Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rector's Conference: Grumbling as a way of life

This evening’s Rector’s Conference dealt with a number of ways in which we respond unconstructively to stress, including the adoption of grumbling as a way of life.  It is so easy for the priest or seminarian to give in to cynicism, sarcasm and complaint as a way of life.  Which is why I offered these brief reflections on the subject:

I would never want to deny or minimize the very real frustrations and trials which are inherent to seminary life.  

Here you are called to discern what God wants for your life and to change in whatever ways are needed to prepare yourself for that design.  I’m not sure whether anything could be conceived as a better prescription for frustration and trial.

These trials often come in the form of wounded egos. Sometimes the trials are in the form of a broken heart.

And often, there are a legion of trials having to do with authority.  Unjustly or justly exercised, our submission to authority is an act of self-emptying, no less trying than the opening of one’s arms upon the cross.  Such submission of mind and will to another is an act of dying to myself, a sacrifice offered to God.

I recall one particularly painful instance of that in my own life when for more than five years I believed that my immediate supervisor hated me.  He disagreed with most every decision I made and gave me annual reviews which would make you blush.  I would get nauseous before meetings with him, having tossed sleeplessly the night before. 

My feelings, as my shrink at the time could tell you, ranged from rage to doubt, from anguish to desperation.  And one of the major ways I would deal (or not deal) with it is by grumbling and gossiping.

Now grumbling, on one level, is not so bad. Venting to a friend, who knows when to just listen with a smile and not to take you seriously, can be an act promoting mental health. It is one of the great blessings of real friendship.

But grumbling as a way of life, or grumbling to those for it might promote scandal, is the exact opposite of kenosis. It is the using of the cross for my own glory and it can verge on the demonic.

Like the chosen people grumbling to Moses that he dragged them out into this Godforsaken dessert with no food or bread or…

Of the workers in the vineyard grumbling that those who worked for just a few hours got just as much money as they did…

Or the older brother of the prodigal son complaining that his Father never put on a banquet for him….

A life of grumbling is the opposite of a life of obedience. When I first celebrated Mass with the new men in August, I reflected on how the job of the priest is to continually offer sacrifice, beginning with the sacrifice of his own life, of himself...of his hopes and his dreams, of his joys and his tears, of his every waking breath...to join my life to the perfect sacrifice of Christ, my heart to his, my life to his.

For Christ learned obedience from what he suffered, and thus became our great High Priest, the giver and the gift, the altar and the sacrifice, “emptying himself” even unto death, death on a cross.

But today, obedience is perhaps one of the most unpopular of the virtues. Actually, it’s never been too popular. We want to do our own will, plot our own course. How else could we ever get ahead?

But you will be ordained, God willing, my dear brothers, to conform yourselves to the one who chose to be last, to wash feet, and to be obedient to his Father’s will even unto death, death on a Cross.

Which is why Saint Paul tell us to "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God, without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation…" (Philippians 2:14-15a.)

For so often we pretend to follow a Lord who says “love your enemies” and “Pray for those who persecute you” and when they beat him and stripped him and nailed him to a cross he prayed “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”

Which does not mean that the Lord never got angry (witness the money changers). He was, after all, fully human and fully divine. But grumbling as a lifestyle, and the assassination of my enemies by words behind their back is not consistent with the life of a holy Priest.