A Damning account by a PK

I don’t use that word lightly.

The following narrative was published just yesterday. It is Holy Friday, and I don’t think I can comment adequately or maybe at all, certainly not until later next week.  Maybe you will want to wait till then to read it yourself– it is long, and heartbreaking. But I am sorry to say that though this is one of the worst tales of clergy family suffering I have heard, it is sadly not entirely uncommon.   Read at your own risk.

My Father’s Calling



Talk to them!

Here’s a flow chart on how to deal with problems with fellow church members!

King James Bible
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

talkto flow chart.png

Nipping Bad Thoughts in the bud

I once was told by a clergy wife about something that happened to her relatively early in her marriage.

 You know how your marriage partner irritates you. (And, when you take time to think about it, you know how you irritate him too.)

 This then-young clergy wife was experiencing some of those irritations. The husband would come in without taking his shoes off, messing up the house she had just cleaned. You know the kind of thing. Men leave the toilet seat up. They take food you were going to use for dinner out of the fridge and eat it for lunch. They don’t want to stop and ask for directions while on a road trip (of course, these days, they usually have a GPS— irritation solved, at least until the GPS proves to be missing some vital information….)

Anyway, one day as she felt several small intermittent irritations beginning to build into a constant big irritation,  it just rather came to her to sit down and start making one of those pro and con lists, like Rory used to make on the Gilmore Girls. All the positive things about her husband in one column, and all the irritations in the other.

Here’s the key: she started the column of positive things first. Do you know what happened? She NEVER GOT TO the list of negatives!

 I am in awe of this woman because she NEVER LOOKED BACK. She learned early and the comparatively easy way to turn aside bad thoughts by replacing them with good ones.

 I consider myself a realist. I don’t believe in pretending life is rosier than it is. I believe we must be wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves. But when it comes to casting our gaze around at people other than ourselves, it makes sense to stop and remember that we are all inclined to try to look at the best in ourselves, and that often makes us predisposed to assume the worst of others; or to focus on the negatives instead of the positives.  This goes for looking at ourselves, and the  situations around us as well.

 Many different church fathers warn us of the danger of bad thoughts.  Traditionally there are eight of them; they may be translated in various different ways. Check out logismoi in the Orthodox Wiki for a brief summary. https://orthodoxwiki.org/Logismoi

  There are a number of things to be said about the passions and about bad thoughts and how they lead to actions etc. — more than I can write about here. But I think the action this clergy wife took was a brilliant way to nip bad thoughts in the bud.

To Orthodox laywomen, regarding the wives of your priests:

To Orthodox laywomen, regarding the wives of your priests:

These are the women who are married to priests:

They are just like you.

 They love and support their husbands and want them to succeed.

 They are trying to raise their children in the Faith they love.

 They are managing their families’ health and household needs on a daily basis.

Sometimes they are engaged in ministries or careers with a strong sense of calling, where they work with a great feeling of personal fulfilment and regular awareness of  accomplishing something worthwhile.  Sometimes they are working ill-paying, soul-deadening jobs, full time or part time, just to make ends meet in their household.

 They are just like you, but often their lives are not just like the lives of most of you.

 They live in a fishbowl, like the wives of a politicians. But without all the glamour.

 They are sent to live, more often than not, far away from family and friends, like military wives.  But not always with guaranteed housing or income.

 They have husbands who are on 24 hour call, like the wives of emergency responders.

 And besides all this…. indeed, before all this…. they live their life, and direct the life of their family, around the matrix of the services and life of the church. Almost like monastics, but they have to balance as much fullness of liturgical life as possible with the same balancing act  other women do with work and family.

 They are in the social life of the parish, but not of it in the same way as the other women in the parish. They are often expected to be at every event in the parish, from midweek services (whether or not they have to go to a regular job) to food festivals to Sisterhood meetings ( whether or not they can afford a babysitter); but then at those events, the fact that they are outsiders to the established cliques can become palpable.

 They don’t want you to be their BFF and close confidant, but they don’t want you to ignore them either.

