Tending to My Own Garden

This piece from Mary DeTurris Poust (and her follow-up thoughts) has been making the rounds. It’s hit a real chord (or nerve, or home-run) with many, and produced a great deal of commentary that I find both timely and helpful. And it’s reminded me of my own frustrations over the question of how to respond to the shepherding deficiencies we see all around us.

My parish experiences have been exasperatingly diverse — liturgies ranging from gloriously, soaringly  beautiful to soul-crushingly mundane and everywhere in-between; preaching from the profound to the vapid to the intentionally (unsettlingly) heterodox; congregations from the engaged to the emphatically disinterested to the flat-out non-existent.

Here is what I believe:  We all have our roles to play, priest and parishioner alike. Yet I can’t escape the understanding that a pastor’s duties as shepherd are far more important to the spiritual safety and guidance of his flock then mine can never be. I understand from experience  the frustration felt when a priest is “failing to live up to his end of the bargain,” and I detest the feeling of hopelessness as one watches fellow church-goers withering away for lack of attention. A pastor’s ministrations are so vital, it’s hard to overlook when his charges are being neglected, whether through ignorance or willful disregard. (I also understand a priest’s frustration when he is striving to his utmost to guide, teach, and succor his flock, and they turn away with either distain or devastating disinterest. This is a blade that cuts both ways, and deeply.)

But this is what I believe most of all: My own personal tendency to focus on pastoral imperfections is often as soul-crushing and harmful to me and my moral health as the effects of the imperfections themselves.

If it is true to say that my priest has obligations to me, it is just as true that my thinking about his obligations — harping on the many ways in which he might not be meeting them — has never done me or my parish a lick of good. Once I start peeking over that fence, it’s near impossible for me to stop fixating on the relative greenness or barrenness of his plot. But goodness knows I have enough choking weeds to deal with in my own little patch of soul.

Am I simply sticking my head in the sand? Ignoring the signs of pastoral decay at my own peril? I hope not. I have too many young, malleable children to tolerate doctrinal abuses, and I remember with vividness (and pride) my father confronting a priest who was willfully, defiantly altering the words of consecration. Certain battles should and must be fought, and I’m willing to fight them.

Yet every time I find myself growing wrathful at the poor quality of preaching or the vapidness of the liturgy or the kumbayaness of the music — and that last one’s a HUGE hurdle for me — I am reminded by my clamoring cries that “something needs to be done!” of just how much of that work must be done in my own garden first. I must focus there — both for my own spiritual well-being and peace of mind, and because this “inward” focus will prove vastly more productive in the lives of my fellow parishioners and my pastor, as well.

An outward-looking Church needs inward-looking members. Not members focusing on themselves and their needs, but members who look at themselves and their garden with regularity; who see themselves clearly enough to recognize their failings and the way those failings effect all around them. And who are relentlessly committed to fixing what they find there.

We need intentional disciples, both on the altar and in the pews. But for me, that intentional discipleship must always begin by looking down my own pew, and by intentionally forcing myself to overlook the quality of the discipleship before me at the altar I must look beyond the man standing there, and past my desires (or efforts) to reform him.

It’s the Man in the Tabernacle that really needs my attention. And not because He needs to be reformed, but because I do.

One of the greatest benefits of the Catholic Portal is that I can always find people who are thinking along similar lines but putting it much better than I can. So here’s Elizabeth Duffy on making the Word flesh:

This, I believe, is one thing Pope Francis is trying to teach us. Be present to one another. Heal the wounds, but first, know what the wounds are by being in relationship with one another. Let a person’s sins go behind the person himself. Call people by name, rather than by their defects.

And don’t forget Max Lindenman, whose title is awesome.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

    This is a lovely reflection. Thanks for sharing it, and for your kind words.

  • Lydia

    “An outward-looking Church needs inward-looking members.”
    This hits the nail right on the head, and is a very timely reminder/kick in the pants for me. Thank you.