This morning after half a cup of coffee, what I wanted to write was a political commentary about the Banned Teenagers of Instagram. Maybe another day, because, dagnabbit, I sat down at the PC and felt guilty about breaking the only spiritual rule I even kinda-sorta* have right now, which is: No internet until I’ve prayed the day’s readings.
Result of my reluctant correspondence to grace+, we’re getting an exegesis of today’s Gospel, through the lens of cantankerous internet discourse. Looking at Luke 5:12-16:
It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was.
In checking the registrations last night for the Good Discourse conference, I observed that so far we have attracted a comparatively peaceful group of souls (at least one of whom is very dear to me, so I approve of this!). Even venial sin is worse than the measles, so there’s no minimum of sinfulness required to attend, and of course I don’t know what anyone’s inner life might be like, no matter how holy they appear online.
But what I know Sherry Antonetti, conference mastermind and spiritual stern-but-loving mother of it all, would like to see is that a few folk with a raging case of rhetorical-leprosy turn up to begin the healing process.
Whoa, Jen, leprosy? Really? You went there? Yes, and I think the analogy is apt. Consider what the then-incurable skin disease and the practice of demonizing your opponents have in common:
- It hides your true self. Cussing, exaggerating or misstating your opponent’s wrong opinions, refusing to acknowledge your opponent’s valid points, more cussing, considering guilty-by-association anyone who has anything to do with your opponent, calling for the economic or social annihilation of your opponent, oh and did I mention cussing? . . . all these rhetorical practices create a verbal crust around you that prevents others from seeing you as the precious and beloved child of God that you are.
- It’s contagious. The past many months of riots and insurrections would not have drawn such massive crowds, and such divided condemnation of the destruction and violence they wrought, if rhetorical leprosy were non-infectious.
- It kills. The rhetorical disease kills the soul, and, as we have seen in the civil unrest rocking our nation this year, it can kill the body as well.
- Until you are healed of it, isolation is the only viable way to manage it.
But, as anyone who has endured the isolation imposed on many this year can attest, man is not made to be alone. We aren’t made for loneliness, and thus a disease, spiritual or physical, that can only be managed by separation from others, tears at the soul in the way that other kinds of suffering do not.
and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”
This is the pivotal moment. Until the recent discovery of a cure, physical leprosy conferred an identity. You didn’t just have the disease, you became the disease. You became a leper. Your place in society and your way of life were completely and permanently changed.
Rhetorical-leprosy has a similar effect. It stems from a good desire: A desire to right wrongs and to lead others into a better way. As a result, we mix-up our good intentions and our God-given gifts as communicators, and begin to think that sinful part of the way we speak and act is inherent to our identity. The way we speak isn’t just something we do, it has become who we are.
It thus takes soul-searing self-examination to reach that point where we say: I don’t want to be this person anymore.
I want to keep what is true, and good, and beautiful about the person God made me to be, but I want to rid myself of the bitterness, and anger, and harsh vitriol on which, until this moment, I have staked my identity.
Is this you? It may require more examination, but take the the quick-swab rapid test. Look over the things you have said online lately. Did you cuss at anyone?
I know! So imprecise! We’ll get some false negatives and maybe some false positives.
If need be, you can do the longer-assay test found here.
But if you should test positive for rhetorical leprosy, you face a difficult question: Do you, like the man in today’s Gospel, want to be healed?
If so, there is hope.
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately.
I am not saying that attending a weekend online retreat will heal you of your spiritual disease. I am saying that Jesus Christ can and will, if you let Him touch you in that way.
The conference is not the healing. The conference is the beginning of a support group for people who want the healing for themselves, and want to be part of bringing that healing to others. Maybe it will be a weekend of immense spiritual growth for you, personally.
At a minimum, it will be a chance to see that you aren’t alone in this fight. You aren’t the only one who wants Catholic discourse to sound more like Jesus and less like plotting Pharisees and Sadducees.
Fundamentally, though, the healing happens between you and Jesus. Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning are left open intentionally, so you can spend some time privately with the Lord processing what’s been put on the table for you.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
Funny story: I wanted to get a Good Discourse badge designed. Some of you remember the old B-Team Blogger badges, back in the day? The Good Discourse logo would be one anyone could display to show they were committed to the change.
But the Lord observes there’s a better method: Be a person who is healed. Maybe overnight, maybe slowly through a long process of accountability and continuous self-correction.
We are encouraging the formation of post-retreat support groups (and have a firm commitment from the gang at The Catholic Conspiracy to host a catch-all group for any conference participant who wishes to join such a group and needs a place to to go), because rejoining the world of good internet discourse is a lifelong walk.
This isn’t a Lent for Mouth Sins and then you go back to being ugly when the weekend’s over. This is about bringing other souls to Jesus Christ through the healing He works in you.
The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
So let me lay down Sherry’s challenge in light of today’s Gospel: Are you the kind of blogger, tweeter, podcaster, or other communications personality that everyone expects to hear harsh invective (and maybe some cussing) from?
If you were to set aside the part of you that is filled with bitterness and vitriol, and become a writer or speaker who is known for incisive, passionate, fearless, but peaceful and charitable commentary, would the world gasp?
Would the change be so dramatic that readers would whisper and ask themselves, “My gosh, what happened here?? Where’s the old rantbag I used to count on for my daily dose of outrage?”
Letting Jesus heal you of rhetorical leprosy doesn’t just draw you closer to Him. You become His conduit. If you’d like to be able to say this time next year, “Jesus is getting His ear chewed off by previous-skeptics who were drawn to Him because of the change the Lord worked in me,” there’s a group of people who want to help you answer that calling.
Today’s image, courtesy of Wikimedia (CC 4.0), is for readers of a certain age who will know just what I mean when I promise to be a broken record on this topic for the next week or two or maybe gazillion. Click through to read the detailed image description on the Wikimedia site, including the photographer’s explanation of how he got the picture he did.
*Kinda-sorta because I am expert at rationalizing massive exceptions to the rule. Pro-tip: Don’t trust your eternal salvation to the wiles of a concupiscence-ridden seasoned debater.
+Here’s a link about “correspondence to grace” I stumbled on while double-checking that I wasn’t the only one who learned this expression somewhere along the way. Observe the Salesian connection. Coincidence? I think not.