Hugging the cactus: When the wrong people apologize

I once heard a story about a pastor who had to deal with a small explosion of the parishioner kind.

While meeting with the music ministry group, the pastor asked the music leader to do a particular piece of music in the service. For whatever reason, the music leader had what can only be described as a tantrum—HATED that piece of music! This response shocked and upset the other musicians at the meeting.

The pastor had to tell the music leader afterward that they needed to just apologize to the other musicians and do as he had asked about the music. But no apology was forthcoming, and the pastor received the advice of extreme humilty from a colleague: yes, that person gets upset for no reason– YOU be the big person to apologize even though you weren’t the one to do wrong, and they will settle down and everything will be all right.

The pastor had some doubts about this, but he wanted to be a humble person before God. So he apologized to the music leader.

Did this story end happily? Alas, no. The music leader made a classic passive-aggressive response: had the group perform the piece the pastor asked for, but did not rehearse them at it beforehand and did a terrible, terrible job. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein children’s poem about doing the dishes in which “…if you drop them on the floor/maybe they won’t let you dry the dishes any more!”

As is often noted, the church is a spiritual hospital in which there are many people who are sick, body and soul. Parishes are full of people who have personality disorders, addictions and just plain stubborn, self-centered attitudes that cause chaos all around them. In fact, it can be even worse than that. As Scott Peck notes in his book People of the Lie , downright evil and psychopathic people are attracted to the church precisely because church people are inclined to want to believe the best of others. Our Christian faith teaches us not to judge others, and to forgive. That is one of the ways predators make their way into the church community.

In the Orthodox church we have a long tradition of monastic teaching about humility; how often we read stories where some spiritual abba says to his proteges something to the effect of Yes, I see that you are hurt by your brother’s behaviour; think instead of your own sins. This radical humility sometimes even takes the form of advice to the monk to be the one to beg forgiveness even when the other brother was in fact the one who wronged the first monk.

In the monastery, these things are under the supervision of the abbot, and the monks he advises are generally co-equal brothers with each other. But in the parish where we have children and other vulnerable people, the shepherds are particularly entrusted with the guardianship of the flock by the chief shepherd. If we remember the metaphor of the spiritual hospital, and Scott Peck’s observation about evil people who seek out the church (and even end up in prominent positions there!), we have to admit that sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. The faithful shepherds cannot allow this, however much they want to teach humility and a forgiving spirit to all their members and indeed to practice it themselves; there is a power differential between many of the members that cannot be ignored.

When wolves in sheep’s clothing, or even just sick and maddened sheep are in the parish doing harm to others, it is not the time to teach lessons of humility to those who are already ‘humble’ in the original sense, people without power like children.

The pastor in the story remarked ruefully after the incident that he had ‘hugged the cactus’ and would not do so again. This intriguing phrase comes from the recovery movement, and was famously used by Robert Downey in a plea to forgive fellow actor Mel Gibson for some terrible behaviour under the yoke of addiction, familiar to both of those men. It means to face one’s darkest self so as to come into the light—a process as uncomfortable as hugging a cactus. The pastor in the story used the phrase a little differently— though he had done nothing wrong, he acted with the same humillity as an addict seeking the road to recovery. The cactus he hugged just turned out to be a prickly parishioner.

The well meaning but undiscerning advice of the pastor’s colleague had an unfortunate effect that anyone familiar with the recovery movement will recognize: the problem person, like an addict, was vindicated and enabled by the undeserved apology of the humble pastor.

God loves the sick and prickly too. Some are only minor problems in the church, like the tantrumy music leader, while others are the kind the apostle Jude tells us we should pull from the fire ‘hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.’

For both the prickly sorts and for their neighbours who get painfully stuck by them, love means firmness—not enabling them. To everything there is a season, says the Preacher—and while we are protecting the innocent, it is a time to put our personal humility on the back burner.

Don’t worry– God will provide us with plenty of other opportunities to learn that virtue!


The Introverted Priest’s Wife

The following is a somewhat edited version of a reply I made to a private communication from a reader of this blog a couple of years ago whose husband was contemplating seminary:

Dear Introverted soon-to-be clergy wife,

I have complete sympathy for your introversion and the need to get home from church sooner than your husband wishes. I and some other clergy wives I know are very much in the same boat.

We are a one car family and live 20 minutes drive away from the church. If I truly need to go home I do, and he either calls me to come back and pick him up later or gets a lift from someone else. Or I make a run to the store for needed things  while he is seeing people who need to see him after church, and pick him up when he phones my cell.  When the kids were the right age, and I could see people were just blathering on at him about nothing much, I trained them to go up to daddy and flutter their eyelashes and ask to go home (I am not kidding! 🙂  Parishioners love those cute kids and are willing to let the priest go, when they would not take the same thing from his wife!)