 They really, really don’t want you to talk about them behind their backs (does anyone want that?)  They really, really want you to treat their children as kindly as you (hopefully) treat other children in the church. As kindly as you would want your own children to be treated by other adults in the church.

 They really, really, don’t want you to complain about their husbands, to their faces or to anyone else.

 They do not want special entitlements. They don’t care if you address them by titles such as presbytera or matushka or pani—unless you are making a point of not doing so.

 They just want their husbands not to be treated like hired help. They just want their families not to live in abject poverty, scrambling to work several jobs and get to services too, while many parishioners live a more than comfortable lifestyle without making decent regular contributions to the church finances or bothering to attend services if something more interesting comes their way.

 Make no mistake: the wives of priests have chosen this life, for themselves and their children. It can and ought to be a good life, but they know it can be terribly challenging and stressful. They want to be at services. They want to contribute to the ministry of the parish in teaching church school, singing in the choir, helping at fundraisers or in some other way. But they want to be able to choose which of those they do and how much they do, the same as you do, so that they can keep their life and family in balance.

 They probably pray for their parish and its members every day. Maybe more often, if you are one of those who criticize their husbands or are unkind to their children.

 There is good soil everywhere, and some people who are open to sympathize with the priest’s wife just don’t know how best to help her. If you are one of those, here are some of the ways:

  •  Make her and her family welcome when they first arrive. Tell them about your life, about the neighbourhood and community. Let them know that you are without agenda and that your care for them is unconditional.


  • Pray for her and her family. I know this is an obvious piety and invisible, but it is powerful.  You do not even need to tell her, unless you think she would appreciate hearing that you keep her in your prayers regularly – not just when some kind of crisis or unpleasantness has happened in the parish.


  • Be open to finding a way to deliver some of those prayers. She may need babysitting, or prepared meals offered during a time of particular stress. Helping wrangle children in church, in a tactful and friendly way, can be a big one for a priest’s wife with several children and often responsibility in the choir as well.  Have a care for her normal human pride as you do—you don’t want to make her an object of ‘charity’ in the condescending sense, but to treat her as a member of the family who just needs a little help from you.

  •   Show appreciation. Gifts at Christmas or Pascha demonstrate that you don’t take them for granted, but a personal note detailing your appreciation of specific things the priest and his wife have done in the parish can be even more meaningful. The cake will be eaten gratefully this week, but a warm and sincere note may be tucked away to look at again in future days.

  • Stand up publicly for the priest and his family. This is a big one—in fact, in the end, the one that will matter more than anything else.  It will possibly result in more trouble than you really want. But, dear layperson, it is the right thing to do. As the saying goes, for evil to succeed, it is only necessary for those of good will to do nothing. Through prayer and persistence, it is possible that you may help to initiate a change in the culture of a priest-eating parish. There are such places, but I believe in most cases it need not be entirely hopeless—if only some of the laity will have the courage to speak up when the priest is criticized, the wife is gossipped about, the children are mistreated. It is easier to nip such things in the bud when they are small and at the first offence, rather than wait till there is a crisis. Be the first to raise your hand to vote in a raise for the priest, the first to dare rebuke the gossip.  The priest and his family cannot be the ones to make the difference in such cases—it is the laity who affect the atmosphere parish, especially when the priest is new to them. If you speak up…. others may follow, and the priest’s family will be buoyed up by the swell of support they feel from that.

There are already in many parishes people who do all these things and more  for the priest’s wife and her family, God bless them—we have several in ours.  If you are a priest’s wife and have such people in your parish, let them know you appreciate their appreciation!

I realize this blog is one that mostly preaches to the ‘choir’, as it were, of other clergy wives. These thoughts come from the things I have heard from many of them over the years.

 And here’s the trick with this post  which I have addressed not largely to priests’ wives, but to laywomen in the parish: your priest’s wife can’t really be the one to forward or post an article like this one to the people who really need it, or it becomes a kind of passive-aggressive dig at their husbands’ antagonists. So do share it with other clergy wives, Orthodox or not—there is a great sisterhood of common experience out there. And perhaps if you have friends in other parishes who are not clergy wives, who are understanding and sympathetic laywomen, and indeed to men in the church as well, maybe they too can share it around without being accused of having a vested interest.

