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Confessions of a “Say the Black Do the Red” Catholic

October 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Conversion, Dan Burke, Faith

It is hard to extend mercy when one is not intimately familiar with one’s own failures. Most don’t realize that the Pharisees were stalwart orthodox. They were deeply committed to their faith. However, they had strayed interiorly. Their faith was one of external adherence and they thought that this was the entirety of the life in God. Jesus’ rebukes of this problem were not new and were echoed throughout the Old Testament.

I have no doubt that the Pharisees would have loved the phrase, “Say the black, do the red.” By the way, I always say “Amen!” when I read it myself. Here’s the hard part: external orthodoxy is a distorted orthodoxy when it is not accompanied by a properly oriented interior life.

Confessions of a -Say the Black, Do the Red Catholic- -

What does a holy interior life look like? It is found in a soul that is deeply aware of its own failures and need for a savior. It is found in humility. We know this because Jesus rebuked the prideful orthodox of his time and praised the man who wouldn’t dare raise his eyes to heaven but instead bowed his head and pleaded, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Authentic orthodoxy does “say the black and do the red.” But it does so both interiorly and exteriorly. The interior disposition to obedience is because authentic orthodoxy is completely sold out to God. It recognizes the boundaries as acts of love that we are invited to, not merely rules to be followed out of duty. Duty is good, but it is an immature expression of fidelity that must lead to a more mature expression and motivation based on gratitude and love.

These boundaries are what it means to live within a covenant of love with God. This love then emanates from us and, like Christ, draws all who are seeking answers to life’s most important questions. This love reflects an orthodoxy that draws the broken-hearted and the spiritually thirsty to the receive the authentic in eternal Water of Life.

How do we know if we, the vehemently orthodox, would be rebuked or embraced by Christ? How do we know of we are stuck in a distorted, rather than authentic, orthodoxy?

Pharisee and Tax Collector - Gustav Dore

Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves to determine the answer:

Are we deeply aware of our own sins and frailty or are we more aware of the sins, mistakes, and errors of others?

When others fail or seem to demonstrate a lesser commitment than ours, or seem to live outside of the boundaries of orthodoxy, are we quick to throttle them as the wicked servant did in the gospels?

Do we fail to see that conversion is a process and that each person is somewhere on the path and that not all actually know the path and how they should proceed; or do we always attribute negative motives or weak commitment and then criticize or condemn on that basis?

Are we patient, kind, gentle, and respectful with others as the Holy Spirit has clearly instructed us to be in scripture, or are we impatient, harsh, critical, unkind, or disrespectful as we engage those with whom we disagree?

Do we spend much of our time arguing and debating with others on the internet or are we actually giving our lives to the tangible service of our communities, our parishes, and those in need both of the works of corporal and spiritual mercy?

Do we fail to see the providential hand of God active in redemption and the leading of His Church and thus do we only see and constantly complain about the human failure and frailty in the Church?

Do we demonstrate the joy of the presence of God within us that is fostered by daily mental prayer and frequent participation in the sacraments and that reflects a peace and love that dominates our hearts even in the most challenging of times? If we do have that joy, does it show on our faces or are we always dour, sour, and downtrodden?

As a zealous convert, I must admit that I began my faith living out a distorted orthodoxy. I was quick to condemn, assume motive, and argue with pride and arrogance. I had a shallow but strongly held conviction that love and truth were the same in essence. Even now, I tend to fall back into this trap.

I am deeply disturbed by this part of my present and past. In the past, I read past the innumerable passages in the gospels that spoke of mercy and focused on those few that justified my arrogant rants on behalf of the truth. In fact, I focused on those passages of Jesus scourging the temple and his other rebukes as if I knew what he knows and thus could issue such harsh judgement with absolutely certainty. I had raised myself to the status of Supreme Judge.

One day I realized, and was recently reminded by the same readings in the gospels, that Jesus reserved the bulk of his harsh words for those who were the orthodox of his time. I realized that I was the target of these rebukes and that I needed an interior conversion that maintained my commitment to “say the black and do the red” but that would be concomitant with an interior conversion that reflected a more authentic orthodoxy.

