Gossip and Twisted Emotional Responses

In her book Rooted in Love, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle talks about being a “virtuous presence” in the workplace and community. In so doing, she talks about how gossip can interfere with our ability to be such a virtuous presence.

I was struck by O’Boyle’s quotation from Fr. Michael Gateley, who said, “Gossip and envy are especially effective at hardening hearts because of the way they twist our emotional responses to the suffering of others…Instead of feeling sorry for someone who suffers, gossip and envy get us to rejoice and delight over his suffering.”

Gatele’s words ring true to me. The problem with gossip is not only what it does to the other person – although the effects on the subject of gossip can themselves be quite serious. Gossip can lead to harm to the other’s reputation and cause them emotional pain.

But, as Gateley’s words suggest, the activity also does something to the person engaging in the gossip, twisting our emotional responses, hardening our hearts to the needs and sufferings of others.

It is a useful point to keep in mind because gossip is one of those things it is so easy to fall into doing. It can seem so light, but what starts as looking like harmless fun can grow into something that hardens us.

Dialogue As Virtue

Yesterday UST’s Director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Erich Rutten, gave a talk at the law school titled Dialogue as Virtue. The goal of the talk was to help us reflect on how people of differing faiths can engage in and promote quality dialogue in the law school, the university and the state as a whole – an important virtue given our contentious political and religious landscape. He certainly gave us much to reflect on.

Early in his talk, Fr. Erich talked about the fact that, rather then being thought of as a virtue, dialogue is often seen as a vice. By that he meant that dialogue is sometimes seen as weakness – as a sign of compromise or “collaboration with the enemy” or as giving in. That feeling is reinforced by both images of culture “wars” and the contentiousness that characterizes both our political and economic discussions and our religious ones.

Seeing dialogue as virtue requires us to move from the image of war to the image of a common journey, a journey that requires that we not think of those with whom we disagree as “enemy” and that we understand that we are searching together for truth and wisdom.

In that vein, Fr. Erich drew an important distinction between debate and dialogue. A debate is a contest that invariably involves a winner and a loser and the currency of debate is persuasiveness, rather than truth.

Dialogue implies exchange and listening. It implies a sharing of perspectives and an openness to learning something from the other. And it assumes a common goal of finding truth – and recognizes the importance of that goal. It is neither about compromise nor vilification, but an openness to truly hearing the other.

We live in a difficult time. A time in which, as Fr. Rutten pointed out, we see conflict as entertainment and a time of great contentiousness. My hope is that we at UST can be participants in dialogue in a healing and loving manner.

Feeling at Home

This is my last full day at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I’ve been since Monday morning. (I leave tomorrow morning.) This is my third stay at the St. Benedict’s since May, as part of the monastery’s Visiting Scholars Program. Although this stay has been shorter than my last two times here, I have gotten a lot of good editing done on the manuscript of my book adapting Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians.

Here at St. Benedict’s, the rhythm of my day is simple. I join the sisters for Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, Mass, and Evening Prayer (except when the cold deters me from walking back to the oratory for Evening Prayer), and eat lunch and dinner with them in the monastery dining room (I eat breakfast in my apartment) and otherwise spend most of my time in the office they provide that is separate from my apartment here.

The first night I walked into the dining room for dinner, one of the sisters walked over to me and said, “Welcome home.” I smiled, for I do, indeed, feel very much at home here. Part of that is simply the ease with which I slip into the rhythms of monastic life; I’m comfortable with the quiet (more pronounced during this early January than during my May or September visits because the snow and fewer people around) and with the punctuation of the day with periods of communal prayer.

But a large part of it has to do with the way in which the sisters welcome guests into their community. When I walked into the apartment assigned me for my stay, the kitchen was already stocked with what the sisters knew I liked (including crunchy peanut butter). I have a designated place among the sisters in the oratory for prayer while I am here. When I walk into the monastery dining room I know I can find a welcome spot at any table, whatever sisters are sitting there. I was invited to lector at Mass one day, one of the things I most love doing. Many who met me on one of my previous visits stop to ask about my daughter and husband. Every day I am asked how the work is going or someone just stops me to say they are glad I am here. Everything comes together to make me feel a part of the community – comfortable, welcomed and loved.

