Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.
Last Wednesday, an extraordinary thing happened to me. Someone approached me in the lunch line and told me that she did not like my sermon. Well, that in itself is not extraordinary. Lots of people dislike my sermons. I’ve received angry emails, angry phone calls, folks have written letters to the abbot and to the pastor…last month, someone actually wrote a letter to the bishop about a sermon I gave. So that’s not anything extraordinary. What was extraordinary was that my friend wasn’t angry at me—and more extraordinary still, neither was I. I literally sat in my cell afterwards wondering why I felt so good about being criticized. And then it occurred to me: this person was my friend…and she wasn’t criticizing me, she was trying to help me. She wasn’t making assumptions about my motives. She wasn’t judging my character. In fact, she brought up her objection precisely because she respects my character and found my words inconsistent with the man she knew me to be.
For the record, there are some things I’ll probably change if I ever give that sermon again. But that’s beside the point. What’s really important is that my friend and I could disagree without getting angry. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did surprise me; and I think that’s because we are living in such an angry age. Folks don’t seem to be able to disagree without insulting one another; we can’t seem to challenge an opinion without sneering at it.
You guys hear people talk all the time about the “Priory School Family.” And in many ways, we are family. In some crucial ways, we are not. You can’t flunk out of a family. But when we feel comfortable enough in one another’s presence to bring up sensitive issues with charity and patience—when we feel comfortable correcting one another and being corrected without turning to insults and outrage—then I think we are beginning to build something bigger than a mere school.
I have a friend who is a nun with the Missionaries of Charity. She told me she used to work in the Amazon and that she had to share a small shack with another nun who insisted on closing the windows every night before bed. She found this really annoying because it was hot in that little shack, and hotter still when the windows were closed. Finally, another shack was built for the other nun to sleep in; and for the very first time, she was able to sleep with the windows open. The next morning she woke up in a bed full of snakes. You see, her sister nun was really looking out for both of them.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing good for the other.” If you live with that kind of love long enough, it gives you a certain sense of peace and security. You know that the people around you want what is best for you. So no matter what they do, you can safely assume they do it out of love.
Now I want to make a radical proposition: I think we should love everyone–even our enemies. But that means trusting that even the people we disagree with have our best interest at heart. Let’s take a cue from my friend who had the courage to correct me on Wednesday, and start living this out at Priory. Then gradually, it may seep out into the world around us.
In practical terms, this means that when someone cuts in line in front of you, you assume it’s because they didn’t know you were there—or they were in a terrible rush, or they had some extremely good excuse for doing it. When someone tells you you’re a jerk, begin by assuming that you may actually be a jerk, and that this person wants to help you improve. When someone says something you find offensive or stupid, assume – at least at first –that they don’t know any better, and that they will be grateful for being told of their mistake. I admit that this is a dangerous way to live, and I can’t say I have ever really done it, but I saw it done on Wednesday, and it was thrilling.
My grandmother used to say that family is for pointing out the spinach in your teeth. When we are able to criticize and be criticized without anger, then we will know that Priory is beginning to become a family. When you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.