Let Us Consider Quarreling

Hilary Carby-Hall | 06 April 2016
Let Us Consider Quarreling

Let us consider quarreling.

Let us think about it seriously because, like it or not, most of us do it at some time or other and if we think we don’t quarrel, then we may wake one day and find, to our horror, that, against all our pacific principles, we are in the midst of one, and this can be terrifying.

It seems as if Our Lord’s words, “It is necessary that there will be scandals,” are suddenly leaping into life, our life. Unless we care about nothing, unless we believe in nothing, then it is necessary, it is inevitable that, some time or another there will be profound disagreements; and since, when people don’t agree with us or when they oppose us, we become primitive in our behavior, then the “scandals” appear as quarrels, downright childish quarrels. We have sophisticated names for them, but that’s what they are.

In 1996, the Orthodox Church witnessed a hierarchic quarrel which amazed, shocked and grieved us all. Many of us have witnessed quarrels at a local ecclesiastical level, while most of us have experienced the deep sadness of quarrels in our own and our dearest friends’ families. It was the cumulative effect of all these disharmonies that led me to deeper and deeper thoughts on this grave subject.

The question why we quarrel is fairly easily answered. We are bad tempered and selfish and we believe in things more or less passionately and, if in nothing more noble, then at least in our personal rightness. With this as our very raw material, there is really no problem; all we need is the word “Go.” How we actually cope with our quarreling once it is flaring is a matter of more interest.

First of all, of absolute prime importance, we must realize that when quarreling, we are doing what is forbidden. Those of us brought up on strict catechisms will recall that quarreling comes under the dark shadow of “Thou shalt not kill.” We are not born to initiate strife but love, not death but life. I repeat, we are doing what is forbidden. But of course it is not as easy as that. When our quarrels are more than merely an outcome of our bad temper, they come about because we believe differently from our opponent and this is not in itself wrong. We may have some great good in mind to which the other fool is blind. So from out of our vision of good rises this thing that is condemned by God: disharmony, slander, rancor, separation, silence. Suddenly this terrible thing is happening, with me at its very center — I who love peace am snarling. My stillness, my composure are gone. My dreams have turned to nightmares. I see my face in a new pool of water and all my agonizing self-justification cannot dispel this new-found ugliness. Something has gone sour. It was not the intention.

And what are we to do with it, this black situation that we by no means desired? Isn’t it easier to capitulate and return to the safe niceness pressed on us when we were children? Indeed it is; but this is not honest; it gets us nowhere. I and my opponent lose our precious visions and we remain nice and stunted unto the ages of ages. This cannot be the will of God for man. We are not here to avoid issues but to solve them, thrashing them out with goodwill. It is almost as if God sets us puzzles that we must work out within a strict framework, abiding by the rules of the game. “Be angry and sin not!” is its name. If we hurl anathemas, in fact or in our thoughts, we are not scoring goals but committing fouls and should be sent off the field and suspended from further play.

The first important thing to do then is to face the matter completely, honestly and without self-delusion and so put it under the aegis of Christ who knew enmity all too well, praying, “Lord, be patient and have mercy on us all.” It is necessary to keep this constantly in mind, constantly to commit the situation and all concerned with it to the patience and mercy of the Lord. And then, “Let peace stream out before you,” as Julia de Beausobre recommends.

Perhaps the whole matter is one of growing toward maturity. When we are childish, we scream and protest, “It was him; it wasn’t me.” The next stage is our acknowledgment of our own part in the commotion. At this point agitation is eased by remembrance of the Jesus Prayer in its most absolute form: “Lord, be merciful to me the sinner.” The use of the indefinite, “a sinner,” puts one into the whole melting pot of sinners, all in need of aid. Keeping to the strict form, using the definite article, removes one for a while from the realm of comparison, even of fellowship in sin — thus I neither see myself nor my opponent as the greater sinner. Other people’s sinfulness is totally excluded from the prayer. It is not my business to consider it. My business, now, having put my quarrel before the Lord, is to judge myself, not the other person, and to pray for help for us all. And it is remarkable how this whittles away judgement and how stilling it can be.

