Dear Donagh,

… [In my school] I have a colleague who constantly harangues us about Catholic teaching.  He insinuates that we are all heretics, betraying the faith because we don’t harangue the children about it.  Yet he is full of anger and hatred.  He teaches maths, but in class apparently he often overlaps into religion.  He was asked about this by the principal last year, but she got an earful from him, just like the rest of us.  If he’s teaching anything to those children about religion, it’s his own hatred and anger and his judgmental attitude.  I get the worst time from him, because I teach religion.  It’s very hard to hold one’s own with him, because he’s a bully.  I'm beginning to fray at the edges.  Have you any suggestions on how I should deal with him?  Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,

I'm sorry to hear that you have to live with this.  There are many such self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy around, and it’s very hard to believe that they do any good; on the contrary, they drive people out of the Church.  I've seen some of them in action. 

Whenever I see extreme certitude, I keep an eye open for the suppressed doubts underneath.  In my experience, many such people are really trying to convince themselves – to convince themselves by convincing you.  When people are not honest about their doubts they suppress them.  But these doubts don’t go away; they remain within, hard and unreconciled.  The easiest thing then is to project them angrily onto other people.  The sad result is that it becomes impossible for them in the long run to believe anything.  Have you noticed that they don’t really care about you at all?  The absence of love is always plain to see.  St Paul had no doubts about Christ; he was consumed by his experience of him: “I live now – not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  But take a look at the following lines in Acts 20:36-38.  He was taking his final leave of the elders of Ephesus.  “When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.  What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.  Then they accompanied him to the ship”.  In your mind, put St Paul next to your colleague, and see the difference. 

This metaphor just occurred to me.  Imagine a group of people sitting around a coal fire.  The coal wonderfully retains the heat of the sun that shone on this earth millions of years ago.  It is faithfully stored up there in those black lumps.  It is hard to believe that things so cold and ugly could contain such brilliance, such energy; but you have to believe it.  Yes, Jennifer, you had better believe it.  But you have noticed, by the way, that the coal-fire has not been lit.  Until it is lit, that warmth and brilliance will be a matter of faith.  Likewise when there is no warmth in a person’s religious faith, this is evidence that the fire has never been lit, or that it has died out. 

How to deal with your colleague?  I don’t know, but you could decide not to engage with him on religious topics.  Just change the subject, or walk away.  He has no claim on your attention: he’s a maths teacher.  Or you could engage him, but not on his terms.  Bullies are cowards: that's well understood.  Suggest an alternative target for him: suggest that if he were in a Muslim country, for example, he would probably be a very quiet boy.  You could also probe him on the question of love.  You have every right to come back to it every time, because it the centre of our faith.  St Paul was fearless, but his advice was, “Speak the truth with love” (Ephesians 4:15).  And John’s first letter puts it beyond question: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8), and : “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).  If there is no evidence of love in a person’s life – if their coal-fire has not been lit – they have no business talking about God.  Tell him this bluntly, and keep repeating it, every time he confronts you.  Print a card that says “1 John 4:8” and give it to him!  Quote it every time he comes near you.  Who knows?  He may get the point.  The Word of God is very powerful. 

Don’t weaken!


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