Alternative Formulations of the Golden Rule

My friend Frank recently pointed out to me that the Jewish formulation of the “golden rule” is phrased in the negative, in contrast to the Christian formulation. Whereas Jesus says in Matthew, “Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets,” the Jewish formulation (via Hillel) is, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

I spent some time contemplating the two lines in order to determine what difference, if any, it made to phrase the rule affirmatively, as Jesus does in Matthew, or negatively, as Hillel does.

It didn’t take too long for me to conclude that there is an enormous difference in the two phrasings. If one visualizes a scale from negative 100 to 100, with negative 100 representing hate/bad/sin and 100 representing love/good/virtue, it seems to me that the negative formulation of the golden rule doesn’t do much more than get one to zero; effectively, it says, don’t be bad. The positive formulation, however, is much more likely to move one along the positive side of the scale. That makes the negative formulation a lot easier to live up to.

The reason for that seemed clear to me as I reflected on each statement, especially when I made the reflection personal, by asking in the negative formulation: what do I not want others to do to me; what in the behavior of others towards me make me unhappy; and in the positive formulation: how do I like others to treat me; what in the behavior of others towards me makes me happy?

Asking the negative versions of those questions doesn’t yield much that encourages positive behavior on my part. The negative version seems to me to function more as a check on a particular potential (bad) act than anything else.

However, asking the question in the positive sense has a much different effect in term so encouraging virtuous behavior. If my reflection leads me to identify (as it did during my reflection) that “I’m really touched when someone does something unexpectedly kind for me,” that has the potential to impel me to affirmatively look for some opportunity to do some gratuitous unexpectedly nice act for another that I might not otherwise have thought to do.

Having said all that, what also seemed clear from my reflection was that looking at the two formulations of the golden rule together gave me a much richer sense than looking at either one alone. I’m not entirely sure that I would feel so strongly about the broadly positive nature of the affirmative formulation of the rule had I not been looking at it alongside the negative formulation.


Is It Lawful to Cure on the Sabbath?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is dining on the Sabbath at the home of a leading Pharisee. When he sees a man suffering from dropsy, he asks the scholars and the Pharisees whether or not it is lawful to cure on the Sabbath. When they say nothing, Jesus heals the man and then says to them, “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, woudl not immediatley pull him out on the sabbath day.”

We see many examples in the Gospels of such encounters between the Pharisees and Jesus. Over and over again, Jesus chastises their adherence to the letter of the law in circumstances where such adherence runs counter to the commands of mercy and love. Having said that, Jesus is also clear at various times that he has not come to abolish the law.

I happened to read the other day a passage in Saint of the Day, edited by Leonard Foley, OFM and Pat McCloskey, OFM, that I think does a good job of expressing what Jesus so often tried to convey. The authors write:

Legalism can suck the life out of genuine religion if it becomes too great a preoccupation with the letter of the law to the neglect of the spirit and purpose of the law. The law can become an end in itself, so that the value the law was intended to promote is overlooked. But we must guard against going to the opposite extreme and seeing law as useless or something to be lightly regarded.

Our task is to walk a middle ground between ignoring the commands of the law and following the letter of the law so slavishly that we ignore love and mercy. Doing so successfully requires that we act with the wisdom of the Spirit.

What I Love When I Love God

Some months ago I came across an excerpt from the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo speaking of love of God. I thought of posting it at the time, but didn’t for one reason or another. I just came across it again, and didn’t want to pass up a second time a chance to share it.

Augustine starts by observing that everything he sees tells him that he should love God. He then asks what that means and attempts to give some explanation.

What is is that I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any bodily thing, nor the order of seasons, not the brightness of light that rejoices the eye, nor the sweet melodies of all songs, nor the sweet fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices: not manna nor honey, nor the limbs that carnal love embraces. None of these things do I love in loving my God. Yet in a sense I do love light and melody and fragrance and food and embrace when I love my God – the light and the voice and the fragrance and the food and embrace in the soul, when that light shines upon my soul which no place can contain, that voice sounds which no time can take from me, I breathe that fragrance which no wind scatters, I eat the food which is not lessened by eating, and I lie in the embrace which satiety never comes to sunder. That it is I love, when I love my God.

How do you answer the question Augustine puts to himself? What is it that you love when you love God?

