Several folks have pointed out to me that my response to critical comments left on this blog lately has, to put it bluntly, lacked humility. I’ve allowed myself to get into a place of defensiveness, and that has colored both my blogging and my commenting. To such an observation, I fear I can only say nolo contendere. At least one person has declared that he will no longer be reading this blog. I’m sorry he feels he needs to go, but I understand why he’s been disappointed here. I’m sorry that my pride and need to justify myself has compromised my ability to write clearly and beautifully about contemplative spirituality and life in Christ. All I can do is apologize, thank everyone who has pointed out to me my failings, and resolve to grow.
This whole sorry matter began when a reader posted a comment to my page on Walter Hilton, contesting whether Hilton deserves to be called a mystic or not. If I had been smart/humble (!), I would have replied by graciously thanking him for his opinion and noting that I agree with William McNamara, who says “The mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic” (Earthy Mysticism, p. ix). In other words, is it really worth our time to quibble over who is and isn’t a mystic? In my better moments, I don’t think so. But alas, two weeks ago I wasn’t having one of my “better moments,” and so I wrote a lengthy response/counter-attack to the Hilton comment, and that’s when the fun began. Several comments to that post got me even more defensive, leading to yet another exercise in self-justification. Sigh. Anyone got a mirror to help me scrape all this egg off my face?
So what am I learning: quite a few things. First, not to be so attached to being “right.” To recognize that not everyone is going to agree with my understanding of mysticism, Christian or otherwise (and that’s okay). To keep reminding myself to be not so quick in responding to my critics, particularly if I’m tempted to get onto the self-justification merry-g0-round. To humbly accept that I have a long way to go to becoming truly humble. That there’s no time to lose in beginning that particular journey. And to feel a sense of gratitude that people are engaged enough in this blog to offer criticism and challenge. In business, I’ve long understood that the customers who complain are much more your friends than the ones who just silently go away unhappy. Likewise, on a blog, the readers who leave challenging or critical comments are the ones who can truly help a blogger to grow. So… even when I don’t agree with you all the time (yes, I’m talking about you, Simon!), thank you anyway for going to the trouble of leaving a comment with your views. I mean it.
And one last thing, and that’s where the title of this particular post comes in. I think I’m learning more than ever before just how much labels get us into trouble. Debating whether somebody is or isn’t a mystic, a contemplative, a “true” Christian, an orthodox Catholic, etc. etc. etc. seems to be almost always a waste of time. When we do this, aren’t we just worrying about labels? It saddens me that so many people resort to “in name only” attacks: for example, “Nancy Pelosi is a ‘Catholic in name only;’” “Olympia Snowe is a Republican ‘in name only;’” and so forth. Criticize the person’s positions all you want, but does it really help to criticize what labels they do (or don’t) wear? For me at least, debating about labels can be a form of intellectual laziness, in which instead of doing the hard work of understanding the joyful complexity of any one person’s position, I resort to making a snap judgment by quickly comparing the person to my own particular set of shibboleths in regard to the particular label in question. Yes, I’m guilty of this — I’m not just preaching to the choir, I’m preaching to myself. This lesson is making me question the entire wisdom of labeling a certain group of Christians as “mystics” or “contemplatives.” Does such labeling really help anyone to enter into the splendor of Christian spirituality: or is it just an invitation for further rounds of debate?
Oh, well, I need to get ready for work, so I’ll stop here. Once again, to anyone who reads this blog: I beg your forgiveness for my defensive and prideful writing over the last few weeks. As Kate Bush says, please “Be kind to my mistakes” and pray for me as I try to keep growing in my own faith.