Hospitality is a particular Benedictine charism, but it is a virtue all Christians should strive to embody. My experience here encourages me to reflect on how well I do at making others feel at home – whether in my own home, my place of work, my parish or any other place I encounter my brothers and sisters.

Not a Reed, But a Firm Rock

One of the great models of Advent is John the Baptist. Although I always think of John primarily as someone who willingly embraced his role to “testify to the light” (but not himself being the light), Francis de Sales highlights something else about John. He writes

You have found in him not a reed, but a firm rock, a man possessed of unshakable stability in the midst of all sorts of changing circumstances….John is the same in adversity as in prosperity, the same in prison amidst persecutions as in the desert amidst applause; as joyous in the winter of trouble as in the springtime of peace; he fulfilled the same role in prison as he did in the desert!

John embodies well what St. Ignatius would call active indifference, what Buddhists might refer to detachment and absence of clinging. By whatever name, de Sales is right that this quality of stability is an important virtue in the spiritual life.

There will always be hardships and sources of turmoil in our lives. Contrary to the old saying, life is not a bowl of cherries; indeed, it sometimes seems to be a pile of pits. The challenge is to not be like those de Sales describes “who are fervent, prompt, and optimistic in prosperity [but] weak, depressed and disheartened in adversity.” To not be so inconstant “that when the weather is fine, nothing can equal [our] job, but when stormy, nothing can equal [our] depression.”

This is one of the importants tasks of our spiritual life – to develop the constancy of John, that we may be “as joyous in the winter of trouble as in the springtime of peace.”

A Conscious Embrace of Humility

During a conversation the other day, a friend of mine who is Christian, not Catholic, told me he likes going to Catholic Mass even though he can’t receive Communion. He said he finds it a beneficial exercise of humility to be there and not be able to partake of the Eucharist. (This is NOT a post about whether people who are not Catholic should or should not be able to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass, so put please put your views on that question aside.)

Humility is, of course, a virtue, but is not a very popular one. We have a tendency to act to protect our ego and we live in a culture that encourages that by placing a premium on individual achievement and self-promotion. We don’t tend to like things that fail to soothe our ego, that take the ego down a peg rather than build it up.

And so I was struck by my friend’s conscious decision to put himself in a situation that would make him feel humble. That would remind him, in a sense, that it is not all about him.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines humility as “the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer.”

One can agree or disagree with my friend’s approach to the question of Communion at a Catholic Mass. But his behavior offers a good model for living a reflective life and attempting to grow in faith. And so my conversation with him prompts me to ask myself: am I conscious about developing a sense of humility? Are there ways – perhaps little ones – that I might remind myself that it is God, not I, who is the author of all goods, by which I might avoid inordinate ambition or pride?

You might consider asking yourself the same questions.

Temperence is a Virtue

This holiday week, as many of us are surrounded by lots of food and drink and piles of gifts, is a good time to be reminded that temperence is a virtue.

Temperence is one of the four cardinal virtues. It is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in our use and enjoyment of the goods of the world. It helps keep our desires of worldly pleasures within the limits of what might be considered reasonable or honorable.

Temperance does not mean one cannot enjoy oneself and it is not about deprivation. Instead it is about something closer to the Buddhist idea of detachment or a Christian or Hindu notion of renunciation rather than it is to deprivation. A Buddhist Lamas used to tell his followers, by all means, enjoy your ice cream cone. Renunciation doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ice cream; it means you don’t walk around thinking “I have to have the ice cream cone…I need the ice cream cone….If I don’t have the ice cream cone I can’t be happy.” It is not the item that is the problem; it is the attachment to it – the sense that one has to have it – and more and more of it – to be happy.

So temperance is not suppression or repression. (It is not the sisters in the move Babette’s Feast, who Babette cooks for, who rarely laugh, who eat only small amounts of the most basic, bland and tasteless food and never let a drop of alcohol pass their lips.) It is having a different relation to the objects of the world. It stands in sharp contrast to greed and consumerism – the mentality that more is always better. That we cannot be happy unless we have lots and lots of whatever it is we are using as our barometer. It is a quality of being temperate, i.e., exercising moderation and self-restraint; of using what we need and what is helpful.