Fall Prayer Series – Praying With the Mystics

This week was the third session at St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen of the Fall Prayer Series I’m offering this Fall at both the University of St. Thomas and at St. Hubert’s. (The UST one has already concluded.) The series is designed to introduce participants to different prayer forms and styles (although even those with some familiarity and experience with the particular styles and forms of prayer can benefit from hearing something they have heard before in a different way).

One of the topics at St. Hubert’s that was not part of the UST series was the topic of last night’s session – Praying with the Mystics. Although the terms “mystic” and “mysticism” scare some people, there is much in the experience of the mystics that we can learn from. In the talk I gave at the session, I spoke of one of Thomas Merton’s foundational religious experiences and also a little about one of the great mystical writers of the 14th century, Julian of Norwich. After the talk, the participants spent some time in silent reflection, using Julian’s famous image of a hazelnut as an image for how all in creation is held in God’s loving hand.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here. (The podcast runs for 27:14, and ends at the point at which participants engaged in their silent reflection.) At the end of the session, I distributed a handout with suggestions for their prayer during this week, which you can access here.

Christian Hope

The first reading for todays’ Mass is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul starts by telling us that “the sufferiengs of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed to us.” He then talks about hope.

Hope is one of the important gifts that we, as Christians, bring to the world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls hope “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

Hope is different from optimism. It is not the mundane attitude that things will turn out just fine. Timothy Radcliffe, in a wonderful book I’ve mentioned before called What is the Point of Being Christian, says that hope is not “a determined jollity, a resolution to look on the bright side. It is not optimistically insisting that the glass if half full rather than half empty, or any of the other empty platitudes with which we may try to shield ourselves from dread and hollowness.”

We all know that empty platitudes don’t work. It does no good to tell someone who has just lost a child, or who is suffering from a debilitating physical or mental illness, or how has just lost their livelihood and has no means of supporting a family, to buck up, look on the bright side, it could be worse. That is not Christian hope.

Instead, in the words of playwright and former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope is trust. It is our trust that in Christ, somehow, in ways we can’t anticipate or even imagine, that there will be triumph. That we will, in Paul’s words, “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” It is confidence, not in human nature, but in God.

An important part of our mission as Christians is to be a beacon of hope in the world. To be people of hope and to convey that hope to the world.

Oscar Romero and Prophetic Preaching

This weekend I watched Romero, the 1989 film starring Raul Julia that gives a picture of the life of Oscar Romero from the time he was named Archbishop of El Salvador to his assassination on March 24, 1980. It is not an easy film to watch; it is difficult not to feel a sense of hopelessness at the situation of the poor of that country fighting against a corrupt power structure that holds all the cards, so to speak.

Although Romero had to grow into his role as a voice for the voiceless, he became a strong voice against the violence and injustice that was being perpetrated on the people of El Salvador. His message continues to be one that we need to hear, for the world needs the prophetic voice of love and Christ no less today than it did thirty years ago.

In one of his sermons, Romero warned,

If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission. The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right; and, because of that, naturally, it irritates people. Everything that corrects us irritates us.

As Romero recognized, “it is easier to preach lies, to conform to the situation so as not to lost your advantages, so that you always have friends that flatter you, so that you have power.” Nonetheless we are called to speak the truth, even when doing so means personal loss. That takes enormous courage and enormous faith. Romero is a powerful model of that courage and faith.

Spirituality Across Faith Traditions

On Thursday, I gave a Mid-Day Reflection at the University of St. Thomas law school on Spirituality Across Faith Traditions. Athough it is true that there are real differences among religions, there is also much truth in faith traditions other than our own. My purpose was to explore some universal dynamics that operate across faith traditions.

My talk Thursday, which drew on a couple of full day programs I offered on this topic this past winter, addressed three dynamics that operate across various faith traditions: (1) the importance of affective prayer experience; (2) the interrelationship of all humans with each other and with God; and (3) the relationship of the individual to the world.

You can access a podcast of the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 32:45). Toward the end of that talk I refer to several handouts of prayer material that I encouraged the participants to pray with during the week. Two were meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition and one contained poetry from several faith traditions. You can access the handouts here.

Hands – Mine and God’s

Yesterday morning, as I often do on the way from the parking lot to my office at the law school, I stopped into a small meditation room that is located above our chapel. Although I do my regular morning prayer at home upon rising, I like taking a few quiet moments with God when I arrive at the law school before beginning my work day.

