I started off Lent in a little disagreement with a woman at Church. For two days we’d been sending off emails, one after another, becoming increasingly enmeshed in battle. I pointed out a problem in her first note. She self-defended, and brought in someone else to blame. I defended the third party–and before I knew it, I was kneeling at Ash Wednesday services shooting out vectors of resentment between myself and these other parties in the Sanctuary. It was a horrible feeling.
I was thinking about the Holy Father’s last homily, in which he’d discussed sins against the unity of the Church. And in retracing my steps, I could see the little schism in our parish life that I had helped create.
After Mass, I noticed her sitting over by the choir, adjusting her shoe. Seeing her there, alone, I couldn’t hold onto my sense of indignation. I’d envisioned myself making my small point, and her being edified and grateful to me for doing so. But things had not gone how I thought they would, and now I felt some combination of pity and fear at the sight of her.
I knew I needed to go and make friends again, to speak to her in person, but my instincts told me to flee. It was my instincts, and my children, that I followed out the door of the church.
I get sort of tired of Lent-fail stories. I used to love confessing to the internet all the wonderful ways in which I was weak. I ate the chocolate; I drank the coffee; I failed to say my prayers. But it gets tiresome, year after year, being the person who never crosses any new ground. Just do it, right?
“The human person is the being which does not become itself automatically. Nor does it do so simply by letting itself be carried along and surrendering to the natural gravitational pull of a kind of vegetative life. It becomes itself always and only by struggling against the tendency simply to vegetate and by dint of a discipline that is able to rise above the pressures of routine and to liberate the self from the compulsions of utilitarian goals and instincts.”
“Only where such effort is expended is there life; where the effort ceases life too ceases.”
I could feel a little death as I followed my vegetable instincts to the car. The conflict and negativity between me and this woman would remain for at least a little longer, and maybe forever, because the thought had crossed my mind to just move to a different Parish so I’d never have to deal with her again. Wouldn’t that be easy? I could just uproot my family, and say a fond farewell to all my friends at the Parish, so that I could avoid this one woman.
That night I was talking it all over with my friend Pedge. I read her my e-mails with a calm reasonable voice, and I read the other lady’s e-mails with a catty, antagonistic voice. “Don’t you see–She’s way out of bounds!”
“Interesting,” said Pedge, and for a minute I thought she was going to validate me. “There’s a lot going on there, but most of what I hear is you not being very nice. Do you think it’s possible that you’ve said things in these emails that you never would have said to her face?”
“It’s possible.” Once again, I felt the groaning of my conscience as I’d felt it at Mass. I’d almost succeeded in talking myself back into my anger in the interim, just to postpone the confrontation I knew would have to take place.
“I know what your mother would say,” said Pedge. “Always be the first to apologize. Absorb the anger, don’t reflect it.”
“Well, there are other reasons I’m mad at this lady. This isn’t the only time she’s done something like this,” I said
“Then you need to give her a head’s up and make a date to go talk to her. But do not spend another afternoon composing one of these passive aggressive emails.”
Pedge is my friend who always tells me the truth.
The next time I saw my nemesis at church, after we’d both received Communion and Mass was over, I went up to her, and apologized for my emails. I’m sure I caught her off guard, but she smiled at me and said, “Oh I was just glad to unload on someone. And I’m glad it was you instead of Father. He gets tired of hearing it from me.”
So much conveyed in so few words and two smiles. So much that couldn’t be communicated in a couple of stone cold emails that took hours to compose. A smile that says–I don’t hate you. You don’t hate me. This disagreement we’re having should not estrange us, and really, the point I was making seems much less important than the person standing in front of me.
It’s tempting to approach new communities sometimes thinking–What am I going to offer them? But being a part of Parish life is a lot like approaching a family dinner. It’s not a patient /doctor relationship where everyone is my project, in need of my services. These are the people who eat with you, the ones you have to deal with even when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you even have a laugh.
The missionary impulse can throw us off mission every now and then, especially when the veil of the internet makes it too easy to believe that something is good and necessary for others, when it’s really just good for us. Christianity is always breaking bread together, not How can I change you?