Principles for Presbyteras in the Parish

This piece practically wrote itself in my head all in a few moments. I’ve never been a big fan of these alliterated lists, and my guess is I’m not the first clergy wife to write something like this, but here we go.

It started with a discussion of the role of an Orthodox priest’s wife—a discussion I’ve seen many times, online and off. There are as many (or more) expectations, conceptions, misconceptions and questions about the role of the priest’s (or to a lesser extent the deacon’s) wife in the parish as there are parishes, priests and presbyteras. (I told you there would be alliteration. Run away now if you have an allergy!)

I firmly affirm that there are NO RULES for the ROLE– for what the priest’s wife should be and do in any given parish, expectations or no expectations. There are however a few principles the presbytera ignores at her peril. (Help, I’ve fallen into a well of alliteration and can’t get out! )

So. Here they are—Principles for the Presbytera in the Parish:

  • Prayer: be a woman of prayer. I know it’s obvious, but it’s too easy to take for granted. I’m sorry to report that I find it harder all the time—now as a senior, surprisingly, even more than when I had young children. But having firmly established the habit of prayer when I was young, I find now when I am less energetic and more distractible than ever, the persistence of my personal prayer rule never fails me entirely. Even when my formal prayers are brief, seldom throughout the day do I go long without thinking of God, asking His help, thanking Him for His mercy.
  • Principle and Priorities: Be a woman of principle who knows her own mind and priorities. Consistent behaviour in accordance with Christian principles is a strong witness and example to others within and beyond the parish. Keeping the balance between your service at church and your service in your home means knowing when enough church is enough for you and your children, and when enough pastoring is enough for your priestly husband. There are many ways and tools to handle time and rest for the clergy family, but if you learn early on the priority of a weekly day off and of screening phone calls, it will serve you well for the rest of your life.
  • Patience and Peace: Be one of the blessed peacemakers, and know how to wait on the Lord (and people) with patience. Besides controlling your time, one other thing will accomplish wonders in your life in the parish: controlling your tongue. Many times it is best to say nothing at all; sometimes, it will be necessary to speak up, which is much trickier. So very many things really don’t matter in the long run; but things that do require courage and caution in speech. Sometimes just waiting to speak helps it become clear whether or not you should speak at all. Be careful on social media, even more careful than in person. If you need to vent frustrations, find a safe confidant outside the parish.

I can’t resist adding that there is one “P” that does not appear on this list, and for good reason: PERFECT. You do not have to be perfect any more than anyone else does. Despite your best efforts you will fail sometimes; despite your best efforts, there will be those who find things to criticize.

Pursuing all these principles will help you navigate the path of your ministry as presbytera, finding what God wants for you and not for some mythical perfect presbytera. I am sure there are other principles that you have found helpful—so you are welcome to offer them in a comment here (whether or not they start with “P”)!

Spending your Presbytera Points


I hate the bother of carrying ‘points cards’ with me to the store. Sure, when our kids were young and the budget was tight, I used to do the old-school saving trick of clipping coupons. Nowadays, my husband is usually the one who, with his persistent cheap streak, goes to the trouble of swiping those numerous cards at the grocery store or department store or gas station.

Occasionally if asked I will give a phone number to the cashier, in lieu of digging out a card which may or may not actually be in my bag somewhere. But then I forget all about the points. They build up and up, with me none the wiser. I rarely have anything I really want to cash them in for.

Life in the parish can earn the clergy wife points of a different kind. Mostly for keeping your mouth shut. Or at least, you can get docked points for not managing to keep your mouth shut. Call them presbytera points.

And every now and then you are going to come across an opportunity to spend the points. But there’s a catch—namely, that the time and effort it takes to build up the points is waaaaay out of proportion to how quickly they can be spent— and for how little they mostly purchase in return.

