Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
What does it look like to be consumed by bitterness? It looks like the way an awful lot of Catholics speak to and about one another.
Bitterness isn’t born ex nihilo. Bitterness is the festering of a spiritual wound, and many Catholics are infected by bitterness because they have suffered real, penetrating, stinging wounds at the hands of their fellows.
The cure, of course, is holiness, but most of us are still stumbling along the holiness trail. We need some practical remedies for quelling the rage that feels so much like “righteous anger” but is really just self-consuming hatred.
These are some of the things that help.
1. Avoid Situations That Make You Bitter
Not everyone has this luxury, but some people do. Perhaps you have the option of attending Mass at a parish that is, while not your home parish, a place where your wounds aren’t prodded so regularly. Perhaps there are unpleasant acquaintances you don’t have to invite into your social circle all the time. Perhaps there are blogs, channels, discussion groups and magazines that feed your fury, but that you are under no obligation to consume.
If you have this privilege, exercise it.
Yes, it would be fantastic if you could somehow be so saintly that Fr. Backstab and Sr. Gutpunch didn’t bother you anymore. Maybe one day that will be you. Until then, give your weakness a little breathing room.
2. Surround Yourself with People Who Build You Up
I don’t mean people who will gladly add their flame to your fire until you are an ecclesiastical volcano ready to blow at the slightest tremor. I mean, rather, people who help you remember there is goodness in this world.
Look for corners within the Church where prayerful people do their best to carry out a work of spiritual or corporal mercy that brings you joy. Find friends, Catholic or otherwise, who have a passion for something other than perpetual grievances. Spend time with those people. Treasure, in particular, the company of those who have endured a true injustice (different from your own, ideally) and managed to come through sane and sociable.
Caveat: When you’ve been stung by fellow Catholics (or anyone), there can be healing in conferring with others who’ve experienced what you have experienced. It can be helpful to be reassured that you aren’t imagining things, that your pain is understandable, and that others have been through the same ordeal. But choose carefully: Find the friend who is determined to keep forgiving, not the one who wants to relive the injury forever and ever amen.
3. Have Confidence in the Catholic Faith
Years ago on a discussion forum, someone posted (I paraphrase), “When I’m around this one Catholic friend of mine, I feel like she must be judging me, because I don’t observe some of the spiritual practices that she does.”
I wrote back, approximately: Maybe she’s judging you or maybe she isn’t. If she isn’t, she doesn’t deserve for you to assume that about her. If she is, you’ll just have to be patient with her. We all have our weaknesses. She’s fortunate to have a friend who is able to discern confidently.
Defensiveness, the fear of being judged, stems from a lack of confidence about our decisions. Are you in fact living according to the teachings of the Catholic faith, as appropriate for a person in your state of life?
If yes, be at peace. If not, work on that. If you aren’t sure (who is?), admit it to yourself and humbly keep discerning.
When another Catholic insists that XYZ option is a binding practice for the entire faithful, there are only two possible responses: “Yes it is” or “No it isn’t.”
Don’t let someone else’s ignorance be your downfall. If you are struggling with this, pray the Litany of Humility.
4. Be Willing to be Healed
What we want, rightly, is to live in a Church where everyone does what they should. What we have instead is a wretched collection of miserable sinners, some truly wicked and most merely painfully incompetent.
Some people preach a false Gospel of It Isn’t That Bad: Surely you are imagining the errors and sins of your neighbors! Peaceful people don’t notice self-centered worship, self-righteousness, bad doctrine, apathy, and malice! Hush up and put on a smiley face!
No. Our Lord didn’t die on the cross to save us from It Isn’t That Bad.
People in the Church sin. Some of them sin terribly. Some of them sin terribly against you, personally.
That wounds. No wound can be healed if we pretend it isn’t there and refuse to treat the wound.
But we also can’t be healed if we are determined to stay wounded forever and ever amen. When you love your crucifixion so much you refuse your resurrection, you just end up rotten and stinking and lying in a hole.
Sure: Allow yourself a day to rest in the grave. Quietly. But then you have to let the Lord pull you up out of the netherworld.
We fear letting go of our wounds because we fear that healing will mean the injustice we suffered will forever be shrouded in darkness. But it’s just the opposite. Allowing God to heal you means that the holes are still there for all to see, but now people can see by the light that shines through them.
Jennifer Fitz is not very holy, as anyone who knows her can attest. Most of her expertise in What Not To Do has been acquired first hand, and she seems determined to keep on checking just to make sure the same old bad ideas still don’t help.