Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27:30-28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

The themes of the first reading and the gospel are pretty clearly anger and forgiveness. And I don’t suppose we can ever reflect too much on those. The best book I ever read on anger and forgiveness is David Mace’s Love and Anger in Marriage (1982). It hooked me from the start: "The Blue Dolphin Restaurant in San Leandro, CA has been the scene of numerous memorable gatherings, but none perhaps so quite unforgettable as the wedding reception that took place in mid-June. As the 300 guests chatted happily among themselves they suddenly grew silent when the newly weds began arguing in loud voices. Dismay turned to disbelief when the groom grabbed the wedding cake and shoved it in his bride’s face. By the time a police squad had pulled up, guests were breaking chairs and smashing mirrors. It took half an hour for more than 30 police to get the crowd under control. By that time the newlyweds had left on their honeymoon." (P. 9) Mace, a family psychologist, then gives some of the basic themes he will develop in the book. The very first one stands out: "The state of marriage generates in normal people more anger than they are likely to experience in any other type of relationship in which they find themselves." (Chalk one up for celibacy.)

We need to do some reflection on anger because it has become a social problem on the national level. Perhaps it’s better to say anger, which has progressed to rage, is a national social problem. We read so often of incidents of road rage, parking lot rage, check-out line rage; it takes so little to set some people off, to send them into furious, unthinking behavior.

We, in religious communities, have our problems with anger as well. But we are usually down at the other end of the spectrum; our problem is with repressed anger. There was for so long a common teaching in the Catholic Church that all anger was sinful. So angry feelings, even legitimate angry feelings, got pushed under the skin and were never expressed. There they festered for years and years. I saw an example of that in my own community. About twenty years ago we had a workshop on community building. The workshop had the exact opposite result from what was originally intended. It didn’t build community; it showed what divided the community. The monks were to write in, anonymously, what bothered them about the monastic community. The results of this poll were made known to everyone. I was completely surprised to find out how many monks were still angry, some bitterly angry, over something that had happened thirty or forty years ago. That festering anger didn’t contribute anything positive to their monastic life.

We need to do a serious re-assessment of anger in Catholic spirituality. And we need to begin with a recognition that the feeling of anger is not bad or sinful in itself. Anger is one of our natural emotions, is part of our whole psychological make-up, is created by God and is therefore good in itself. Anger serves a very useful purpose in our lives. Anger alerts us to a danger that threatens us in some way. But that should be the lead-in to explore more carefully the nature of the danger. Is it real or mistaken? Is it a genuine threat of something else altogether? We don’t get much emotional education anywhere in our culture, and so we aren’t used to exploring our emotions and testing their truthfulness. We just let it race on toward guilt or rage.

We should appreciate anger. It serves a purpose in our lives. But we have to learn how to make a good and proper use of it.

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