Faithful Wounds and Tough Love

Today’s first reading at the Office of Vigils was from Jonah 1:11-17.

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

I love the story of these sailors at the beginning of the book of Jonah. So gentle and humane are their spirits that they would even defy the pronouncement of divine judgment for the sake of their fellow human being. It reminds me of my own approach to life and ministry: Let theology be flexible; only let me care well for those entrusted to me.

Generally speaking, I think we need more people like these sailors in today’s world, where relationships are often sacrificed on the altars of ideology: opponents are demonized, gay and lesbian children are kicked out of homes by their parents, and friendships are ended (or never begun) because two people see the world differently. Where are kind souls who would risk their own lives (or their theologies) for others’ sake?

Nevertheless, there comes a moment in the development of relationships where it becomes impossible to go on, to grow as human beings in relationship, unless we risk confrontation and have the courage to tell one another the bad news.

This takes an incredible amount of trust between all parties if it is to work well.

St. Benedict writes in chapter 69 of his Rule:

Care must be taken that no monk presume on any ground
to defend another monk in the monastery

This sentence is written for those people who have made a lifelong commitment to one another in the intentional community of a monastery. Such commitment is not made lightly and only comes after an extended period of formation in the novitiate. People who have reached the point of professing permanent vows have presumably built enough trust with one another (and their superiors) to engage in the difficult work of truth-telling. We should be able to say the same about marriage, parenthood, and a handful of other relationships in life.

Rescuing (Benedict calls it “defending”) one another, so that our loved ones never have to experience any pain or hardship can sometimes short-circuit God’s work in their lives. There are trials we must endure if we are to grow as human beings and we must be able to trust God and a few others to help us work through them, rather than avoid them.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” goes the old saying in Proverbs 27:6 (KJV). Speaking the truth in love is an icky-tasting medicine. It should be used like a surgeon’s scalpel: as rarely as possible and only with great care by one who has earned the right to be heard.

The sailors on Jonah’s ship reached the point where they could not go on any longer. Like the addict who has “bottomed out”, they had to make a choice between drastic action or death. After a final prayer, they did what had to be done: they tossed Jonah overboard.

As it turns out, this hard act of trust had salvific implications, not only for their physical lives, but their spiritual lives as well. They came away from this encounter with a deepened reverence for Yahweh. Likewise, the sailors’ willingness to do the hard thing opened up the possibility for Jonah to fulfill his own destiny. The doom he feared did not come upon him: Jonah was rescued (albeit in the most disgusting way possible) and he went on to be the vessel of Ninevah’s deliverance from destruction. An entire city was saved because of the sailors’ willingness to let go and cast Jonah overboard.

Do we have that kind of faith in God and each other? Are we willing to do the hard thing and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) when necessary?

Many who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step groups have learned that kind of trust through their sponsors and the power of the group. Tough love makes recovery possible.

I learned it from a trusted mentor when I was in college. He loved me enough to back me up against a wall and tell me some hard truths when I needed to hear them. He did not employ this technique often or lightly. He did not do it just to “be right” or for the sake of his own ego. He earned the right to be heard by me. Faithful were the wounds of this friend.

St. Benedict and the Gift of Presence

By Randy OHC [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I know that some of my readers are curious about my week at St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. In the week since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to sift through what emerged during my time there. Much of it is too personal for publication, suffice to say that unplugging from work and electronics gave me the space I needed for some internal things to float to the surface, where I could deal with them.

One of the things that amazed me about this time was my experience of sharing space and time with others in silence. There were a few other visitors in the guest house with me. We were present with each other often, but talked very little. We slept in adjacent rooms, ate together, worshiped next to each other several times a day, read next to each other in the library, but said almost nothing.

This experience was quite unfamiliar to me: being present with each other without exchanging information. I got to know these neighbors of mine throughout the week, but there is almost nothing that I know about them. This was new for me, especially considering that I am a chatty, extroverted, social butterfly. Shutting up and just being together in the silence was agony for me at first, but I came to appreciate it by the end of the week.

What strikes me about that experience in retrospect is that it is the polar opposite of what happens with human interaction via social media, where relationship is entirely made up of information exchange and utterly void of real presence. I have Facebook friends and blog readers who I have never met, but we exchange information regularly. Most of it is quite pleasant or amusing. But when I read the comments on a YouTube video, I see the dark side of people whose humanity gets temporarily lost in arguments that are rich in data exchange but poor in intimacy. Spammers and Trolls do not see the humanity in the people on the other side of the screen. Hiding behind the comfortable curtain of anonymity, they say things they would never say to someone they loved, respected, and had to interact with. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I am not totally innocent of this offense myself.

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict this morning, I came across this passage from chapter 2:

Furthermore, those who receive the name of prioress or abbot are to lead the community by a twofold teaching: they must point out to monastics all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing God’s commandments to a receptive community with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.

Benedict is the anti-troll in this sentence. He leads by example, especially with those who are resistant to what he has to say. He makes no attempt to argue; he has nothing to prove. He reserves talking for those who are already on the same page with him, so that they might develop and refine their ideas together.

It occurs to me that there is almost no capacity for this kind of leading by example online. Quiet presence offers no exchange of information, therefore no relationship (at least as far as the internet is concerned).

The recovery of sanity and civility requires that each of us recognizes and acknowledges the humanity we share in common with each other, especially those with whom we disagree in matters of politics and religion. Let us recover the lost art of being present with each other when information is not being exchanged, that our conversation might be all the more rich and fruitful.