Friday, February 3, 2012

Critics (A brief reflection on the account of the beheading of John the baptist, Fri. 4th Week in Ord. Time, Mk. 6:14-29)

No one, as a rule, likes critics. People prefer to hear things about themselves that are nice and pleasant. And so critics are often shunned, or worse, disposed of. Socrates who called himself a “gadfly irritating the city of Athens” was condemned to death. Jeremiah was exiled and murdered in Egypt. Amos was driven out of Israel. John the Baptist was beheaded. And Jesus of course was condemned to death.

Critics are “bad news”. They annoy, pester, and refuse to leave us with our neat and tidy illusions about ourselves. Who indeed would prefer criticism to praise, admonition to appreciation, correction to commendation?

As a seminarian who got by quite well by “winging it”, I had a number of critics among those who formed me. One that readily comes to mind was my Latin professor, a Dutch priest named Francis who one time called me to his room after class and took me to task for thinking I could get away with sloppy Latin translations of biblical verses from the Vulgate.

A number of us in class had become so good at guessing the English translation of New Testament texts that we no longer paid careful attention to what the Latin actually said and would instead give a translation that was really no more than a loose rendering of the text as we remember hearing or reading them in English.

“You think you can survive as a priest by winging it!” Father Francis said after he had closed the door to his room. “Remember that what you are today as a seminary student, you will most likely also be as a priest. What are you going to feed your flock? Pious platitudes, rehashed ideas? Poorly prepared lectures and homilies? Don’t be lazy. You’re wasting your potential!”

Now Francis was usually a very calm and gentle guy. But that afternoon, he made sure that I knew he was not at all pleased at what I had been doing, especially since he felt I was giving a bad example to my classmates. I felt very uncomfortable and extremely embarrassed; I just didn’t like being scolded. I knew I made a mistake, and yet deep inside I still thought to myself, “The guy’s just being mean”.

Little did I know back then, of course, that he saw something that would be useful one day, not just for me, but for those I was going to teach and minister to. But it was only from hindsight that I realized that he, like most of my critics in seminary weren’t being mean; they were just looking out for me.

The story of Herod is the story of a man who had been given, not just a great critic in the person of John the Baptist, but someone who could’ve set him on the right path, who could’ve helped him become a good, perhaps even a great, king. John wasn’t Herod’s enemy, and in some strange way, Herod seemed to know that. In fact, he liked listening to John preach.

Unfortunately, John became too much to take for him and his vindictive wife. And due to his weak character, Herod agreed to have him killed. Yet another prophetic voice silenced by someone who preferred illusions to the truth.

One of the things I sometimes found tough but eventually appreciated when I was in seminary, was the ready availability of critical but sincere and concerned voices in the persons of those forming me. Sure they offered affirmation and praise; but they also corrected me, showed me where I was wrong, so I could learn and make things right.

You see, when you get ordained, those voices slowly fade away, and you’re left with having to be your own critic. And that’s very difficult to do, and yet is so important in keeping us honest.

As a priest, about the only time you’ll hear criticism is when you’ve messed up. But by then, it’s usually too late. Now, no one who really wishes to keep growing throughout his life would want that. We need those critical voices, we need them to tell us how to better ourselves, we need them to tell us the truth—not simply what we like to hear, but what we have to hear. We all need our John the Baptists.

And so, take in all the fatherly and brotherly critique, correction, and advice you can get while in seminary. Sure, some of them may not in fact be a hundred percent accurate; but pay attention to them nonetheless.

Keep an open mind, and most of all, keep an open heart. This environment gives you so many opportunities to hear these prophetic voices. Don’t dismiss them or silence them like Herod and Herodias did.

Instead, be grateful for them; realize that they are God’s tough gifts to us while we’re in formation. Learn from them, and integrate them into yourselves, so that when the day comes that these voices are no longer as readily available, they will remain there inside you, reminding you of what’s right, keeping you from what’s wrong, and guiding you along the straight and narrow path.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)