In its positive, and not its distorted sense, it is a good quality to be reminded of during what can so easily become a time of excess.

The Cardinal Virtues and Our Lives

Earlier this week I gave a mid-day reflection at the University of St. Thomas law school on the the theme, The Cardinal Virtues and Our Lives. For those who can’t remember them, the cardinal virtues are temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence.

Some people have the misapprehension that the cardinal virtues are outdated, not saying much to us today. Others view them as constituting merely one subjective preference among many. But the reality is that they are both universal and as important today as ever. The virtues are not nice things we put on the shelf and look at now and then; they are meant to shape how we live our lives.

In my talk, I spoke a little about each of the four cardinal virtues and about what they mean in our lives. I also spoke a bit about how the vitues can be distorted, how hiding behind each of the virtues is something whose presence we need to be wary of , lest we turn the virtue into something it was not intended to be. Finally, I spoke about how we might develop the virtues.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here. (The podcast runs for 24:24, and ends at the point at which participants engaged in their silent reflection.) The handout I gave the participants for their reflection is here.

Aspiring to More Than Not Doing Wrong

A recent Commonweal article by Lisa Fullman, associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, speaks powerfully to what our goals are as Christians. Although the specific subject of her article is sexual ethics, her discussion of the difference between focusing on the “don’ts” vs. something more affirmative is more broadly applicable. She writes:

The first word in Christian life is not sin, but grace, starting with the grace of being called into being and called into love by God. A focus on grace and how we respond to God’s invitation to love will include serious consideration of sin, but will go much further in the direction of excellence, and will lead us to ponder the heights of what is possible in our lives. We center our lives as Christians on Jesus’ vision of human fulfillment in the reign of God and the love by which we devote ourselves to its realization. The vision calls us forward to help us see what requires work in our current world.

This resonated with me because I think back to my early days in Catholic school. The way the Ten Commandments were presented to us were as a set of a priori rules one had to follow and the message we got was: if you want God to love you, this is how you will behave. Only in recent years have I come to appreciate that living one’s live in accordance with the Ten Commandments is a natural response to a love relationship with God. If one appreciates God’s unconditional love and falls deeply in love with God, certain behaviors naturally flow.

Sin is a reality and we can’t ignore it. But focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on what we are not supposed to do only gets us so far. We need to devote energy to deepening our realization of God’s incredible love for us, a realization that will naturally call forth in us a loving response to “God’s invitation to love.” Only steeped in that love is it possible for us to, not merely to do no harm/evil, but to to live to “the heights of what is possible in our lives.”

Temperance

A ceiling in one of the buildings of the Minneapolis campus of the University of St. Thomas has a wonderful fresco of the cardinal and theological virtues, painted by Mark Balma. In connection with a planned program for university faculty and staff, I’ve been spending some time reflecting particularly on the four cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence.

When I hear the word temperance, the first thing I think of is Prohibition in the United States in the mid-twentiety century and I have visions of women engaging in temperance marches. That conveys to me an image of repression and suppression and not letting people have a good time. However, that conveys a very narrow and misleading view of temperance.

Temperance is described as the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of the goods of the world. It is best understood as something that stands in opposition to greed and consumerism, that is as a force opposing the mentality that more is always better…that we cannot be happy unless we have lots and lots of whatever it is we are using as our barometer of happiness. It is a quality of exercising moderation and self-restraint; of using what we need and what is helpful, not what the ads tell us we need.

Temperance does not mean one can never enjoy onseself. I think it actually is better understood as something close to a Buddhist idea of detachment or a Christian or Hindu notion of renunciation rather than of deprivation. Thinking of it in those terms helps us to understand temperance as really being about having a particular relation to the objects of the world. A Buddhist Lama used to tell his followers, by all means, enjoy your ice cream cone. Renunciation doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ice cream; it means you don’t walk around thinking “I have to have the ice cream cone…I need the ice cream cone. If I don’t get an ice cream cone I’ll have to hit someone.” It is not the item that is the problem; it is the attachment to it – the sense that one has to have it to be happy. In the same vein, a Jainist text reads, “One who sees Reality should consume things in a manner different from that of a layman.”

So temperance is not suppression or repression, but understanding a right relation to the things of this world.