturally more inclined to listen to flattery than to castigation. You need to have an open mind to listen to someone’s criticism. Then you have to honestly weigh it up against the opinions of others. In other words, ‘If one person tells you you’re drunk, you can ignore it. If two people tell you this, you may become anxious. If everyone else is telling you this, go home and go to sleep.’