“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

There is a beautiful story recounted in the lives of the Desert Fathers that highlights both the delicacy and attention that is required of us if we are to truly love one another. The story is as follows. One day three old men came to see the wise and holy Desert Father, Abba Achilles. One of those men, it was reported, had a bad reputation. The first two men asked Abba Achilles if he would make them a fishing net so that they could have a souvenir of their meeting with this wise and holy Desert Father, and presumably show others. Abba Achilles responded by saying no to their request, because he said he did not have the time. The third man, the one with the bad reputation, stepped forward and asked Abba Achilles if he would make him a fishing net so that he could have something to take home with him to remember him by. Abba Achilles, much to the surprise of the first two men, responded to the man by saying yes.

Sometime later the first two men approach Abba Achilles and asked him why he said no to their request, but to the third man, the man with the bad reputation, he said yes. Abba Achilles answered:

“I told you I would not make one, and you were not disappointed, since you thought I had no time. But if I had not made one for him, he would have said, ‘The old man has heard about my sin, and that is why he does not want to make me anything,’ and so our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered his soul, so that he will not be overcome with grief.” [1]

The reason that Abba Achilles said yes to making something for the third man had nothing to do with personal preference, a monetary gain, or for the sake of receiving human praise and affirmation. Rather, Abba Achilles said yes to the third man because he knew that community life, whether it be in marriage, religious life, or in Christian friendships, is meant to be a place of healing and reconciliation, and not a place of division and conflict. Abba Achilles’ decision to make a souvenir for the man with a bad reputation is not only an act of kindness, but an attempt to facilitate healing in the soul of this man. By acting in this way Abba Achilles is simply following the teaching of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus teaches us a 3-step response to others who have sinned against us. First, we are to speak to the person alone. If he will not listen to us, we are to take one or two others with us. If that doesn’t work, then we are to bring the matter to the Church. Jesus is not naïve in thinking that we will never experience division and conflict in our relationships with one another. Rather, Jesus is teaching us practically how to work through division and conflict. Why?  Because he wants our life together as Christians to reflect the healing and reconciliation that He brings, since as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).


Over the years I have become convinced, both through my own experience as a priest and a spiritual director, that the number one tactic used by the devil towards faithful and devout people is to create division. I experience this temptation, not only within myself, but among everyone I encounter. It is prevalent in marriages and families, in religious orders and seminaries, and in ministry and friendships. In fact, I have noticed that often the main reason why a marriage, religious order, or ministry is not thriving has nothing to do with a lack of love for God, laziness, or inability, but rather it is because its members are divided. I have witnessed repeatedly throughout my life that once people are reconciled and united again their family or ministry begins to thrive again. Unity, even more than theological training or public speaking skills, seems to be from God’s perspective, the most important quality to strive for if we wish to grow in holiness and lead others to God.

Interestingly, the word “devil” comes from the Greek word “diabolos” which can be translated as “to divide,” “to separate,” or more literally “to throw against.”   It is the will of the devil to divide and separate us. Jesus himself experiences this in the three temptations he faces in the desert after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:1-12). In each of the temptations that Jesus faces in the desert, the devil attempts to thwart God’s word by tempting him to seek his own glory, thereby separating Jesus from the Father and destroying the unity they possess. The devil desires and loves disunity, whereas God desires and loves unity. Hence, it is the will of God to unite us, as Jesus prays in his high priestly prayer, “that they (us) may all be one (Jn 17:21). 

Why is it the will of the devil to cause division? The answer is simple. Most likely, the devil knows that he will not be able to get faithful and devout people to reject the Incarnation, deny the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, or disregard any of the other major teachings of Christianity, but if he can create division among believers, he can limit their impact. By creating division, the devil can frustrate not only an individual’s growth in holiness but all those other people who are in some way associated with that particular individual. When people are distracted with one another and turned in on themselves, their love for God and others is severely weakened. In short, their desire to live and proclaim the Gospel is greatly compromised. What happens then?


Nothing happens, and that is exactly what the devil wants from believers: no growth in prayer, no practice of virtue, no forgiveness, no healing, and no reconciliation in our relationships. This is what division leads to– nothing.  Which is why it is so dangerous.

Why is it the will of God that Christians be united? Once again, the answer is quite simple. Our unity reflects the unity that is within the Trinity, within God Himself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are never divided among themselves. Rather, they are always and everywhere one. Therefore, our unity as Christians is ultimately a witness to God himself and a participation in his very life. Hence, unity is in a very real way, “God-like,” which is why reconciliation in our relationships is not merely a suggestion by Jesus, but an essential component for our spiritual life, apostolic life, and our life in general with God.


Over the years, I have been asked by many sincere Christians how best they can grow in holiness. Understandably, many of them assume that they need to pray more, fast more, attend Mass more regularly, etc. and perhaps they do. However, after speaking with them about these areas I will always ask them, “How are your relationships?” “Do any of your relationships need healing and reconciliation?” These questions always appear to take a person by surprise, and almost always, make them a bit uncomfortable. Generally, I have discovered most people, including myself, would rather talk about the spiritual life in general, things like prayer, spiritual reading, and retreats, than the state of their relationships. The reason for this is obvious, the state of our relationships is usually more troublesome and is often filled with wounds that a person would rather not look at or deal with.

The reason why I ask people about the state of their relationships is because if there are any relationships that need reconciliation, and there are always a few, this is just as important as things like prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, etc. In fact, if we prayed for several hours each day, fasted regularly each week, and never considered the state of our relationships, our progress in the spiritual life would be greatly limited and would eventually become stalled. Jesus emphasizes this in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).

We would be foolish to believe that Jesus’ teaching is easy and that it will not demand from us a great deal of effort. I, and I assume this is true for most people, would much rather spend an hour in prayer than have a difficult conversation with someone I’m struggling with or who has hurt me. I would much rather spend time reading a good spiritual book in some quiet place than ask forgiveness from another or accept forgiveness from another. However, we don’t grow in holiness by only doing what we want or what is most comfortable for us. If we are serious about holiness then we must ask ourselves, do we love the truth more than our ego?  Do we love God’s Word and what it asks of us more than our desires or what we find comfortable? If we do, then we must strive with all our effort to find reconciliation and healing in our relationships, not only because it is the will of God, but also because it is a great witness to the reconciliation and healing that is available only in God.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 28-29, 1975.


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