A more advanced stage must be that spoken of by one of the Desert Fathers, a stage at which your opponent is not blamed in your heart because you yourself have accepted responsibility and blame in his place. The Abba says to his disciple at loggerheads with a brother: “You want to justify yourself, and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition I tell you this, even if it is he who has sinned against you, go, settle it in your heart that it is you who has sinned against him and think your brother is right, then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.”

This is not capitulation; nor is it the weak giving in to the strong, saying within himself, “anything for a quiet life.” Rather it is an offering of peace so that there may be peace, as it is only with peace as a foundation that there can be mature discussion of differences.

Reconciliation is so essential for life. We know that unresolved strife leads to bodily illness; how much more so to spiritual malaise. Yes, indeed, we should seek pardon, all of us, from those that we are estranged from, however long ago the estrangement began, whatever its cause and whoever was in the right or wrong. That is irrelevant. What is relevant is that estrangement, bad feelings perpetuated, are a scandal in our midst and are forbidden. Therefore we must seek pardon so that no bad feelings are harbored in our hearts or allowed to nestle in the hearts of others. We have nothing to lose but face and, surely, that hardly counts. So we must write, telephone, visit, seeking reconciliation so that the Body of Christ is not fragmented in ridiculous human pride. We have let the sun go down upon our anger night after night and often year after year. We have a commandment of love; it is not just for those with whom we agree; it is for the awkward customers too.

I am moved and feel the pertinence of a passage in Sholem Asch’s novel The Nazarene. In it we hear Judas narrating how Jesus sat at table with those whom the pious despised: “… And he bade us also sit down with them and to be friendly with them. And this was a hard thing, yea, as hard as the splitting of the Red Sea; and we that were scholars did feel then as if we were serving the golden calf. But the hand of the Rabbi was heavy upon us … Simon bar Jonah did stand and serve them, likewise the brothers Zebedee. For them it was not a hard thing.”

For some of us too, who are not Simon bar Jonahs, it is a hard thing to overcome harsh feelings, as hard as splitting the Red Sea.

I have personally found the remembrance of the open coffin at Orthodox funerals helpful when trying to come to terms with my neighbor at odds with me. It gives perspective. We see there someone at last at peace. It has been a struggle. It has not all been plain sailing A long journey. All too often our personalities are our greatest hindrance. Seeing this, it is with compassion and solidarity that we bow before the one who has died; we forgive and ask forgiveness in return. So when I envisage my opponent dead, I can in some measure, bring forward this compassionate groping toward an understanding of his struggle now. Funny how we are unaware of our own difficult personalities!

But it would be facile to pretend that everything is going to sort itself out with everyone, peacefully and immediately, simply by going round with peace in one’s heart and hand. Some people seem to have a peculiar need to be obdurate and relish dissent. Run away from them! I had a bitter experience with just such a person recently. Two conferences of a “religious” nature were taking place on the same campus. At breakfast I found one of the few empty seats was opposite that of a man clad as an Orthodox priest. I took it and greeted him saying that it was good to see an Orthodox priest unexpectedly. He replied that he “hoped he was orthodox,” whereupon I knew I was in for trouble. He called upon his neighbor to introduce him; he was evidently too important to introduce himself. I was told that he was a Catholic priest of the Eastern rite. I expressed interest and said I had no first hand knowledge of the Uniates. Crime upon crime! The man blew up and insisted that I retract what I had said, but I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I apologized deeply if I had unintentionally insulted him and eventually got him to shake my hand. He then asked me a few questions about where I worshiped but I answered without mentioning any names as I sensed he would have had a hatred for them all. I finished the meal in silence and slipped away. I went up to my room and put my head in my hands and to my amazement wept for nearly half an hour. What an extraordinary thing to do, for I am a fairly level-headed creature most of the time.

It seemed to me that a torrent of historic hatred had been poured out, a hatred of one church toward another, and I was the unfortunate recipient. It seemed to me that a few Jews and Romans crucified Christ once, on a particular day, but we, His followers, His priests and His people, crucify Him repeatedly with our demonic pride and hostility to each other. What purpose did this outburst of antagonism serve, for there are many places where priests and people of these two churches work and live in great concord?