This interior conversion would lead me to greater patience with those who may be deceived or off the path (as defined by the Church, not by me). It would lead me to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” and to temper my arguments with kindness and respect. It would lead me to err on the side of assuming the best instead of the worst in others. It would lead me to begin to see others as Jesus did, as sinners who were and are as deeply flawed as I am and who need to know love and mercy, often before they could understand the truth (as Pope Francis is constantly reminding us).

God is nowhere near finished with me. The summit I once perceived that I had climbed successfully now seems like the beginning of my journey. I am a sinner saved by grace. Though I deeply desire it, I know very little of what it means to be a saint. God, help me to be kind and patient as You are. God, help me to see and stay on the path. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.


Painting: The Pharisee and the Publican, by Gustave Doré, PD, Source

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and Divine Intimacy Radio, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, and his newest books Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • veritasetgratia

    This was a helpful post for me and I recognised lots of your thoughts as my own. I am not the only Catholic to say they passed through a couple of decades of spending so much time seeing the ‘good’ in whatever and whoever that I often failed to recognise the boundary between belief and accommodation. Then I had to go through a painful period of pulling back from what seemed was being disseminated as charity, but it wasnt true because it masked a lot of ignorance about the Faith which I dont want to be lost to the future. And you cant be passionate about a Faith you just dont ‘get’. But now I recognise that you can only offer the Catholic Faith to others.
    It’s people’s reactions or lack of response that scares me. Being ‘orthodox’ is no sin and no shame. I am pretty sure Bishop Fulton Sheen said the Sadducees were early money market dealers, and a number of the Pharisees were legalists which would make them cultural jews. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea I like to think of as orthodox inside and out. thanks Dan for sharing so p ersonally.

  • Blake Helgoth

    My conversion began as a spiritual awakening. Prayer, spirituality and service to others were what I was seeking. I read Confessions, the Cloud of Unknowing, Theresa of Avila and many other things about Spirituality. I began to learn to pray. Then, I wanted to know more about the faith. I dove into apologetics and then the Liturgy but before I knew what was happening, I became sidetracked. Suddenly Orthodoxy was my clarion cry. During my time at Steubenville I was even nicknamed captain O. Always on the look out for those that held erroneous opinions. I still tried to live a life of prayer, but my focus was clearly on ridding the world of heretics. My time at Mass became more and more preoccupied with rubrics. Friends and I would talk about how orthodox a Mass was rather than he movements of the Holy Spirit we experienced. I was angered by alter servers, liturgists and priests because of the rubrics as I understood them. Fortunately, Christ had mercy on me and showed me the error of my ways. He never gave up on me. I was still being drawn to the contemplative side of Catholicism. I read St.. Catherine, prayed the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours. But more and more of my time was occupied by this unholy quest for orthodoxy. Like you, some of that life is still ingrained in me. I feel like I was duped by Satan, knocked off the path laid out for me to deep conversion. So much time was wasted. The most important thing is falling in love with Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary and the Church through prayer. Then helping others to encounter God so that their lives might be filled with joy as well. For what is the point of theology and liturgy if we separate it from spirituality? We do not do the converting, the Holy Spirit does, and thank God, it doesn’t happen in the way we’d imagine. I too have far to go, but at least, by God’s grace, I can see the way before me is allowing the Holy Spirit to continue His work of conversion – in me and others.

  • MJP

    And, Lord let me see others with with your eyes and your heart

  • Catherine Nagle

    My Personal Confession

    Thank you for this most beautiful explanation, “Say the
    Black Do the Red.” I have since
    confessed another of my sins of bringing to attention how … pointed me back to the red type in the Gospel, since I’ve been
    graciously shown the dangers of this text book through the links sent to me. I clearly
    understand now, the serious dangers of how this might be misinterpreted for
    some. I am most grateful for Catholic Spiritual Direction guidance. I also now had
    the courage and took appropriate steps right away and contacted a Christian

    What’s so mysterious about “interiorly and exteriorly” is
    that I endorsed [it] as a reference with honest and good intentions … I am deeply passionate… and I asked God to have mercy on me a sinner, every
    day of my life… “Authentic
    orthodoxy does, “say the black and do the red.” But it does so both interiorly
    and exteriorly. The interior disposition to obedience is because authentic
    orthodoxy is completely sold out to God. It recognizes the boundaries as acts
    of love that we are invited to, not merely rules to be followed out of duty.
    Duty is good, but it is an immature expression of fidelity that must lead to a
    more mature expression and motivation based on gratitude and love.”

