Building Walls

Fr Ross Jones SJ writes about how building bridges, rather than walls, can lead to a meeting of minds.

American poet, Robert Frost, wrote a now much-studied poem before the First World War entitled Mending Wall.  On the surface it is about two rural neighbours who meet to repair a common stone wall which has been damaged by hunters or weathered by the elements. It is an amiably folksy conversation between these two men of the land.  “Good fences make good neighbours,” one of them declaims in the course of the verse, and then again at the end.  But the poet questions and has his doubts about this dictum.

Mid-month marked for us the sixtieth anniversary of the commencement of the Berlin Wall by the communist East German government. This wall certainly didn’t make good neighbours. At least 140 people were killed in their attempts to flee to the west during the near three decades of the partition’s existence. It was designed to protect the East from fascism or capitalism. But walls can never hold back ideas or fence in the human spirit.

Fr Charles McDonald SJ was a Jesuit who taught at St Aloysius’ in the mid-fifties, but subsequently spent many years at Riverview. His forte was training debaters. In his seventeen years at St Ignatius’, his Firsts won the GPS premiership fourteen times, and the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition ten times. His debating approach was described as “tolerance and conviction”. One of his former debaters once told me that McDonald’s tactic was to have his speakers begin by respectfully agreeing with a number of the opposition’s propositions. But then suggesting stronger counter positions. It was, in a sense, conciliatory. An openness which regularly rattled their opponents.

That approach is well within the Ignatian tradition. In history, there are many ill-informed commentators who describe Ignatius’ men as being papal storm-troopers, or the marines sent into Reformation territory to “take out” the heretics. That trope is far from the truth.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes, for example, that a retreat director is always to put the best interpretation on what he or she hears from the retreatant. He is speaking of a respect of the other and the other’s experiences.

When writing to the Jesuit community at Alcalá, in Spain, Ignatius asked for the same reverence:

We should not dispute stubbornly with anyone. Rather we should patiently give our reasons with the purpose of declaring the truth lest our neighbour remain in error, and not that we should have the upper hand.

Then, sending Jesuit Fathers Broët and Salmeron to Ireland during Henry VIII’s risky reign, he reveals a diplomatic delicacy:

In all your dealings be slow to speak and say little. … Be ready to listen for long periods and until each one has had his say. … If a rejoinder is required, let your reply be as brief as possible, and take leave promptly and politely. … So, we may lead others to good by praying or agreeing with them on a certain good point, leaving aside whatever else may be wrong. Thus after gaining his confidence, we shall meet with better success.

To those attending the Council of Trent, where there were many contentious and controversial issues raised, Ignatius advised:

Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent. … Consider the reasons on both sides without showing any attachment to my own opinion, and try to avoid bringing dissatisfaction to anyone.

If the matters being discussed are of such a nature that you cannot or ought not to be silent, then give your opinion with the greatest possible humility and sincerity, and always end with the words “with due respect for a better opinion”.

And to those missioned to Protestant Germany:

Do not take sides in faction and party strife, but follow a middle course and be friendly with both sides. … Cultivate interior composure, but also to manifest it exteriorly … This maturity will keep you from giving your opinion too hastily if the matter is difficult.

In such controversial contexts, Ignatius always exhorted his men to be respectful, to not argue in an ad hominem fashion, not to belittle the other, but to find points of agreement before moving to the contentious.

It seems that another Jesuit, St Peter Canisius, the great apostle to Germany, took these counsels to heart, because even in the cut and thrust of the Reformation he was always directed towards the edification and the salvation of the Protestants. Canisius said it was a letter from one of the First Companions, St Peter Faber, which so inspired him.  In part, it read:

If we will help the heretics of this time, we have to be attentive to look at them with love, to love them in truth, and to banish out of our hearts any thought that could lessen our reverence for them.  Pastoral care, dialogue, benevolence, and confidence will help; controversy, which would only bring the partner into discredit, would not help.

More recently, Deborah Tannen, a professor at the Jesuit Georgetown University, wrote of “the argument culture” we experience today

which rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate. The best way to cover news is to find people who express the most extreme views and present them as ‘both sides’. The best way to begin an essay is to attack someone. The best way to show you’re really thoughtful is to criticize. The best way to settle disputes is to litigate them.

It would seem to me that for us today, what Ignatius termed “holy conversations” still have their place, especially in a school. In what is sometimes the cut and thrust of classroom argument, debate or dispute, of rebuttal and point-scoring, in the grandstanding and name-calling of our sad parliamentary model, the following ought not be sacrificed: without loss of a principle, a respect for the other, an engaged listening, a search for agreement along the way, perhaps a compromise, maybe a private correction where appropriate and possible.

“Smashing heads does not open minds,” observes Tannen. Hers is a counter-cultural approach. But then our Jesuit schools should always be a tad counter-cultural.

No, building walls or throwing stones never make good neighbours. But building bridges can lead to a meeting of minds.

Fr Ross Jones SJ

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