Sally’s baby was crying in church again. He didn’t howl during the hymns when it might have been excused as singing along. He screamed during the sermon and the prayers. He really screamed at that moment when the silence of eternity was meant to touch our lives with its tendrils of tenderness and power. Instead our ears and hearts were grabbed by Charlie’s tentacles of hunger and rage.
Afterwards one of the church ladies named Janet came up to Sally with that smile that looks like she’s baring her teeth. Janet is one of the pillars of the church. She organises the cleaning schedule, sits on the parish council, and volunteers for any job going. She’s a stalwart soldier of Christ and is taking no prisoners. Janet cootchy-coos the baby under the chin, smiles and says, “He was certainly praising the Lord with a joyful sound this morning!” She reaches to give the baby a cuddle, but Sally makes a polite grimace, says “Yes indeed!” and shifts Charlie out of Janet’s reach.
After getting the brush off, Janet hustles off to gather up the hymnbooks and scold the altar servers for spilling candle wax on the floor. Meanwhile another church lady named Aunt Sue sidles up to Sally. Sue is also a pillar of the church. She organises fund-raising flea markets, cooks lunch every day for two hundred kids in the parish school, sits on the parish council, holds down a part-time job at the local supermarket and finds time for ballroom dancing with George the vet who is lonelier than a hermit. Aunty Sue reaches for baby Charlie and says, “He was certainly raising hell this morning. I thought baptism was supposed to kick the devil out of him!” At this Sally laughs out loud and hands the baby over to Sue for a cuddle.
Later in the week I was talking with Sally and she starts to let off some steam about Janet. As I listen attentively a curious thought occurs to me. Of the two ladies in church Janet said the right thing and Aunty Sue said the wrong thing. On the face of it, Janet made a cheerful Christian comment on the baby’s screaming while Sue’s comment, could have been construed as being rude. The odd thing was that Sally took offence at Janet’s polite comment but was delighted by Sue’s rudeness.
The incident of Janet and Sue pointed to the truth that you can say practically anything in love and be thanked for it, but without love even the nicest words may be taken as an insult. The New Testament says, “Speak the Truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
So how does anyone learn to speak the truth in love? We have to get past being like Janet and be more like Sue. The trouble is, this can’t be achieved by human effort. That’s exactly what Janet was trying to do — she was trying to be more loving. Just trying hard to get the outside right is not good enough. If you do that — like Janet — you will only be faking it.
The true answer is far more simple and far more difficult. We need a heart transplant.
In the Old Testament God says he will replace the people’s hearts of stone with a heart of flesh (cf. Ezek. 36:26). That’s the reason I’ve developed a devotion to that most sentimental example of Catholic piety — the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There it is in all its unembarrassed glory — Jesus with his heart on the outside, like some 3D valentine.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus calls me to have a heart transplant — to exchange my heart of ice for his heart of fire. It calls me be more like Sue and less like Janet. It calls me first to be loved, and then to live in that love so naturally that I can say anything to anybody and it will be the simple truth.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is “The Romance of Religion”. Visit his blog, browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.
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