Another area where rough places are not too easily made smooth is that of damaged vital relationships. Where relationships matter then it matters that they should be right. This is usually at the heart of families and this is mostly where the strongest undercurrents whirl. Didn’t Father Thomas Hopko suggest that the hardest to forgive are our parents? Martin Israel speaks of “a healing hatred” that he felt toward his father. This strange description of hatred, he says, “must shock the more conventional reader, but … a fully acknowledged hatred is the beginning of a future understanding that may, with God’s help, flower into real compassion and love. It is the cold indifference of so many relationships masked by superficial politeness… that is the true cancer of the personality… Both material light and darkness must be transfigured by the uncreated light of God.”

So we must be honest with ourselves and honest about our feelings. They may not be pretty but we cannot do anything with them until we get them out and take their measurements. This demands courage on our part but afterwards these undercurrent resentments can be placed with our raging quarrels, under the protecting love of Christ. What is not acknowledged is not healed, for we do not ask for its healing as long as we pretend that it is not there.

What do we do when we are deeply offended, deeply hurt, and the culprit is so thick-skinned that he does not know what effect he has had? I presume it is sensible to use some means or agent to let him know of the hurt he has caused. But the thick skinned are always innocent so it doesn’t always work. Metropolitan George of Lebanon, when asked how we should treat terrorists, said “Give them love. Love is irresistible.” This seems a better, if less fashionable solution.

There is one especially painful type of quarrel that is hard to witness. This is when we are comparative outsiders and see those whom we love or respect destroying each other in a bitter feud. “Witness” is too detached a word, for we are not by any means untouched by the destruction that we see. This is often the case in the divorce of dear friends, or it may be that something almost like an evil spirit suddenly gets a grip on an organization or community and a veritable can of worms spills out. The usual response is: “This is nasty. I’m not getting involved. You can’t take sides.” But I do not think this is good enough. Much better to commit yourself to being utterly involved, not in the details and the nitty-gritty which would only deplete you and drag you down, but utterly involved in remaining steadfast in your friendship and love to both sides, irrespective of who has done what harm. This can be taxing and may make you appear as a Judas to one of the warring sides, but if you are faithful to both, then your solidarity, put into genuine practice and shorn of judgement, will equally show that you are unfaithful to none. Can we stand at the very hub of confusion, quite still, holding each of our suffering friends with a firm hand?

When our quarreling is over how should we feel? Triumphant? Brought high or brought low? Perhaps we should recall St. Basil’s canonical rule concerning armed conflict which says, with reference to the one obliged to fight, “If he had been a Christian worthy of the name, he would have been able to convert those around him to mutual love, and there would have been no armed conflict.” St. Basil taught that those who had shed blood in war should abstain from Communion for three years. From this we understand that after dissent there must be no triumphalism but only repentance, self-examination and restitution leading to deeper harmony.

Does good come out of our quarrels and strife? Yes, it should, at least if at some point, feeling the strong hand of the Rabbi upon us, we turn and adopt of spirit of reconciliation. To begin with, we have a deepening of self-knowledge, which is in itself salutary and which can jolt us into a fleeting humility. Then after a great disruption there is often a clearer air. It is interesting to observe how a community will at times become torn and fragmented and then to see how, after a period of distance and reflection, almost imperceptibly, a more whole, humble spirit moves over the group binding it together in a new and more knowing way. This binding between those once at variance is one unexpected delight that can result from fierce disharmony. The one who was my fiend has become my friend. When a man is angry he shows you the secrets of his heart and so we have seen the worst, perhaps even some best; we have no unrealistic expectations of each other and there is much humor and forbearance in this. The bond is free from hypocrisy but has fellow acceptance instead.

In all that we have considered surely the most important thing must be to invite Christ into the center of any situation of strife and to put our anguish and distress as well as our spite and umbridge under His protective care. Without Him we can do nothing worthwhile. And before our eyes we can place the icon of Peter and Paul with their arms around each other’s necks; they have come through; after dissent they have come to harmony, and their new found communion speaks of the blessings of God.

Hilary Carby-Hall studied and taught Icelandic literature at Hull University, then inclined away from chronicles of the battle axe and the thrusting sword in favor of work with the Samaritans, assisting the chronically sick and terminally ill. She now practices as a reflexologist. Her home is in the north of England.

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