And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.Col. 3:16
Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.Luke 6:37
For many years I accompanied candidates to religious life. Through experience I came to recognize that if I failed to take up with them directly a difficulty they were manifesting in their behavior in the community, my angry feelings toward them would strengthen significantly. As I have always found direct confrontation and conflict difficult, I would often procrastinate in reflecting back to them even minor irritations. The result of this avoidance would inevitably be the proverbial making of a mountain out of a molehill, until, unless I became aware of what was happening, I exploded at them over an unrelated and often insignificant failing. At such a moment, I was angry at them for making me angry and conflicted rather than for what they had originally done.
Today’s readings invite us to reflect on that painful reality of the human condition whereby relationships even among well meaning people become strained and even broken. Jesus is well aware that we make “enemies” out of others in reaction to our own inability to know ourselves as sinners, but as sinners who are loved and forgiven. In indisputably valid psychology, Jesus tells us that if we do not judge, we shall not feel judged, if we do not condemn, we shall not be condemned, and if we forgive we shall know forgiveness for ourselves. Many years ago while in therapy, I spoke to my therapist about my consistent feelings of being diminished and judged by others. I felt as if others were always looking at me with a critical and diminishing eye. In response, she asked me if I did that to others. I immediately recognized that I did. My own defensiveness and self-depreciation often took the form of eyeing other persons with a focus on their peculiarities or deficiencies. In a certain sense, I was constantly judging others from afar, from a safe and ironic distance. And so, of course, that’s how I saw others, the world, and probably God as looking at me.
It takes great courage to be honest and humble. We scapegoat others because we do not dare to trust that we are forgiven our sins, and we are loved as we are, with our own peculiarities and what we see as deficiencies. Absent a true sense of inner affirmation from God and ourselves, we will scapegoat others by projecting all of our own darkness and violence onto them.
As I read the passage from Colossians today I experienced, perhaps from its lack in me, the call to “teach and admonish one another,” but in the wisdom that comes from a pervasive sense of gratitude. In the first letter of Peter we are told: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10) It is what we have received as gift that we are to give to others. And, today we are reminded that the gift is to be at times given in teaching and admonishing.
This suggests, it seems to me, a dynamic of mutuality. Those persons I encounter, and especially with whom I relate consistently, have been given a gift meant to serve my own formation, in encouragement and in admonishment. Similarly, I have been given a gift that is meant to be generously given to others in these ways.
I spoke earlier of how often I would fail to teach or admonish a candidate when it could have been done simply and without violence. But often I lacked the generosity to give myself and my gift away. This was true, in part, because I lacked awareness that the moment in question was a call to give a gift I had been given for the sake of the other person. As such, I was not being thankful for the gift. For, to be thankful is active. It implies both a sense of gratitude and the expression of that gratitude in generosity. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus points out that the measure we give will be the measure in which we receive. There is a common image in the mystical tradition that when we have come to a real measure of communion with God we find ourselves in a fountain of love and grace that is unending and overflowing. When we are “in the flow” by generously offering the gift we have been given, we discover that the gift is not only abundant but infinite.
It is in gratitude and thanksgiving that we experience the abundance of life, of love, and of grace. If we think about it, we realize that when we experience thanksgiving, we are aware of the plenitude of the gift. We are not focused on its scarcity or limit or deficiency for the very reason that it is sheer gift. It is fullness where we have only “a right” to expect emptiness. So, when Colossians tells us to be thankful, it fully recognizes that this is the disposition which enables generosity in us, including the generosity to relate honestly and courageously, to teach and to admonish where called for.
Of course, the mutuality involved is in the willingness to be taught and admonished. For many of us, this is far more difficult than we often advert to. I know for myself that I have an immediate reaction of fear and anger to being “admonished.” What today’s reading teaches is that this reaction, this refusal to be taught and admonished, is due to a lack of gratitude. In what way is this true? I think it is a lack of gratitude for our own lives, for our very being. If we see our life in formation as a gift, we can also see that those who would help us along the way by teaching and admonishing us are a part of that gift. We always joked in the novitiate that when a fellow novice corrected us, and we said “Thank you, Brother.”, that was code for quite a different meaning. Yet, although I was angry and resistant at the time, I look at certain admonishments I have received from people who really love me as the greatest of gifts to my own human and spiritual development and formation, and I experience eternal thankfulness for them.
At least in religious community, our greatest failing in this regard is our failure to be generous enough with each other to really communicate, to teach, to correct. As Americans, we so value independence and autonomy that we forget how essential is communication to communion. The gift we are given is not for ourselves but for the others. As 1 Peter tells us, we are to use whatever gift we have received to serve others. Yet, before we are able to do so, we must experience the gift as gift and so the gratitude that is the very source of service in us.
As I age, it is much more difficult for me to fall into extended periods of self-pity, even in difficult moments. And the reason is I am constantly reminded by the presence and words of others how thankful I am for life and for love. Such gratitude is different from inflation of the ego. For, it is thanksgiving not for anything I have done but for the free gift of love. So, even in moments of discouragement, because of the love I am shown I soon am asking myself how this gift is to be given away. This does not mean that I always have the generosity to give all as I could. But it does mean that I do not have that sense I had so much as a young person of being alone in the world. We are not alone because we are connected in love; we are in communion in a love common to all. That love is given to us as a unique gift to give away to others, that they may not forget that they too are loved and are a member of the human community.
Historian René Girard (1923–2015) demonstrated that the scapegoat mechanism is probably the foundational principle for the formation of most social groups and cultures. We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In fact, the effectiveness of this mechanism depends on not seeing it! It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” Humans should recognize their own negativity and sinfulness, but instead we largely hate or blame almost anything else.Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, September 12, 2019
Unless scapegoating can be consciously seen and named through concrete rituals, owned mistakes, or “repentance,” the pattern will usually remain unconscious and unchallenged. It took until the twentieth century for modern psychology to recognize how humans almost always project their unconscious shadow material onto other people and groups, but Jesus revealed the pattern two thousand years ago. “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God,” he said (John 16:2). We hate our own faults in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit.