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7 Spiritual deficiencies we need to overcome for community

The Return of the Prodigal Son

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 05/14/21

We are inclined to agree Christian community is a good thing. But are we really ready to be a part of one?

Could you imagine a university professor saying the following? Not only do I know nothing about the topic, I’ve never even taught a course on it!

Well, I’ve been a professor for a long time, and although I’ve never heard a professor say that in so many words, I would not have to strain to imagine a colleague saying something like that. People who are in the business of knowing and teaching must have confidence in their ability to know and teach. Sometimes that confidence is well placed, sometimes it’s misplaced—often it’s overestimated.

That exaggerated confidence in one’s ability to know and teach is not unique to university professors. There’s a large body of professional literature discussing the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which is described as a “cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.” In other words, people tend to think that because they’re knowledgeable and competent in one area, they’re knowledgeable and competent in many areas.

I mention this because I’m writing in the context of an ongoing series of reflections here about the necessity of Christian community. We are inclined to agree, at least in principle, that Christian community is a good thing. We might even concede that it’s indispensable. I think that we tend to overestimate our ability to form Christian community and underestimate what Christian community really demands.

Illustration: When disciples get serious about living their faith in common, there will be a discussion of the “Works of Mercy,” commonly divided into the “Spiritual” and “Corporal” works. I’ll look at the Spiritual this week and the Corporal later.

Traditionally, there are seven Spiritual Works of Mercy:

  1. To admonish the sinner.
  2. To instruct the ignorant.
  3. To counsel the doubtful.
  4. To comfort the sorrowful.
  5. To bear wrongs patiently.
  6. To forgive all injuries.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.

That these are essential practices for any group of disciples is beyond serious dispute. My concern is that we are prone to a kind of spiritual Dunning-Kruger Effect, that is, we are inclined to overestimate our knowledge and ability to live these essential works of mercy.

Let’s have a quick review:

To admonish the sinner—Have we sufficiently freed ourselves from the culture of relativism that we are ready, willing, and able to admonish the sinner, and to do so charitably and effectively?

To instruct the ignorant—but can we teach what we don’t know? How sure are we that we’re immersed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition such that we can confidently teach what the Church teaches and why? Can we overcome objections and misconceptions?

To counsel the doubtful—can we do that if we’ve not struggled with and overcome our own doubts? We would have some honest housekeeping to do before we could take on counseling the doubtful without being hypocrites.

To comfort the sorrowful—have we embraced Christ crucified and risen? Only such disciples can offer more than Christian platitudes to those who mourn.

To bear wrongs patiently—in the age of “mostly peaceful” protests? Have we worked to become free of inclinations toward verbal, emotional, and physical violence when we are wronged? Are we immune to resentment and spite?

To forgive all injuries—those who are sure they are sinners are more inclined to forgive sinners. People who make frequent use of the sacrament of confession are more inclined to extend mercy because they know that they have received mercy. But what about those who do not avail themselves of sacramental confession? Think about this the next time you compare lines for Communion and lines for confession.

To pray for the living and the dead—regularly and fervently—do we? Can we? I’ve heard priests around the country lament that funerals have become “canonization celebrations”—everyone gets to Heaven, everyone is already a saint, so there’s no need to pray for the deceased. Masses, rosaries, novenas, penances—we used to offer them for the dead. Many have stopped doing so. Why?

To the degree that we fall short of what’s necessary to practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy, to that same degree we are not ready to live Christian community well. We need information to overcome our ignorance; we need formation to make our potential actual; we need transformation to correct our deformation.

When I write next, I will continue my series of reflections on Christian community, focusing on learning how to live the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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