If you just make it a habit not to spend those points, ever, a day may come when you have a deeper reserve than you ever expected, to expend on something important. Or then again maybe not. Because maybe the program has changed and the points don’t get you as much any more.

Or you never do use them, and your chance to ever use them just expires when you move parishes or retire. With the former, of course, you can start all over earning points from scratch. But it’s okay, because there was never anything that was worth the trouble of cashing in the points.

And maybe once in a long number of years you will know there is something you must buy, some issue you cannot in good conscience remain silent about. So you spend the points, even to the very last one. And maybe they are enough to accomplish what was needed. And even if they weren’t, it had to be said. Even if you wonder afterward if all you did was cast pearls before swine.

So then you have no points left. But it’s okay, because you do not go to church for what points can get you. You go for the same reason you go to the grocery store every week, because you need to be fed, whether or not there is any points program to encourage you.

No-one else can tell you if or when to spend your points. I have saved for long years, and I have spent in one fell swoop without regret. But for my money, saving your presbytera points for a rainy day is the best plan.

Survive and Thrive:   How a mission grows into a full-fledged parish

All over North America, Orthodox missions start up every year.

And many also close after a disappointingly short period of time. Many others dwindle gradually or hobble along without ever getting much larger or doing more than Sunday liturgy, content to just have the main services from a part-time or retired priest, or even only occasional services from visiting clergy.

Every situation is different, the reasons for what we might call ‘failure to thrive’ many and varied. But there is essentially a single, overarching factor which is indispensable to the process of a mission parish not only surviving but growing into a thriving established parish. I will get to this further down.

I have spent several decades as a clergy wife in the same Orthodox parish. We grew from a tiny mission plant in the early days to a full-fledged parish that has a full time rector, full cycle of services, and a building of our own. We have known many other mission-planters in the Orthodox church, and indeed several have come from our own parish over the years. I can’t tell you exactly all of what may have gone right or wrong in all of those missions, but I can tell you something of the stages of growth using my own parish as a sort of case study.

When we first entered Orthodoxy, we were leaving behind our Protestant experience of clergy family life, giving up salary and pension plan, heading for the foreign shores of culture shock with our small children in tow. In those days there was no possibility of our joining an Orthodox parish as lay people before heading straight to seminary after several years in a Protestant pastorate. As we were about to head to Orthodox seminary, a kind mission priest took us under his wing and showed us the miracle that an English language Orthodox mission community could be. He told us: to start a mission, you need ten fanatically committed members.

It’s an interesting number. Presumably this means ten adults capable of supporting the mission with their time, tithes and talents. Traditionally, the number of adult males– and therefore families, and incomes– to form a Jewish synagogue was also ten. In theory, tithing on ten incomes should provide an income at the median level of the group for the clergyman. That’s where the ‘fanatical’ commitment comes in.

In reality, it doesn’t often happen that you can get those ten tithes. Ten adults don’t necessarily mean ten full time incomes, especially if the families have young children. If some of the members are retired and on limited income, that’s a smaller tithe, and they may not even be able to afford a full ten per cent. Sometimes people lose their jobs, too, or have unexpected large expenses, and can’t keep their original commitment to tithe. And truth be told, some members — often the wealthier ones– are too attached to their own money to tithe. Just ten incomes is a bit close to the line to safely ensure a liveable income for the clergy family without some other kind of help, until the parish membership grows larger. So the priest and/or his wife in a mission situation more often than not will be starting out by working outside the parish either full or at least part time. A mission grant from head office or donations from friendly people who care about the mission may help as well.

I found one set of Orthodox mission guidelines online that suggested a mere three families were the minimum to start a mission. The truth is, a mission is easy to start. What’s hard is for it to grow and thrive and come to maturity both numerically and spiritually.

I have sympathy for those who grumble about the stinginess of those parishioners who feel the priest can get by on working indefinitely at a secular job for the privilege of serving the mission. Or those who lament about the people who beckoned them to “come start a mission for us, we’ll be there!” only to find, once they had uprooted their families on faith, that the beckoners fail to ever actually show up; or worse still, former friends in the mission turn on the priest and his family in parish politics. I have seen these things happen to fellow mission clergy families. If you are considering starting a mission parish, think very hard about what cost you are willing to pay. What you are willing to risk if the mission fails to thrive. Starry eyes have no place in mission planting.

