Monday, June 11, 2007

Got Encouragement?

San Barnabas Altarpiece - detail (Madonna Enthroned with Saints)
Saint Barnabas with the Virgin and Child
Sandro Botticelli
Tempera on wood, 268 x 280 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Today is the memorial of Joseph, better known as Barnabas,of Cyprus, erst-while apostle and companion of Paul on missionary journeys. His adopted Christian name means "son of encouragement" As so often happens in Scripture, it provides a clue as to his personality and typological function.

Barnabas was among the first to recognize both the importance of the mission to the Gentiles and the vital part which the newly converted Saul would play in that mission. He championed the cause of both, introducing a skeptical church leadership to the recently converted persecutor and aligning himself with the Church's outreach to Gentiles in Antioch and from there out to Asia Minor. A likeable kind of guy, according to usually taciturn Luke (Acts 14:14), he was a good man,"filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith."

I've been thinking about Barnabas and Paul today, and the roles we all play in the Church. One role we have is to encourage one another. How do we do that? Sometimes encouragement comes in the form of support. But it also comes in the form of challenge, and even of conflict. I think back to spiritual directors, friends, co-workers I have known. The very best ones I have experienced are the ones who help you see what you're doing well, and they also challenge you to do better.

I'd like to say that we all need to speak positively to and about each other. And that is true. One reason Barnabas comes off so well in the book of Acts and elsewhere is because he knew how to appeal to people. Largely, that was a positive function. However, encouragement also involves correction. If someone truly loves the Church and the fragile saints who comprise it, then he or she will naturally want them all to operate at their very best.

Even for Paul and Barnabas, the time came when they had to agree to disagree and to separate. The causes, according to scripture, were at least two. First, Barnabas had joined Peter in his disengenuous withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile believers. In theory, Peter affirmed the validity of the Gentiles' faith. However, under pressure from other Jewish believers, he withdrew from spending time with the Gentiles and eating with them. Barnabas joined him. And Paul called both of them to task on this important issue. Eventually, that confrontation resulted in the first Church Council, the council of Jerusalem.

The other reason for their parting was more mundane, and far less theological. When a return missionary trip was proposed, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along with them, in spite of the fact that John Mark had abandoned them on an earlier trip. Paul said no, and that was that. .... the end of this Dynamic Duo. Interestingly enough, John Mark must have redeemed himself later in Paul's eyes. He shows up in 2 Timothy and elsewhere, noted as one of Paul's beloved fellow workers in the Gospel.

Sometimes, especially in the Catholic blogosphere, we get pretty brutal with each other, for a variety of reasons. I remind myself occasionally of the helpful but slightly disfunctional advice from my dear departed mother: if you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all. For her, civility was not the most important tning, it was the only thing. I also think of applying to the Catholic community Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, "speak no ill of a fellow Republican." The Great Communicator was no pussy-footer. But he did it with class, and never indulged in ad hominem argumentation.

So what can we do to be helpful here?

Perhaps the best we can all hope for, on and off of the Internet, is to be known as sons and daughters of encouragement.... quarrels and disputations, and battle scars and all.

Saint Barnabas, son of encouragement, pray for us.

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