    I have faith in God with this new exterior cover, only Jesus’s name is heard.

    Thank you so much Dan, for all you do for us!

    • LizEst

      Glad to hear of it Catherine…and there’s still work to do. The first endorsement that comes up on your site is the author of that book. And you are still promoting the book in your site bio. So, although the cover may have changed, the interior remains that same. The outside of the cup has been scrubbed, now the interior must be cleansed. It is, perhaps, even more dangerous for the unsuspecting because the erroneous information is still contained within the book. Someone who might not otherwise have picked up the book would be blindsighted by it. Tough decisions abound here. May the Lord continue to guide you into all Truth.

  • Jeanette

    God loves us so much that He will intervene by enlightening us of our wrong thinking. For me, I had a subconscious wrong thinking about God’s character. One day during prayer, He intervened by telling me that He was not a taskmaster. This struck me hard. I had no idea on a conscious level that I thought this way and was somewhat bewildered. I had to get spiritual direction to sort this out and I pray that I don’t ever go back to this way of thinking. God is nowhere finished with me either but I know He will not let me stray off the narrow path too long without bringing me back by the mercy and power of His Grace. I pray that I will always be open to His Grace and His workings in me.

    Dan, I am so impressed by your courage and humility in this post. Thank you for your honesty. It’s not an easy thing to reveal oneself this way. I’m absolutely sure that your witness will help others. God bless you and yours!

  • Carol Rooney Everhart

    Just yesterday, this was the primary discussion during my spiritual direction session. I am beginning to understand my own tendency to orthodoxy and how the Holy Spirit is leading me through a transformation toward a greater love and patience with others (my most fervent prayer). This is difficult to face, but so necessary, to allow the layers of sin and wrong thinking to be gleaned away. Your piece gave me insight and a welcome feeling of that I am never alone on this journey. Thanks Dan!

    • Dan Burke

      God is good Carol!

  • LizEst

    Catherine–we appreciate your efforts to correct your sites, or the sites which you have listed. Nevertheless, we do not publish bios, except with certain exceptions, such as for those of our authors.

    That said, I did look at some of your sites. Your book site says that you “are truly honored that [she] gave [you] the highest review anyone could hope and dream to have…” That isn’t exactly a resounding repudiation of using her book.

    I see that on Facebook, you have certain questionable links as well. You link to a post by someone who is the director of Feminist dot com and who recommends the Planned Parenthood Take Action Center. This author says, “It is time for the Catholic Church in America to restore Thomas Merton to his rightful place as an exemplar of Catholic faith…” Now, Thomas Merton, as we’ve stated before on our site in our “Can I Trust?” Series was OK to read in his earlier writings. But, he, in no way, is to be followed in regard to his later writings where he veered off of Christianity.

    So, you are in process right now…and that’s a very good thing. The light of Christ must not only be allowed to illumine our lives. It must be allowed to cleanse them as well. It’s kind of like trying to get at one’s root sin. Those roots tend to be very, very deep. I encourage you to keep cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. Furthermore, if you do not have a magisterium-faithful spiritual director right now, I encourage you to find one (Dan’s book “Navigating the Interior Life” has some excellent suggestions on how to go about finding one) posthaste, submit everything to him/her and be obedient to their direction. May the Lord Jesus continue to draw you as you seek an ever closer relationship with Him.

    • Paula

      I am so grateful to RC spiritual direction. I have a spiritual director that is on the same page as this web site. I appreciate Liz, Dan Burke, and all the others who bring Gods truth in a Honest, dignified way. Bless all of You, for your hard work. I’ve been reading for 3-4 yrs. in between my sessions with my director.

    • Catherine Nagle

      Thank you, Liz, for bringing these to my attention. I’ve been trying my best to revise all my websites and links. And you were a great help to point them out for me. I deleted them, the ones I could find, but I’m confused about this one: “WASHINGTON (RNS) At his speech before Congress on Thursday (Sept. 24), Pope Francis listed Trappist monk Thomas Merton as one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for us today.” Our Pope Francis is the true light that paths the way for us.
      Please help me to understand this. Thank you so much!

