Fraternal Correction in the Christian Life     (E.J.Tyler)

1. All that lives requires correction

  Have you ever noticed how when a sapling is growing in a wrong direction the grower sets up a stick or a paling next to it and ties the sapling to it so that it will grow in the right direction? What the grower is doing is correcting the direction of growth the sapling is taking. When a young person’s teeth are not growing in the right way, a brace can be put into the mouth, and the growth of the teeth is corrected. If a person’s leg is broken, plaster is set to correct it. I once watched a segment on television which showed new techniques of correcting very uneven teeth. A marvellous job was done on the teeth of one woman, and she was ecstatic with joy at the result. Even among animals the adult animals will correct the inexperienced young ones in the way they hunt. The adult animal will also prevent the young one from straying into danger. It corrects its behaviour. The young animal has to learn what to do and what not to do.

2. The child requires correction

  When a child is growing up it would be unheard of for the parents never to correct the child. People of all cultures, no matter how primitive, know that a developing child has to be educated, and correction is part and parcel of the child’s education. Some children take to being corrected, and other children do not. It might be educating the child to fish, to hunt, to grow food, to read or write, to speak - whatever it is, the child cannot be left to its own devices but has to be helped by the parents to learn from the wisdom handed down by society. Otherwise the child will spend all his life learning the simplest things the hard way by trial and error, while never learning some of the most important things of all. What would we say of a parent who was unwilling for whatever reason to correct his child - perhaps because he could not be bothered, or feared the difficulty, or whatever. Conversely, what would we say of a child who would not accept correction - and this happens all too often. It happens more often in youth and early adulthood. If that keeps up, the child will live to regret it. If a student is to succeed in studies and do well in exams, part of the preparation for those exams is doing exercises and having those exercises corrected, whether they be in maths, history, literature, or whatever. If after correction, the student repeats the same errors, more correction will follow. If there is still no improvement then probably the student will fail and make no further advance. Success depends on being corrected and on profiting by the correction. What would we say of a teacher who refused to correct his student in his subject, or just could not be bothered because of the time it takes and the hassle? In the workforce too, if one’s work is not up to standard, if one is making mistakes, then correction will come either from one’s work colleagues or from one’s superiors. If there is no improvement and if it is important enough one will lose one’s job, or at least never be good at it.

3. Correction is needed for spiritual growth

  That is to say, just as the development even of plants and animals requires correction, correction is an essential for any human life. An essential part of any human life is striving to improve, working at something and making it better. Now to do this, one will need the help and advice of others. Their advice is what we call correction. Time and again we seek it out because we know that we need the opinion of others as to whether what we are doing is good or not. A man does work in the garden and goes in and asks his wife for her opinion on what he has done. She comes out and notices something not done well and tells him. He sees that is the case and fixes it - he has asked for and received correction. In higher studies a student who is writing a thesis has a moderator. The supervisor's job is to review what the student is doing and to correct it as he goes along. If the moderator does not do this he will be replaced because the student needs that advice and correction if he is ever going to have his thesis accepted by the examiners. If the student takes no notice of the advice and the correction, his work of research will fail.

  If correction is part and parcel of every aspect of life and of all the things we must learn to do well, then far more so is it the case with our spiritual lives. We are called to know, love and to serve God in our everyday lives. We are called to aim at the perfection of love, and we start off as infants with tremendous problems and obstacles. We are born into this world with the burden of a fallen human nature. We need all the correction and advice we can get if we are ever to reach our goal. Ordinary reflection and human reason show us that. Otherwise precious time will be wasted over the course of life learning for ourselves what we could have been told very early on. If this happens we will live to regret it and to regret the time we have wasted. It will have been time lost that could have been used to make fast progress towards the great and pressing goals of life. We need to foster deep down in our hearts a burning desire, an intense eagerness to attain sanctity even though we see ourselves full of problems and defects. Ask yourself, “what am I on this earth for?” Life's purpose is surely to attain the greatest love for God possible and to help others attain the same. This is a tremendous goal, but it is obvious that like any other great goal we need the help of others. An athlete needs a good coach who will advise him. This advice includes friendly correction. We need the help of someone who can give ongoing direction in the spiritual life, and the correction of any prudent person who may notice things we do not. So we must be open to the correction of prudent people. This is why it is so important to receive spiritual direction and support. Anyone with any prudence will appreciate this. The foolish one will not.

