Sticks and stones may break my bones…
As a priest, I hear confessions. In fact, I hear confessions all the time, not simply when I am officiating the formal Sacrament. But, many times when people think that they are confessing to God, they are really telling me of an event in their lives that continues to cause them pain. That is, they are not telling me that they did something wrong, but rather that something wrong was done to them that still causes them pain.
For those of you who are my fellow pastors, I am not talking about those people who confess someone else’s sin in order to justify their wrong attitude, or those who confess someone else’s sin in order to lower that other person’s reputation in your eyes. I know of one priest who stopped one confession and began to take off his epitrachelion. The penitent had been sharing various incidents in which her husband had sinned, and how frustrated she was. She was startled and asked the priest why he was getting up and ending the confession. Reputedly, he responded that she needed to send her husband in so that he could hear the rest of her husband’s confession so that he could receive absolution from God.
No, I am talking about the person who comes in with a very low self-esteem, or who never seems to have a dream for their future, in spite of their gifts, or who may even come in to confession feeling somewhat suicidal, and you might be the last one who has a chance to stop them. Many times when I ask that person some question, it turns out that someone in their background has been telling them stories about themselves. Inevitably those stories have been negative and depreciating. Unfortunately, the penitent has listened to those stories, has begun to believe them, and has incorporated them into their view of themselves. Years later, they are still in inner agony over the damage that has been done to their psyche.
It turns out that the child’s chant that, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is utterly and completely wrong. If one has a simple accident, such as breaking a bone while playing a game, the bone will heal and there will be no long-lasting negative memory. I realize that this is not true in the case of traumatic accidents. But, the bone broken in the midst of a childhood game often becomes simply a memory that is told in later years, stories about the time when one slipped, or one fell, or one twisted one’s ankle or knee, etc. The stories will not have emotional pain behind them, but are related with a simple smile and a simple shrug of the shoulders as if to say, “that is life.”
Not so with the stories that I hear of words that were said, words that were often repeated in one way or another over various years. They may have been words that were said during childhood, or adolescence, or even during a marriage. But, they are words that have stuck and have caused open wounds that have never healed. Unlike the healed bone, or twisted joint, that has become strong again, these wounds have remained open and weeping pain. Years later, I am still listening to the stories, and seeing how the wounds have festered and have damaged the life of the person who is speaking to me in confession.
And so, over the years I have begun to understand why Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
This is not merely a “spiritual” statement that is designed to point us to how holy God is. No, this is a real-life statement of the results of our engaging in name-calling toward others, particularly those others who are a regular part of our life, such as our brothers. The name-calling that takes place over the years is truly a type of murder. It is a slow and insidious murder that begins to destroy the psyche of the person to whom the words are addressed. The result is that we never get to “see” the person whom someone could have become. We “see” only the damaged and diminished psyche of the person who is now an adult.
In a sense, the name-caller has indeed “murdered” the penitent who is now in confession before me. Many times, the penitent has little of which to be forgiven. It is the name-caller who “shall be in danger of the judgment,” and who desperately needs to come to me or to a fellow priest, lest they go to face God with that sin upon their souls. It is no wonder that Jesus tells the name-caller to drop everything that they are doing, and to run to their brother so that their sacrifice may be acceptable to God. When you are busily imitating Cain by “killing” your brother with your words, it behooves you to run and be forgiven.
Let us commit ourselves to watch our tongues and to cease from name-calling. And, if you are already a guilty party, RUN, go to your brother and make peace, so that your sacrifice might be acceptable to God.