Matt Falk tells a joke that Mennonites are just like Catholics but with less dancing and more guilt. I don’t know if he wrote it or just repeated it. It feels like an old joke but it probably isn’t. That’s because we don’t traditionally go about comparing ourselves to Roman Catholics who, unlike the Lutherans, still have not apologized for harassing us 500 years ago. Yes, we’re still waiting. And still a little nervous.
You can never be too careful in dealing with centuries old adversaries who have mostly forgotten your very existence.
Now that we live in cities and many of us have given up on a physical separation from the world, interactions with our old persecutors are pretty much inevitable. Despite a general assumption that “the world” is made up of heathens with no religious heritage whatsoever, I have discovered that there are lapsed or recovering Catholics around every corner. They’re usually no likelier to admit to their Catholicism any more than a post-Mennonite will admit to our religious upbringing. But the topic will come up eventually.
And when that happens, the conversation will inevitably move towards guilt. Nothing quite rankles a Mennonite as a Catholic complaining about guilt.
You think you know guilt? We’ll show you guilt.
We’d never actually say that out loud to a Catholic acquaintance, mind. Even if we weren’t unreasonably afraid of renewed religious persecution, we wouldn’t say it because we’d feel too guilty about being so openly confrontational and/or boastful about our guilt ascendancy.
I wasn’t long out in the world before I learned that Mennonite guilt was a bit different from the Catholic guilt that my new friends and acquaintances sought to overcome. There are certain similarities – all of us feel guilty if we do bad things and/or break the rules that were set before us by our parents and leaders. And a lot of the rules are the same. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for either of us.
My spouse – raised Catholic but also intimately experienced with the Mennonite world by now – summed up the difference as: Catholics feel guilty about what they do; Mennonites feel guilty about what we don’t do.
Which makes me think that we win this guilt competition. Because even a good Catholic worrying about all of their impure thoughts can’t have more guilt than a Mennonite who could always, always be doing more. More to build community, foster relationships, and make the world a better and more just place for everyone. The list of things we feel guilty about is quite literally endless.
We also have a harder time resolving our guilt. I don’t know a single Mennonite who doesn’t look with envy at their Catholic neighbours who can head off to a private confessional, recite a few prayers and be done with it. At least for the moment, until another impure thought appears. Wouldn’t that be nice.
Not us. The only way to resolve our guilt over not doing all the good things we could be doing, is to to do all of the good things we could be doing. And, as there are always more things left undone than done, there is always room for guilt. And more guilt. No wonder Catholicism is a major world religion and the Mennonite Church hangs about on the margins of Christianity.
I used to think it funny that a common epithet on the old graves of Mennonite women in Manitoba said, “She did what she could.” It seemed to demand a shrug of the shoulders and a “na, yo.” I thought of it as the equivalent of “meeting expectations” on a report card.
But thinking about Mennonite guilt, this epithet looks a bit better. Sure, we might live our lives in a state of unrelenting guilt but at least we get a little reprieve in death. Finally, when laid in the grave, we can at last recognize that there really are limits to human possibility and that, despite our guilt, there really is only so much we can do.
Which could limit the guilt a little bit too. Sure, we still have to feel guilty for everything that we realistically could be doing but aren’t. But we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that just doing what we can is – maybe – good enough.
Sins of Omission
Here’s a nice little cocktail to sip while walking through the valley of the shadow of guilt.
I’ve named it after all those things we spend so much time feeling guilty about. It’s really a classic vieux carre with the Benedictine omitted. Which some might consider a sin. You can feel guilty about not going to the liquor store to get some Benedictine if you like. Or you can drink this. I used pear brandy instead of the standard cognac and threw a cherry in there at the end to sweeten it up just a titch.
3/4 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz pear brandy
4 dashes of angostura bitters
a cocktail cherry
Stir the cocktail ingredients together in a glass with ice. Add the cherry and swirl. Drink.