4. The example of the Good Samaritan

  We all remember very well the story our Lord told of the Good Samaritan. The man had been on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was suddenly set upon by bandits who attacked him and left him half dead. He lay there in a hopeless condition. That ruined person can be regarded as a picture of each of us. Each of us has deep wounds of a spiritual and moral nature due to our inherited original sin.  But to return to our parable. Along came a Jewish priest, and he did nothing. He passed the wounded man by. So did the Levite. Neither of them bothered to help by assisting the man and helping tend his wounds. But then along came a foreigner, a Samaritan, a person of a different religion and indeed a heretic. He did not have the true faith, nor was he a member of the true church. But what did he do? He was filled with compassion upon seeing him and how bad were his wounds. He stopped, went over to the man, cleaned his wounds, bound them up so they could heal, and poured the soothing flow of oil and wine on them. Then he took further steps. He put the wounded man on his own mount and took him to an inn and took care of him there. He asked the innkeeper to attend to him promising reimbursement when he got back.

  Well now, let us apply that story to our attitude to those in spiritual need, because our Lord concluded his story by saying, “Go and do the same yourself.” Let us consider those wounds as the spiritual and moral wounds of every person. If a person is spiritually lazy, and too sluggish to make real spiritual effort in the direction of holiness, then we ought recognize that there is a deep wound there that leaves the person spiritually half dead. If a person is consistently failing to do his or her daily work well and with thoroughness, then that is a wound that is debilitating that person’s spiritual life and progress. If a person is stubborn and refuses to give up his or her own will in numerous things, such that both his work and his relationship with others is constantly being affected, then that is a spiritual wound that is impeding that person’s spiritual health and life. If a person is consistently watching pornography on the Internet, and does not make the necessary effort to avoid those occasions of sin, that is a deep wound that needs to be attended to and healed. If a person clearly does not pray much, then there is a spiritual wound there. Now, who is going to do the healing? Who is going in a gentle way to point out to that person that there is in him that wound, that there is that spiritual sickness there?

5. The healing of spiritual wounds

   So often people have very little awareness that they have these wounds, these spiritual illnesses. They are unaware that they have these faults, and they do not realize that these are the things that are holding up their spiritual progress. They may have a vague awareness of it, but it may be so vague that they never do anything about it. It is possible to go right through life and never really attend to certain spiritual faults, faults of a serious nature that affect a person’s work and relationship with others and entire family life as well. Take impatience and a bad temper. This can gradually get worse and worse, and affect everything one does and even destroy one’s work prospects and one’s marriage. It is a deep wound that could be leaving a person spiritually half-dead. Now, what is to be done about this? The person suffering from these spiritual wounds and illnesses is most unlikely to do anything really substantial about dealing with them and applying the remedy. Probably he has no practice of a daily examination of conscience, but even if he has, he may not see very clearly the faults he is afflicted with. The older a person gets, the more deeply entrenched become his faults. So what is to be done? The only thing that can be done is for those faults to be pointed out, but done as courteously and as charitably as possible, with sensitivity and discretion, otherwise of course there will be an unfavourable reaction. That is to say, there has to be some fraternal correction, but offered in a Christ-like way. We all accept this in other matters. For instance, if you are an employer, and you hire a person to do a job, you have every right to correct a person for something he is doing that is unsatisfactory in his work because he is responsible to you. You are paying him for his work and his work has to be satisfactory. If it is not, he will lose his job. If you can see his error and do not correct him, you could lose your job as the manager. If I am an employee, I accept that the boss should correct bad work I do.

