Dear Sister Sunday,
There’s a woman in my parish who is driving me crazy. We serve on several committees together and we have lots of friends in common, so I guess we’re friends, too. We always go the same Mass and we’re together a lot. But she talks about people, and it’s always something negative. And when she talks to me, even if she says something nice, there’s always a dig. Like, “Your kids were really well behaved this morning. Did you give them something to make them sleepy?” I can’t stop seeing her without leaving my parish and I don’t want to do that. Help!
With Friends Like Her, I Feel Friendless
Notice that you call her a “friend.” But think about the address the Church uses in the Mass, “brothers and sisters.” We might be tempted to think of that address as so much ecclesiastical boilerplate, the kind of formulaic language you skim through on your way to click “Agree” when you sign up for iTunes. The use of the phrase, “brothers and sisters,” suggest the truth of who we are as Church. We didn’t choose each other. Rather, God chose us for one another. Just like God chose us for a family, and, often, not the family we would have chosen for ourselves.
A parish is not a club, and we don’t get to vote people in or out, anymore than we get to vote family members in or out. Go and read St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church. They are behaving very badly and Paul admonishes them, but he still calls them “brothers,” using the language of family. We’re stuck with one another.
That being said, there are some things you can do. Gossip is like a fire; it needs oxygen to burn. The oxygen source for gossip is other mouths. Refuse to add to, join in or share the gossip and the fire dies out. Another way to quench the fire is to simply respond to the hateful “news” with something true and kind, “Jane was great when I was pregnant with John. She brought me a meal every week in those last months.”
A parish is not a club, and we don’t get to vote people in or out.
Don’t argue. Don’t defend. Just tell the truth. What if you don’t have a kind truth to tell? Be silent.
And when you hear the dig at you or your kids? Ask yourself, “Is she trying to be funny?”
Maybe the right response to the remark about their good behavior at Mass is a smile and a “Oh, yeah, we’ve discovered the wonders of Benadryl before any public appearance!”
If you can’t manage that, choose to take the compliment that’s hidden in there, and reply, “Thanks. I thought they were great, too.” Then give the squirmiest kid a hug and a kiss.
Back to St. Paul — who had a lot of experience with brothers and sisters he’d never choose, either, — check out his advice to the Church at Rome about dealing with enemies. He writes, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will be heaping burning coals upon his head. Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.”
“Burning coals upon his head?” Sounds like Paul knew your friend, or her distant ancestor, back in Rome, and, dear, he felt your pain.
Hope this helps, and thanks for writing,