When I searched for Orthodox mission guidelines online, I couldn’t find much, from any jurisdiction. What I did find– or rather what I didn’t find– made my eyebrows rise. While there were suggestions about making sure you held lots of services, and getting the right equipment for the ‘temple’ (humble as the rented quarters may be), and even practical and useful things like encouraging tithing and making sure you get into a good location for people to find your services, there was no mention whatsoever about compensating the priest. No vision of the mission becoming a full-fledged parish by steps, and no plan for working toward the day when the priest and/or his wife would be spared working a 40 hour week in order to support themselves before they can even begin to see to the services, preaching, teaching, evangelism and pastoral needs of the mission.

These guidelines were obviously not written by a clergy wife.

The apostle Paul was a tentmaker, and that is how he supported himself on his missionary journeys. But St. Paul– who had no wife and children, making it easier to travel– did not stay to grow his ‘missions’ into ‘established parishes’. That was a job for the local elders/bishop. And what St. Paul says to St. Timothy, a local bishop, is “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” When he says ‘double honor’, the apostle means not only should the priest not be hindered from making a living, not only should he receive a fair wage, he should receive ‘double’– not necessarily mathematically double, but in a spirit of generosity and yes, honor, for the work he does for the Lord’s flock.

When we first came to our tiny mission, the people offered a small stipend– the equivalent of less than a quarter salary at what was probably minimum wage in those days. My husband had to work full time to get the necessities of life for our family, commuting a long way to another low-wage job in the large metropolitan area. Because of this employment, he could not do anything but Sunday liturgy and Saturday vespers at first. Since the people were starting from scratch in those days without computer-generated music and online availability, the choir was not yet up to doing much else either. But he asked the flock for a commitment to raise his small stipend by about a third as soon as possible. They did so almost at once.

Even this still necessitated the full time job. But soon, with the help of God and our patron saints, we launched the next stage: moving into a larger rental place where we could leave our iconostasis and altar set up. More visible and more spacious, this attracted more members– both cradle Orthodox and inquirers who became Orthodox in our parish. And as the parish grew to fill the new rental space, my husband asked for the second time for a raise, this time big enough to let him drop his secular job hours to part time. Again the parish agreed. Now we were able to begin filling out the festal services.

Finally, my husband asked once more and for the final time for a raise, to enable him to be a full-time priest. There was a couple in the parish who balked at this. But the raise passed, the balkers left (having first tried and failed to get their way on some other issues) and within a few years we moved on to the next stage: purchase of our own building. The cycle of services was now quite full, and parishioners living in a cluster at some distance asked for regular study times at their homes. More people came, the choir grew, church school expanded, charitable ministries took shape. The whole time, Sunday has been a strong community time, with a pot luck meal after liturgy and time for children to play together while their parents chat, forming personal friendships. Our council works together with the priest, each using the gifts given them by God for the greater service of the parish community. To ensure continuity and balance, they draw men and women from various age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and professions, and rotate a variety of new and old members off and on council on a two year cycle, consulting who best to recruit for the upcoming needs.

And my husband has never again asked for a raise. In fact he has more than once objected to the council giving him one unasked. They don’t seem to pay attention.

So what is the indispensable factor in the process of moving from ‘mission’ to ‘full-fledged parish’? Tithing? A full-time paid priest? a building? Pacing yourself through the various stages? Sunday potlucks? Good council members?

None of these in isolation, and not in themselves, though they are indeed part of the process. The indispensable factor for ‘success’– for surviving and then thriving– is just this: both the priest and the people must be ALL IN.

