Spiritual Reflections

The Value of Discomfort

“When I think of Jesus flipping the tables in the temple, I imagine the chaos that ensued, people furious at him for upsetting the status quo. Yet throughout the gospels, Jesus taught things that made people uncomfortable.”

When I first attended Mass at my graduate school’s Catholic Student Center, I was startled to hear that the congregation said “God” instead of “He” or “Blessed is she who comes in the name of the Lord” (people alternated the pronouns.) When I thought about the implications, I was delighted. I had never felt so welcomed by my Church, never so aware that my female presence was equally valued. The change of language didn’t affect God, but it signaled to me that this was a community who thought deliberately about the power of language and the messages they wanted to send about the equality of God’s children. 

A new priest, for whom I nonetheless have all the respect and affection in the world, reversed course, explaining that some people told him “they felt uncomfortable” and the Mass should be a place of comfort. He asked us to revert. With regret, I told him I could not. Yes, people might be made temporarily uncomfortable. I was surprised myself. But with that discomfort came reflection—why was this choice made? How did it help me to think about inequity in the Church? How did such language help women feel equally valued? Sometimes discomfort leads to important discoveries. 

When I think of Jesus flipping the tables in the temple, I imagine the chaos that ensued, people furious at him for upsetting the status quo. Yet throughout the gospels, Jesus taught things that made people uncomfortable. He ordered his followers not to judge the woman taken in adultery, he praised the Samaritan, he called for his followers to help the poor, the imprisoned, the leper, people on the margins of society. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said to embrace people who are different from you, those you think of as enemies. At the Last Supper, Jesus’s final commandment was to “love one another as I have loved you.” These teachings represented such a threat to the powers that be that they crucified him rather than embrace the changes for which he called. 

How then, are we obliged to act if we want to follow in Christ’s footsteps? I argue that each of us is called to flip the tables, even we are uncomfortable by what lurks beneath. One table long overdue for flipping is racism. We white people especially have to examine our hearts carefully. If you heard about white privilege and you thought, “that’s not true; I have struggled all my life to earn a living wage,” I hear you. You have suffered from not having the privilege of class, and I know that your struggles are real. My grandmother cleaned houses for 50 cents; when she applied for food stamps she was denied because her income was too low—they wouldn’t believe anyone could survive on it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have the privilege of race. If you heard “Black Lives Matter” and responded, “all lives matter,” I beg you to reconsider. No one responded to the “#BostonStrong” hashtag of support after the Boston Marathon bombing with “#NewYorkStrong” or “#AllCitiesMatter”; they understood that Boston was in crisis. In the same way, Black people are facing a crisis of violence that needs special support and attention. To be faithful Catholics following Jesus, we have to listen to what our Black brothers and sisters are telling us about their lived experiences of aggression and violence, to try to understand how they face evils every day that we never will, simply because of the color of our skin. I know a man who called his administrative assistant while parked outside a store, only to have an employee call the police because she thought he was preparing to rob it. A passing driver shouted “terrorist” at one of my students who was simply walking to a convenience store. These daily aggressions range from people summoning the police on Black people barbecuing in public parks to the murders of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. A recent study shows that Black neighborhoods are literally hotter than white ones (because fewer parks were built or trees planted or money invested in these communities); that is how pervasive and persistent racism is. Too many of us deny this truth because it makes us uncomfortable. But to follow Christ means embracing discomfort and flipping over the tables. 

I also argue that the Church is not exempt from this self-examination, that it could do much more to fulfill its role as a teacher. When the U.S. Council of Bishops condemned the cruel policy of separating mothers and children, how many homilies echoed that call that Sunday or tried to help parishioners see the humanity in these refugees? When Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, a call to save the planet, how many church leaders examined the sustainability practices of their parishes and asked their parishioners to join the cause? 

It is so easy to slip into habits of thought or action; such is the kind of thinking, a failure to consider what is right, that led to the presence of money-changers in the Temple in the first place. The Catholic Church is a powerful structure; it is therefore all the more important that its leadership be at its most vigilant when examining its conscience, in particular by examining the embedded traditions that preserve and reserve its power to a select group of men. In this case, I would urge the Church to reexamine its rulings about women and the priesthood. That is a table long overdue for flipping. 

For those many good men and women who believe that only men should be priests, I ask you to consider listening to the voices of those people who are isolated, alienated from the Church because of this edict, a ruling which ultimately comes from men and not from God. Is this tradition truly serving the entire Catholic body? We see Church attendance dwindling; how much of that is because the Church maintains a structure that says women lack the wisdom and leadership and caring needed to lead parishes, that they are unworthy of consecrating the miracle of the Mass? So many women I know would be brilliant priests, yet they are barred from that calling. 

I am neither a theologian nor a Church historian; rather I speak as a layperson troubled by these inequities, inequities I don’t find in Christ’s teaching. When did Jesus say we should elevate one group over another? When did he ever treat women as less beloved, less worthy of respect, less deserving of his attention or of hearing and spreading his message? The Bible shows us he trusted Mary Magdalene to bring the news of his resurrection to the people mourning him (and I could note that she believed in the resurrection without proof, simply knowing her Lord had returned, unlike the doubting Thomas, who needed to touch his Lord’s body to believe). But rather than engaging in spiritual one-upmanship debating early Church history, I would rather make a broader appeal grounded in logic and in love and the needs of today’s Church. We cannot be one in Christ if we claim that some of us are better able to serve God than others. This insistence that only men are special enough to become priests brings misogyny into the Church, where it hurts all who encounter it, driving wedges between those who should be one family. I have heard some men say the ban on women doesn’t mean that men are better than women, but just that we have different roles. Yet I have heard these same men refer to the priesthood as “a special calling.” I do not understand how they do not see how banning women from “this special calling” subjugates us to a lower status in the Church, one unable to participate in the governance of the Church, from the parishes across the world to the halls of the Vatican. How can the Church fulfill its mission when it silences half its voices? 

Right now, we claim to be a community of love, but the world sees that we are all too content to love some Catholics more than others, to protect some more than others. That kind of thinking—that some people are more important to the Church than others—is what led to the cover-up of the horrific abuse of so many children and facilitated further abuse. The world sees this hypocrisy, and the Church’s moral authority plummets. For the Church to proclaim it was wrong on this issue, to open the priesthood fully to women and men alike would be a powerful moment of humility and grace. So many Catholics would come home. It would be the Church at its best, recognizing we are truly one in Jesus and attempting to mirror that community on earth. 

I believe powerfully in the mission of Christ carried out truly by so many Catholics, especially the sisters with whom I work and so many priests and laypeople around the world.

I think a faith that invites everyone to commune with divine love is a faith worth fighting for.

Like the widow who pestered the corrupt judge, persisting in her hope for justice, I pray continually for us all to open our hearts to eliminate the prejudices that lie within. And I pray that one day my Church will grow in love enough to be the force that Jesus called us to be, to flip over its own tables and reverse its injustices. It’s going to be a process that makes people uncomfortable. But here’s the inescapable truth—when one group is always comfortable because it excludes others from the feast, that’s not the supper Jesus envisioned. Far better to flip that dining table over and start anew in true love and communion. 

Erin is a Professor of English at Marywood University. The opinions expressed here are her own. 


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