      • LizEst

        You’re welcome…and thank you, Catherine. Just as we have said on our site, Merton’s early writings are OK to read. Later in his life, he veered to the East. There is a great post on site here: (which links to a part II). This first link lists his books from the early period (OK to read) to the ones from his slip into the East. You might want to look through the list. His early works have led many closer to Christ. His later works have led many away from Christ.

        Eastern religion works in a way that advances the annihilation of self so that ultimately one becomes God. We know that it is utterly ridiculous to think we are God. This is the first deception of man we see in the Garden of Eden, and a very old canard. This is the direction that these Eastern religions take a person to. And, that’s what Merton was into in his later years. The Avila Institute has a fabulous course on Christianity and Eastern Religions, taught by Dr Anthony Lilles. You might enjoy it the next time it is offered.

        Pope Francis didn’t distinguish the differences between Merton’s two phases, yet I doubt he is unaware of them. And, I doubt seriously that he would promote Merton’s later works. They are simply anti-Christian and they are nothing the Pope would go in for. Pope Francis wrote a book on humility before he was elected Pope: There is nothing more arrogant, no greater hubris, than to think oneself God, which is in the direction Merton’s later works “guide” people to.

        Hope this helps…and God bless you!

        • Catherine Nagle

          This helps Immensely, Liz. Yes, I understand and I feel the same. I have been aware for many years of Eastern Religions “to think oneself God” and this alone shown a light that I remained even closer, deeper, and devoted to the Catholic Church, and the Gospel, because there is only One Lord God Jesus Christ, who is the true giver of life. That I am happily, and peacefully, correcting my mistakes through grace. Thank you so much, Liz! I will look into the links as well. Have a wonderful evening!

        • MarcAlcan

          I truly admire the gentle but firm way you are handling this.
          Praise God!

          • LizEst

            Thank you MarcAlcan. Blessed be God indeed!

  • Dan Burke

    Thank you Jeanette – God is good!

    • Jeanette

      By the way, happy memorial day of St. Teresa of Avila, of whom you have a special devotion.

  • LizEst

    AHD – Good question! I do not know whether or not Europeans use this expression or not. But, I suspect there is some form of expressing it over there. It refers to liturgy and specifically to the liturgical books such as the Roman Missal and the rites books for the sacraments. The red instructions in the Missal, which the priest uses, tells a priest how to celebrate Mass or the sacraments (for example: when to hold their arms apart, when to bring them together, when to bless, when to turn one way or the other, etc). The black words in the Missal, or rites book, are the words the priest is supposed to say. What it boils down to is that there is a very specific way to celebrate Mass and the sacraments, and that is that it must be done according to the instructions in these books. Then, one has celebrated correctly, not only according to the rubrics, but also according to Church Law because the Missal and the rites books are considered as part of Canon Law. The requirements are the same in any language.

    That said, when someone uses the expression “Say the black, do the red” it means to do things according to the book and according to the Church. It can also be taken to mean someone who is very strict with Church requirements, according to the letter of the law, including someone who is, perhaps, overly so, and lacking in mercy (as an extension of this expression). It can take on a bit of a Pharisaical connotation, especially if a person’s interior life does not match their exterior strictness.

    Hope that helps…and God bless you!

    • Clanci45

      I am just now “catching up” on some older posts. This is absolutely fascinating to me I have never heard the expression. It never came up in RCIA and I have not only never heard it but never have had it explained….

    • AHD

      Yesterday I looked in the Missal and it is the same here with black and red print.
      In our hymnbooks the words that the priest say are ordinary print and what he does is in cursive and smaller print. What the congregation say is in bold print to make it easier for everyone. Latin is to the right of Swedish.
      Thank you for your answer.

      • LizEst

        Thank you for sharing what it is like in another part of the world, AHD. Gud välsigne dig! (God bless you!)

  • Jim Grisafi

    AHD, in some Bibles, the Gospels show the words of Jesus in RED, and all other words are in BLACK. I believe that is what he is referring to.

    • LizEst

      Jim — No, it does not refer to the Bible at all. It is in reference to the liturgy. As I indicated in my response to AHD, it refers to the Missal and the rites books where the celebrant, or presider, is to say what is in the black print and do what is prescribed in the red print.

      Where the saying comes in is in reference to the strictness of one’s conduct, kind of like saying a person is “by the book”.

