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.