These may not be options for you at this time, but are worth remembering for the future…:-) . (If he gets a lift home from someone else, however, it must be arranged before you leave, and it must not be a female person!)

There is not only one way to be an effective church wife; your first priority is to do whatever you need to do in order to make your home a castle that he can come to, to be with you and your children when church is over.  You can’t do that if you are depleted by too much church yourself.

The social conversations that ‘never end’ do need to be reined in or he will find himself burning out very quickly, as he cannot tend to the needs of many parishioners (including his own family) when too much time is spent on the one person who happens to be talking to him at the moment.

Being a priest’s wife does NOT mean being a single mother or pseudo-widow. On the contrary, the priest’s family is meant to be a good example to all of the congregation, and in this era of broken and dysfunctional homes, they need to see how good he is at taking care of his own wife and children and respect the boundaries. But he and you together will need agree beforehand what those boundaries are;  and he will need to be the one to make clear pro-actively to the parish what those boundaries are. Remember– he picked YOU to marry before he got started on the seminary track! And remember that you and your kids are just as much parishioners as anyone else and just as much in need of the priest’s attention– in fact more so!

If you end up at a parish with a church house next door, this will simplify going home somewhat; but at this point it is more important that your husband understand and support your needs in this area and work with you to see that both of you agree how best to balance the church work with the family life.

I recommend you both read the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. I understand this book has been used at some seminaries in preparing priests and their wives, and there are a number of related and specialized volumes such as Boundaries in Marriage.

It is important to deal with this before you get to seminary let alone to a parish assignment. My suggestions here may be useful, but ultimately only the two of you working together are going to be able sort this out so that it doesn’t come round to bite you later on. God bless and guide you on the road ahead!

– PresAnon

A couple of things with links…

A post here from two years ago has suddenly started to get passed around, and in two days passed the 1000 view mark– several times of anything I’ve ever had on this blog till now! The post is this one, which I guess has an appeal well beyond Orthodox clergy wives: Three words your priest hates to hear

The other thing? as I went backstage to goggle at the surprising stats of my old post, suddenly backstage at WordPress there appeared a new coat of many colors  on what used to be the plain black bar at the top of the screen.  I can only suppose the owners of WordPress are waving the flag in jubilation at the Supreme Court decision today.

So in response to that, here’s the official Eastern Orthodox position 

and here is a collection of articles on the topic

Self-appointed eye doctors

Been to the eye doctor lately? What about amateur freelancers who come up to you and stick their finger in your eye because they think you have a problem and think they can fix it?  Dear Self-Appointed Eye Doctor: Common sense should tell you that if you want to make a person ‘see’ something,  poking them in the eye is entirely counter-productive. The more you protest that you only want to help get that splinter out, the more the other person’s abused eye will swell shut. Persistent poking from a self-appointed eye doctor will only result in the patient at long last crying “CUT THAT OUT!” Many a patient will, patiently, allow you to ‘practice’ upon them, even if that is something to which you have no entitlement, and often demonstrably have a considerable deficiency of expertise in. But it is time somebody told you in the clearest of terms: you need to cut that out. Perhaps you declare that you have reason to be concerned for these patient patients. Well, let’s relieve your mind: most of them have no particular need of a self-appointed eye doctor. Most people already have a number of ‘physician-consultants’ who have earned the right to practice upon them by long acquaintance—and by waiting for them to –ask- for advice. Such trusted and supportive people are usually quite able to deal with the patient’s ‘case’ without any kibbitzing from outsiders like yourself. Everyone has at least an occasional splinter  in their eye, but more often than not these will work their own way out if left alone.  If they do not, and the patient’s long-time, trusted, experienced physicians find the surgery too delicate or complex even for them, most of us can toddle along on our journeys anyway, splinters still in place, without tripping up too terribly badly.  That is why, in the parable, the Lord does not bother to address the splinter in the criticized person’s eye, but reserves His censure for the seriously vision-impaired busybody who sticks his finger in other people’s eyes. It is time for you to examine the beam in your own eye. If you do not cease your unlicensed practice, your ‘patients’ may become impatient; and you may discover that suddenly they too have become self-appointed eye doctors, poking their fingers in –your- eye. A very iffy situation, as the damage you have done to their eyes would be sure to impair their vision to work on –your- case. As Professor Kirke said to the Pevensies in the Narnia books, We might all try minding our own business. The first principle for any would-be physician is, after all, Do no harm.

Interview on Motherhood with Matushka Julianna Schmemann

Words from a Presbytera from Greece

Here are some translated excerpts from a speech by a Greek Presbytera. They don’t so much address the title “Wives of Priests as Heroic Women”, but hopefully a full translation will appear sometime in the future.

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.