  • Dan Burke

    “Say the Black, Do the Red” is a reference to those who have a high view of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church through tradition, and particularly with respect to the liturgy. Liz has explained this well in her responses. So, you could substitute the phrase with “traditional.” Thus, the post could be retitled, “Confessions of a Traditional Catholic.” However, I didn’t want to use the “t” word to avoid fueling unnecessary distractions over the definition. Hope that helps clarify.

  • MaryofSharon

    Dan, this is exceptionally helpful! Of late, it can seem that much criticism from within and outside the Church is being directed toward those of us who hold fast to moral truth. Your frank admission of the errors of your ways is something that I’m sure convicts many of us who love the truths of our faith. In this strange age in which we find ourselves, some of us really do need some reassurance that that we don’t need to jettison our love for truth in order to love our Lord well. Your questions (a veritable examination of conscience for folks like us) is spot on—a terrific aid to protect us from a haughty self-righteousness and to remind us that our love for truth must always be integrated with a love for the people who desperately need the Truth. I’m printing this and showing it to my spiritual director who has had to listen too many times to my wrangling with much of what you have written here. I am very grateful for your clear articulation of many things of which I’ve been thinking lately.

  • Erin M

    Thanks be to God for this piece. I am also a zealous convert, and was meditating this week on these themes. My heart was truly convicted that I need to be more patient and charitable towards others. I often get annoyed by hand holding during the Our Father, late arrivals and folks who leave right after receiving the Eucharist. Sometimes my desire for others to “shape up” blinds me to my own faults and failures. I want to thank you for writing this because it placed words on what was going on in my heart during my prayer this week. It will be an excellent tool to take with me when I meet with my spiritual director. May God continue to bless you abundantly.

  • Clanci45

    So who told you I was spending too much time arguing and debating on the Internet…ah, The Holy Spirit! Ah, this is true last Lent I gave up the Internet but alas Lent ended. This has been a great concern of mine because of isolation it has become a serious problem. I have been praying for two years because of isolation, inability to find a spiritual director, etc. I finally decided after much prayer and seeing a downward spiral to “bury St Joseph in the yard” My husband ( non-Catholic) prayed the prayer with me. We are moving this week. One of the main reasons is Spiritual well being….I won’t give up this site but my life will no longer center around the Internet…debating!

  • Jonathan Howell

    This is great Dan. Very well said. Thank you.

  • MarcAlcan

    that Jesus reserved the bulk of his harsh words for those who were the orthodox of his time

    Did Jesus have harsh words for those who were orthodox because they were orthodox or because of their hypocrisy?

    I don’t think Jesus had any problem with orthodoxy but rather with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees whose orthodoxy never extended to orthopraxy.

    As for castigating yourself on your firmly held belief on the essence of love and truth, I think you were very right about this. Love cannot be divorced from truth or vice versa. When Jesus made claims about Himself, the one thing that He said of Himself is that He is the Truth, the Way and the Life. I believe that the way He speaks of is the Way of Love, His way. If He is both Truth and Love and thus life, then it is important to make people understand this.

    I think what the west has lost is Truth and because of this has lost what real love is for now it has devolved into sentimentality.

    It is interesting that when the Lord describes the devil He does not say that he is the unloving but rather that he is the father of lies.

    What I love about your website is how consistently it has spoken of the truth and thus has shown the way to Love – God Himself.

    As for being fidgety about rubrics, when most of one’s Sundays one has to contend with banality in the liturgy and Masses where the celebrant seems to be blasé about all that his happening , then speaking for myself it can be difficult not to be unsettled by all the happy-clappiness of it all.

    I thank you for this beautiful and honest article but I think you are rather being too hard on yourself. None of us is perfect but we are all loved tremendously by Him who is Truth.

    • Dan Burke

      “Did Jesus have harsh words for those who were orthodox because they were orthodox or because of their hypocrisy?” Because of their hypocrisy – which is the point of this piece though I didn’t use the “h” word. Jesus had absolutely no problem with an authentic orthodoxy – one that is holy both inside and out. To say that the Pharisees lacked orthopraxy is not the case. They did practice their religion with vigor but often only externally and thus in a way that denied the orthodoxy they valued. They did make excuses for their lack of mercy and Jesus rebuked them harshly for that. Thank you for your kind words.

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