    But what are we to do for the person who is not responsible to you, but is harming himself and others by his faults, and whose spiritual progress is being impeded by those faults? Who is going to help that person, and what is the help which that person needs? The help that person needs is fraternal correction, and it can be difficult giving that correction because we all know that offense can be taken. But if no one does it, what will be the upshot? Moreover, while in one sense you may not be responsible for what that person does if you are not the supervisor of his work, in another sense you are responsible for anyone in need. In the eyes of God, I am my brother’s keeper. If no one were to correct a person who is heading into crime, what would be the result? If no one were to correct a person heading into drug abuse, what would be the result? So too we must face up to the fact that fraternal correction might be the only way of helping a person in what is the most important thing in his life, his relationship to God and his service of him.

6. Christ-like correction

   The need is there, the only question is how to meet the need. Of course, there has to be prudence in how to put things. Imagine our Lady or St Joseph, how would they correct a person? It would be with gentleness and done at the right time, when the person is in the right mood, and following a period of trying to show the person that they are loved and liked. It will be useless if we correct someone if it is done simply because we are irritated and angry, and if we do it roughly. This applies, I think, to people of all ages, including the young. A young person in his or her teens who is spoken to roughly when corrected could remember that with resentment for years afterwards. Rather, a person whose faults are being pointed out should be made to feel that they are the object of friendship and regard and real respect. That requires a truly Christian attitude in the one who is doing the correcting. One should place oneself in the presence of God and ask God for help in pointing out a fault to a person in a Christ-like way, a way that will help that person love God more.

   Probably the best way to learn how to offer fraternal advice and correction is first to learn how to receive corrections oneself. This can be very difficult. A number of considerations can help us, though. The first thing to remember is our call to holiness, and as life slips away, so does the time available for us to achieve the holiness to which we are called. It is very difficult for us to see clearly the obstacles that block our path. Others often can see those obstacles more clearly. It is always very difficult to accept correction and advice about our own person and our behaviour, but perhaps we could start by accepting correction in little and hidden ways. Whenever something happens that corrects the way we were thinking or acting, we ought give thanks to God for that correction, and in this way prepare ourselves to be able to accept greater corrections. Doing this is a sure road to humility and to progress in the spiritual life and in the conquest of our personal faults.

7. Other forms of a spiritual apostolate

   All of this reminds us of the duty we have to help and to be helped in other ways as well. For instance, a great apostolate of charity is to make a point of trying to interest people in things of spiritual benefit and value. The great majority of Catholics do not go to Mass or go very seldom. Probably 80 % of Catholics in our country go to Mass only seldom. Now, who is going to do something about this, if not Catholics who are going to Mass? Yet the majority of Mass-goers would never think of trying to attract others to Sunday Mass. Inasmuch as the Eucharist is the summit and the source of our entire Christian life, if a person is not going to Mass, that person is in great spiritual need without knowing it. Who is going to help that person realize his need? Then there is the apostolate of drawing a person to the Sacrament of Penance. People in the past have undergone a great conversion as a result of going to Confession. There are other spiritual apostolates too, such as drawing a person away from the temptation to have an abortion, or from encouraging others to have an abortion. Another spiritual apostolate may be to invite and draw a person to a monthly recollection or to a retreat, a person who shows no interest normally in such things but who is content simply with the spiritual minimum of Sunday Mass and nothing more.

8. Fraternal correction and sanctity

  In all of this, a certain amount of fraternal correction is involved, but offered gently and respectfully, leading a person away from spiritual laziness and disinterest to a fervent spiritual life. St Ignatius when he met Francis Xavier at the University of Paris gently kept asking him what it profits a man to gain the whole world and end up losing the next world? He converted Francis Xavier to a Christian life, and Francis went on to be a great saint. Ignatius corrected him, and corrected him in the right way, which is to say in a Christ-like way. Let us then give real thought to this form of helping people spiritually - first by being open to correction ourselves in spiritual matters, and learning how to correct people properly and in a Christ-like way ourselves.