As I sat there, again as I often do, I prayed St. Ignatius’ Suscipe. “Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will — all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”

As I prayed this prayer of St. Ignatius, I held out my hands, as physical expression of my self-offering to God. And as I held out my hands, I had the strong felt sense of them as being very small. My eyes were closed, so I couldn’t see my hands. But I experienced them as being incredibly small in relation to the size of the rest of my body and everything else around.

As I sat with that sense, what came to mind was a line of Mary’s from a Danielle Rose song on the Annunciation (about which I’ve written before). Expressing wonderment at the message brought to her by the Angel Gabriel, Mary questions, “Shall I touch the sky with these small hands?”

Almost simultaneous with hearing the line, I experienced both the power of Mary’s willingness to say yes to that question and the realization that my hands are only small when I think I need to rely on them alone. With that, with the recognition that through the power of God I have strength far beyond own, I actually felt my hands bigger than I had just felt them. I experienced a sense of them as larger and sturdier than I had experienced them just a few moments before. It was a very strong feeling, one that filled me with confidence and with joy.

What we need to remember always, but especially in those moments when we feel insecure about our ability to respond to God’s invitations, is that it is not my hands alone. It is never my hands alone. Rather, it is always my hands in God’s hands. And those hands can indeed touch the sky.

The Effect of Judging

I was reflecting the other day on a passage in Romans in which St. Paul criticizes those who pass judgment on others. Although his thrust was that we often judge other by standards that we ourselves are incapable of meeting (“by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things”), my focus went to what judgment does to the relationship between the person doing the judging and the person who is the object of the judgment.

I think that what judgment does is to create a sense of distance between the person doing the judging and the person being judged. When I judge another, I won’t go so far as to say I completely write them off in an intrentional sense (although sometimes the feeling that arises during judgment feels pretty close to that), but there is a sense in which the act of judging separates me from them. There seems to me to be in judgment an inherent aspect of “you are inadequate in some way and I’m not” and at least implicitly that, at least in some way, “I’m better than you are.” There is a distancing.

As soon as I had that thought in my reflection, what came to mind in contrast was something that is sometimes referred to as fraternal correction. Unlike what happens in judgment, when I engage in fraternal correction of another I approach that person in love and with a sense of solidarity. I don’t judge and write off (think of Jesus criticism of the “scholars of the law” in Luke’s Gospel, who “impose on people burdens hard to carry, but….do not lift one finger to tough them”), I come to the person with a desire to try to have some healing effect on them. Judgment separates; fraternal correction unites.

As I was reflecting on the difference between those two, I thought that there must be other examples of pairings of feelings/states of mind that are very similar to judging vs. fraternal correction. Pity and compassion came to mind immediately. Pity is an emotion that separates us from another; compassion (suffering with) brings us together.

The end result of my reflection was perhaps a simple thought but one I think useful to keep in mind: the idea that one test for whether a feeling/state of mind is one that is “healthy” in a spiritual sense or worth following is: does this bring me closer to another, or does it create distance between us?

May Your Life Have Meaning

I still remember the little autograph books we all had at the end of 8th grade, in which we wrote to each other clever little ditties like “Remember A, Remember B, but most of all Remember me.” Or “If in heaven we don’t meet, hand in hand we’ll fight the heat.”

In addition to my schoolmates, I had my autograph book signed by various teachers, family members and other mentors. Some of the messages people wrote to me in that little book have stayed with me all these years. One that comes frequently to mind is this one: “When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth comes into the world, then that man’s life has had meaning. May your life have meaning.” (Don’t get side-tracked by the gendered language; insert “person” if you want in place of “man.” But this is the way it was written to me in 1971.)

It is a message that helps ground me. Sure I’d love to be able to cure cancer, bring about world peace, completely take away the sufferings of those I love, and a whole lot of other really, really big things. But, if I can spread a little more love…a little more goodness…a little more light…a little more truth…in ways that make some positive difference in the lives of those with whom I come in contact, then that’s good enough.

Of course, no matter how many times the message comes into my head, there are still times when I worry I’m not doing enough. Sometimes there rises in me a fear that I’ll get to the end of my life and feel that there was more I could have done…more I should have done. So my prayer and my hope is that when I reach the end of my human life, I can say, as Thurgood Marshall did when he stepped down from the Supreme Court, “I did the best I could with what I had.”