A couple of weeks ago, while reflecting on the Gospel reading about the persistent widow (LK 18:1-8), I came up with what I thought was a wonderful take on the story. My idea also was original; I’d never heard or read anything remotely similar. I was so proud of my unique interpretation that I was going to share it with the world by writing about it in this column, but before deadline I had to go to the deacons’ retreat. There I ran my brainchild past one of the deacons who is a friend of mine, starting with the premise that Jesus’ parables always reflect the Kingdom of God.
My deacon friend said he’d never heard that theory, and he wasn’t much impressed with the rest of my wonderful idea, either. Refusing to “murder my darling,” to paraphrase the advice Arthur Quiller-Couch gave to other writers (and which has been repeated by other greats such as William Faulkner), I asked the retreat’s keynote speaker what he thought of it. Deacon William Ditewig very politely told me that not only was my proposition wrong – not all of Jesus’ parables reflect the Kingdom of God – but I also was misinterpreting the rest of the story.
Now, Deacon Ditewig has a doctorate in theology and decades of experience as a teacher and lecturer, so I reluctantly killed my darling, even though it broke my “egocentric little scribbler’s heart,” as Stephen King phrased it. Then I went home and thanked God that he saved me from public embarrassment, because I hadn’t published my error. My reflection for the next couple of days was on the virtue of humility, which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer.”
This humiliating occasion did cause me to turn to God in prayer, but it also led me to reflect on the fact that I might have inordinate pride, not least because even though I have been proven wrong, I still want to share my wonderful (albeit incorrect) interpretation of the parable of the persistent widow. I want to do this even though my conclusion is not in keeping with what Jesus himself says is the moral of the parable: that God will “see to it that justice is done” for “his chosen ones who call out to him day and night” (cf LK 18:7-8).
I’ve been a writer long enough to accept the validity of the advice to “kill your darlings,” which means to cut any wording that is flowery or cute or precious. In general, when a writer becomes too attached to a particular piece of prose that has flowed from her or his pen, it means that those words do nothing but reflect how clever the writer thinks she or he is, thereby defeating the intended purpose of clear, concise writing. Yes, there are some essayists whose darlings are beloved by readers, but relatively few of us can write something as evocative as “Slouching towards Bethlehem” or “Extract the eternal from the ephemeral,” and I am no Joan Didion or Charles Baudelaire.
Translating this understanding to my spiritual life, however, is proving difficult. I don’t mind admitting that I was wrong, but I put hours of effort into developing my interpretation of that particular parable; I even included a bit about the adversary to whom the widow refers. It all fit together so neatly that I want others to admire it, even if that desire is an obvious indication of my inordinate pride.
I acknowledge that I still haven’t learned the lesson of humility, but despite this, and even knowing that I possibly could lead someone astray if I disclose my wonderful (albeit incorrect) interpretation of that parable, I still want to do it. In fact, the temptation is so strong that I’m going to stop now, before I do. Instead, I will pray: “From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.”
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.