I have a friend. I haven’t known her very long, but every time we get together, I like her more and more.
She is a convert to the faith, and she has an incredible story of her journey from being raised in an atheist and dysfunctional household through drug dependency and to the brink of suicide where she stumbled into a Catholic Church near the end of Holy Week and found physical healing. She and her husband, with a conversion story of his own, joined the Church several years later as an engaged couple and were married within a week of their initiation.
They were young – early twenties – and, like most young adults, still had a lot of growing up to do. But neither of them had any idea about how to be Catholic. Of course, adult catechises is practically non-existent in most parishes, and most Catholics assume that the majority of us are cradle Catholics or married to cradle Catholics. Those who somehow find their way to the Catholic Church on their own are pretty much left to figure it all out by themselves. And this just doesn’t work well for those who don’t have a Catholic support system.
As an example, her two sons are three years apart. When the younger one was a baby they sought baptism – for both of them. The priest couldn’t believe that their three year old wasn’t baptised yet. They had no idea that it was something you should do as soon as you reasonably could. It was out of ignorance that they neglected it.
Anyway, my friend, like all of us, is still on the journey to holiness. About a year or so ago, she began to evaluate her wardrobe, especially what she wore to church. She hadn’t really thought much about her appearance before, but she was starting to consider that perhaps the current fashions were not appropriate for Mass. She had worn spaghetti strap tops and a halter top dress. But on her own she was starting to consider what an educated Catholic would call the virtue of modesty. This was the Holy Spirit whispering to her.
Just at this point, a pious mother of many left a book on her car about how women should dress modestly for Mass. She had anonymously done this to several women at the church who had all felt hurt, but nobody had said anything to her. My friend, who had admired this woman from afar for her devotion, confronted her. The woman admitted putting the book on her car, said that she had been wanting to say something for six months (the whole time my friend had been a parishioner there), and called my friend “a stumbling block of sin to the men of the parish.”
The spiritual works of mercy are:
To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offences willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and the dead.
There is no question that my friend could have used some instruction and admonishing, but…
We can not know fully where someone is on their journey to God. We can not expect that with conversion of heart will naturally follow sin-free behavior or even understanding of the basic rudiments of faith. We can not compare our journey of 30 or 40 or 50 years from childhood with wonderful role-models to someone else’s journey of 10 years with no assistance save that of the Spirit.
Of course, this woman did not know of my friend’s journey. She didn’t know that my friend was open to advice and counsel if done charitably. She didn’t know that my friend was already thinking about modesty. And that’s exactly my point.
Because now this pious woman, who likely meant well by her actions, has become a stumbling block of sin for my friend. Her method was so blunt, so hurtful, that my friend still struggles to forgive the injury. She’s only human.
There are many ways to be a witness for Christ. There are many ways to perform the spiritual works of mercy. Only the Spirit knows the best way for each person at any particular time, which is why prayer is so necessary when trying to serve the Lord.
I only hope that in my own zeal I have not been a stumbling block of sin for someone else.