Please don’t misunderstand– I do not claim every mission that ‘fails’ is the fault of the priest and his family. Nor is it always the fault of the flock either. I have seen several failures that were due to serious mistakes by priest or people, but sometimes there are outside factors that lead to the closing of a mission that once seemed so promising: an economic downturn, a shift in demographics, a health disaster in the priest’s family. In some small communities a mission can never expect to draw enough members to grow into what is normally considered full-fledged parish status, but will have a faithful priest who continues to serve, making his home there and not seeking greener pastures elsewhere. That is surviving, and may even lead ultimately to thriving, if the people, few though they be, seek to keep their church alive into the next generation.

For a mission like ours that started in a large metropolitan area and draws from surrounding suburbs as well, thriving has come from the patience to stick with it, the willingness to rise to the challenge at each stage in order to grow into the kind of parish we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in– a parish that is still at heart a mission, in that its reason for being is to reach out and bring others in to worship the Lord in an Orthodox manner. One must take the long view. In many denominations, the days of frequently transferring clergy are past, and they are returning to longer-term pastorates. This is of course due largely to the expense of moving clergy and their families, but it is a sort of blessing in disguise. A priest is the papa of a parish family. We have seen the havoc wreaked by divorce on families– why would we want to change our ‘church daddies’ every few years either? Especially in a mission parish, where not just the individuals but the community as a whole is growing from one stage of life to the next. The priest of a mission parish more than any other needs to have a father’s heart, unwilling to abandon his children if there is any other course of action.

As I said, it is easy to start a mission. When a priest is assigned to an already-established parish, he will face a different set of challenges, but he needn’t tackle more than one stage of parish life at a time. The people will need to adjust to him in regard to how he differs from their previous priest, for good or ill. The mission priest and his family, and the mission parish members need to look together beyond just getting started, lest they be like those in the parable who, having put hand to the plough, look backward. Or to be like those seeds in the Parable of the Sower– great excitement at the beginning of a new mission may cause sudden growth like fast-sprouting seeds, but then comes the heat of day, and priest and people both burn out from lack of patience and pacing.

First survive… and then, slowly, patiently, thrive. Priest and people all in it together. This is the story of my mission parish. We now prepare to move into yet another stage of our parish life, continuing what we are already doing, expanding our building, looking ahead to eventual retirement and the handing of the shepherd’s crook over to a new man, the people prepared to continue to be all in with their next priest and hoping he and his family will do the same. We pray that what we have built so far will last, and last, survive and thrive.



Prayer for Clergy Wives

Turned this up recently. I’m not sure where it first appeared online or if I have posted it before.


+ Prayer for Clergy Wives +

O Almighty and Sovereign Father, who have said that in quietness and trust we would find our strength* and who have given strength to the wives of Your servants in every age, from Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah in ancient days to Matushka Olga of Alaska in our own:  bless Your handmaidens the clergy wives of Your Church, and fill them with Your joy.  As they wait upon You, renew their strength**, and defend them from all assaults of visible and invisible enemies.  Let them find refuge under the shelter of Your wings, that protected by Your love they may ever praise You.  Give them courage and perseverance that they may pass victoriously through this age and finally receive their reward in the age to come.  Grant this, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with You and the all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, we ascribe all might, majesty, dominion, and power, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

*Isaiah 30:15 **Isaiah 40:31


Not Like Other Men

The other night we were watching an episode of the BBC period drama “Call the Midwife”, featuring a group of nurse-midwives serving in the 1950s in the impoverished docks area of London. One of the characters, Chummy, is invited to come back to work part-time after having a baby herself “…if you can find appropriate care for the baby, and of course if your husband is agreeable.” Chummy, a highly energetic woman, who is happiest with many projects on the go at one time, replies “Peter is always agreeable. He isn’t like other men.”

Certain denizens of the docks might disagree with Chummy’s estimation of her husband. That’s because the agreeable Peter is a policeman, part of the strong and long arm of the law. There are some things to which the agreeable Peter can never agree, and which he will fight with all of his heart, protecting the innocent and bringing those who would harm them to justice.

There is no conflict between these two sides of Sergeant Peter. Both together are what make him a good policeman and a good husband. I turned to my husband as we watched that scene and said “You are always agreeable too!”

