The Instruments of Good Works: Father Augustine Wetta, OSB
Do not give way to anger.
Do not cultivate a desire for revenge.
Do not return evil for evil (cf 1 Thes 5:15; 1 Pt 3:9).
Do not no injury, yea, even patiently to bear the injury done us.
Love your enemies (cf Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27).
Do not curse those who curse us, but rather bless them.
Bear persecution for the sake of justice (cf Mt 5:10)
--The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 4: The Instruments of Good Works
A few weeks ago, I was out of town giving a day of recollection to a group of confirmation students. Some nuns had invited me. It’s part of their apostolate to host retreats and that sort of thing. I didn’t know the kids, and they didn’t know me, but something felt a little off. I mean, the kids were super nice—very quiet and patient, and respectful—but there was something about them that I couldn’t quite figure out. And it wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized what was the matter. It was this: the kids were exhausted. They were 12, 13, 14 years old, and they were worn out, drained, war-weary. And so were the nuns. Every one of them had that strung-out, strained, up-all-night look about them. It made me uneasy.
And that uneasiness followed me all the way back home. And then it was like one of those new tunes you hear that suddenly, wherever you go, seems to be playing in the background. I began to notice it all around. The folks in the airport looked exhausted, the folks on the airplane looked exhausted, and when I got home, I noticed that my brother monks looked exhausted. In fact, looking out now at you guys…you look exhausted. No offense. I mean, you look great, but you also look like you could use a nap. Go ahead, if you feel like you need it. I won’t have my feelings hurt.
So this has me wondering: what is it that is wearing us out? I’ve been mulling this over all week, and I can only come up with one answer: we’ve had a difficult year. And by we, I mean all of us––well, everyone in America. And by difficult, I don’t mean starvation and pestilence difficult. I imagine there are some Sudanese child soldiers who would be pretty amused to learn that I had a difficult year—that any of us had a difficult year. Our lives are not in danger. We sleep in comfortable beds. But still, we have had a difficult year. And difficult (ironically) because we ourselves made it difficult.
We spent the year wringing our hands and shaking our fists about…well…about everything: the pope, the president, the Church, the Press, our neighbors, their neighbors, people who wanted to be our neighbors and other people who didn’t want them to be our neighbors. We railed against racism and sexism and liberalism and feminism and conservatism and relativism and chauvanism and fascism and pretty much anything we could tack an -ism onto.
And to be sure, this has been a year worthy of much fist-shaking and hand-wringing—maybe even worthy of fist-throwing. As my students say, “When you ask ‘what would Jesus do,’ remember that kicking over tables and beating people up is not out of the question.” But I read an article on Thursday that put some of this in perspective. The article quoted the great 20th-century theologian, Matt Damon as having said, “We live in a culture of outrage.” And I thought, “that’s exactly it. Matt Damon, peace be upon him, hit the nail on the head. We are all exhausted from being so darn full of rage.” A few years ago, when the whole Ferguson thing went down, I gave a sermon about learning to listen to one another. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I missed a step. Sure, we need to listen to one another. But first, everyone needs to pipe down. I mean, for crying out loud, there are plenty of excellent reasons to be outraged, scandalized, appalled, and disgusted at one another. But haven’t there always been? Doesn’t anyone feel like we could use a break from it?
I keep hearing this expression “zero tolerance”. “We should have zero tolerance for (this or that) sort of behavior.” But isn’t that the very definition of intolerance? And what happened to compassion? What happened to loving our enemies? We can blame our cell phones and our leaders for all this stress, but I think we’ve manufactured most of it ourselves. Saint Benedict forbids his monks to grumble because it tears down the community and tears down its leaders, but most of all because it tears down the soul of the grumbler himself.
I don’t know what Pope Francis is up to out there in Rome, but I’m pretty sure there are some Cardinals who will keep him from slipping up in a really serious way. And I can’t begin to predict what our president is going to say or do next, but I’m pretty sure there are enough politicians in DC to keep him from doing any real damage. And even if there aren’t, I’m pretty sure my relentless, droning, litany of despair would have very little effect one way or the other. So maybe it’s time to set aside the outrage, and lighten up a little. Because what did we expect when we signed up for this? Did someone tell us being a Christian was going to be easy?
My dad gave me a book several years ago that has been sitting unread on my shelf until last night. It’s a book about the Chosin reservoir campaign. In late November, 1950, a contingent of 15,000 marines, who thought they were wrapping up the Korean War, suddenly found themselves surrounded by 120,000 Chinese infantry. Long story short, the men fought through 78 miles of icey mountains to the coast, and saved the lives of 98,000 civilian refugees. But on the way, there were some dark moments. Some soldiers were so cold and exhausted and discouraged, they actually sat down in the snow and died. But those who fought on are known this day as the Chosin Few. By all accounts, it was an ugly situation; and by all accounts it was a defining moment—the greatest moment—in the history of the Marines.
I bring this up because for some of us, this may feel like our Chosin Reservoir Campaign. There are bullies at this school. Mean kids who say mean, stupid things. (Don’t get me wrong…there are mean kids everywhere. Kids get picked on in high school. I got picked on. Robby Frei got picked on. His peers called him a “try-hard”. Well, the BBC is here today filming Robbie for a series called “Bright Sparks” so I guess that’s where “try-hard” gets you.)
We’re going to have to stand up to those mean kids. And it may feel sometimes as though we are losing the fight—surrounded on all sides, beaten and bloody, low on numbers and morale—nonetheless, this is what we signed up for. And if we thought that being Christians was going to be a picnic of candy canes and cotton candy, then we were sorely mistaken. We signed up for a war, and war is what we’re getting. It hurts. We’re taking casualties. Some men are going to give up and die. Others will cut and run. And of course, there is nothing soldiers like more than to complain. Because failure is a real possibility, and that’s scary. But it has to be, or it wouldn’t be a real war, would it? There would be no real opportunity for heroism or sacrifice.
I was talking with a friend this morning right before this assembly, and he said, “Stand up to a bully? Are you kidding? If I stand up, I’ll be the next kid that gets picked on!” He’s right. Stand up to a bully, and you will get bullied. But you won’t be bullied alone, because Jesus will be standing beside you. And maybe I’ll be there too. And maybe there’s a kid in this very church right now who will see the two of us standing there—and maybe he’ll stand with us. If you’re that kid, then make the decision now. Stand up.
1) I don’t know the context of this quote, and I’m glad I don’t because I prefer not to be in the position of having to defend Matt Damon’s star’s behavior.
 “We’re surrounded?” Colonel Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller supposedly said, “Good. That simplifies the problem.” And when asked if they were retreating, replied, “Retreat, hell. We’re attacking in a different direction.”