Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, writer, theologian, and teacher (who taught at esteemed institutions including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School), wrote the following:
The word community has many connotations, some positive, some negative. Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals, and joyful celebrations. It also can call forth images of sectarian exclusivity, in-group language, self-satisfied isolation, and romantic naiveté. However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own.Henri Nouwen
A quality of the heart. The ability to make others’ interests more important than our own. Dying to self.
Today’s readings focus on these fundamental components of an authentic community. St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, challenges the community he is addressing to ‘love one another, to love your neighbor as yourself.’ The phrase, certainly within Christian circles, has almost become trite, watered down. As a result, a certain passivity can be brought forth; to love your neighbor as yourself, to turn your cheek – can become equivalent to being a doormat.
But this could not be further from the truth, as is made clear in today’s Gospel. Loving others is sometimes difficult, conflicts arise, people wrong us, hearts are hurt. How then do we move forward? How do we maintain our Christian call to love, while simultaneously addressing dissension? Jesus instructs his disciples to handle such situations in the following ways:
Step 1: Go directly to the person who has hurt you and tell him what he has done. It’s important to note that venting/gossiping about the individual to others (regardless of how cathartic it can be) is not the first step – nor is it a part of any other step. In the words of Pope Francis: “It’s so rotten, gossip. At the beginning, it seems to be something enjoyable and fun, like a piece of candy. But at the end, it fills the heart with bitterness and also poisons us”
But what if they refuse to listen to us? Read on!
Step 2: Should that person not listen to you, bring one or two others along with you. Why? To mediate the situation, to ensure the facts are heard by both parties. Lord knows my mom mediated her fair share of arguments between my sister and I growing up. This resulted in being able to see things from the other’s perspective, to truly listen when the other was speaking, and finally a forgiving (albeit occasionally reluctant) hug.
Suppose, though, that even mediation fails to bring about peace . . .
Steps 3 & 4: It is difficult to talk about, but among certain individuals, there can be a refusal to admit to and turn away from sin. This can be destructive to a community. In such instances, Jesus instructs his disciples to bring the individual before the Church – or some other form of trusted authority. Should the individual still refuse to listen, Jesus essentially tells the person who’s been wronged to avoid contact with the individual who remains unrepentant.
Challenging other’s behaviors, rather than tolerating them, can feel foreign and harsh in today’s society. Yet, love – true love – the love which we are commanded to show our neighbor – is so much deeper, so much greater than tolerance. Love wills the good of the other, it dies to self, it seeks the Truth, it offers forgiveness.
“Community is first of all a quality of the heart.” May the communities we find ourselves in – our family, our places of worship, our school, our sports teams, our workplace – be recipients of hearts that yearn to share the love of Christ. May we have the courage of our convictions and seek to resolve conflicts peacefully. Far from being tolerated, may each person we encounter feel truly known, valued, and treasured.
This piece was originally written for Bishop Guertin High School’s Reflections.