But like the policeman, there are certain things the priest can’t agree to in the territory entrusted to him, and for that reason he sometimes comes up against people who find him not agreeable at all. I remember many years ago a fractious member (whom the bishop told us was part of a ‘clan of priest-eaters’!) who tried to force my husband to do what –she- wanted over a certain issue, rather than what he was leading the parish to do (and in which the other members were following him.) “Please work with me,” he said to her (very agreeably!) Her reply: “NOBODY can work with you, Father!”

NOBODY turned out to be only her own family, who thereupon left the parish, leaving the other members in peace to grow their church community, which is still a healthy, happy place today. Years later another person described my husband’s approach to such things as the ‘iron hand in the velvet glove’.

I am not at all like the energetic, Martha-like Chummy. But my clergy husband, like Policeman Peter, is both strong and agreeable, and trusts his presbytera to make her own way in life and in the community without squeezing into any one-size-fits-all role expectations. He is ‘not like other men’, but is that combination of strong and agreeable that the Christian man and church leader should be. I can only wish the same for all my fellow clergy wives.

A Recipe for Ruined Relationships

A parish community is kind of like a stew, sometimes. It can be in a good way, or maybe not such a good way. A pinch of salt at the right time in the cooking process makes the meal.

Shakespeare dramatized this in King Lear. Cordelia, the daughter who did not flatter Lear in the over-the-top way her sisters did, was banished; long after, in another identity unknown to Lear, she served up her wedding banquet without salt. Lear, as one of the guests, had an epiphany: back when Cordelia had told him she loved him ‘as meat loves salt’, she had really been saying that without him, she would lack life. This had sounded dull next to her sisters’ flowery praise of their father, but really it revealed her as the one who esteemed her father truly.

Because she loved him for himself, it must have been saddening for her to see him so lacking in self-esteem that he could not believe himself loved without the exaggerated, sickly-sweet reassurances. All of us love sweet words, of course. But like refined sugar in our diet, too much is not good for us. A little salt now and then, on the other hand, is a necessary part of our diet.

In relationships, like those in parishes, it certainly happens that people who fail to kiss up to the ‘king’ (whether the priest or lay leadership/in group) can find themselves banished or frozen out. But it seems to me that the opposite trouble is often more common, the self-appointed cooks running around with the salt box. We know how too many cooks can spoil the broth, as the saying goes. Some who see the folly of flattery turn to its opposite, criticism and judgement. Perhaps they think this is a salty antidote, but it only takes a pinch—and for all they know, perhaps before they invited themselves into the kitchen and started meddling, someone else has already put in a pinch. Or several someones.

These people believe you have to be cruel to be kind…. but they have forgotten the song in that other Shakespearean production, the teen movie based on Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You. “You have to be cruel to be kind….in the right measure.”

Whether you keep sticking a pinch in repeatedly or dump the whole box in at once comes to the same amount in the end, and too much salt results in the ruination of the stew…i.e., the conversation and maybe the whole relationship. And you have to throw it all out, wash the pot, go to the store for more ingredients, spend cash (if you haven’t wasted it all on the first batch) and start the process all over again. Salt-dumpers often make a mess in the parish ‘kitchen’, and don’t usually clean up or even get out of the way of others while they clean it up before trying to make stew again.

But perhaps the opposite of flattery, criticism, is not in fact the true ‘salt’ that is needed. It is interesting that while the sisters slathered on the sickeningly sweet praise, Cordelia did not counter with an equal and opposite ‘salty’ criticism. She talked simply about her own love for her father. In contrast to the honeyed flattery. Cordelia’s image of salt and meat is only a silent rebuke to her father’s appetite for flattery. Banished unfairly, she does not try to argue, explain, excuse or capitulate; much less does she turn and counter-attack or blame. In patience she makes her own way in life, and at last by actions dramatizes the true meaning of filial love in the saltless banquet, allowing her father to see and understand for himself.

Cordelia in her integrity neither criticized her father and sisters, nor pandered to his weakness by joining the flattery. A truly virtuous control of the tongue, a worthy example that would surely please the many holy fathers of the Church who hold this trait among the highest for the Christian.