The Ten Commandments Revisited

The RCIA program at Our Lady of Lourdes includes several talks centering around the Ten Commandments as a means of giving flesh to what it means to live a moral life. Some weeks ago I gave a presentation on the first three commandments (which you can find here). On another occasion the deacon in the parish gave a talk on the commandments having to do with marriage. Yesterday, I talked about the remaining commandments addressing our relationship to one another: Commandments 5, 7, 8 and 10.

I used to think of the Ten Commandments as the “bare minimum” – the minimum conditions for leading a moral life. And, if one approaches them literally, they are no more than that. However, reflecting on the commandments in terms of, not only the literal things they command us to avoid, but in terms of the positive behavior they seek to encourage, suggests a richer and much more challenging set of instructions for the moral life.

In my talk, for each of the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth, and Eighth Commandments, I spoke about the obvious and the not-so-obvious implications of the command. For each, I also included a series of questions one might ask to see how well one is doing in fully living in the spirit of the commandment. We ended with a lively discussion of the challenges, during which the participants found ways to tie in today’s discussion with prior discussions we’ve had about sin and discipleship.

You can listen to the talk I gave yesterday here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 33:48. (I interrupted my talk several times for comments from participants. I tried to hold the recorder in a way that would capture their comments; apologies if there are a places where the audio is unclear.)


A Scriptural Examination of Conscience

In Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Fr. Paul Farren suggests that just as there are two great commandments, there are only two great sins – the sin of Adam and Eve and the sin of the Innkeeper – and that all other sins are a manifestation of these two. He describes the sin of Adam and Eve as wanting to be God and not allowing God to be God. The sin may be manifest in many ways, but always involves a failure to accept ourselves as the loved creation of God. Farren describes the sin of the Innkeeper as not having space for the poor and those who are in need, failing to live as a community of love, a community of people in relationship.

Thus, when we are examining our conscience, we are asking where we have failed to live the two great commandments of love – facing those times we have committed the sin of Adam and Eve (breaking the commandment to love God) and the sin of the Innkeeper (breaking the commandment to love our neighbor).

Farren further suggests we might engage in an examination of conscience using as our basis the story of the story of the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17:22). Here is the examination he suggests:

The rich young man knelt before Jesus.
Do I acknowledge Jesus in my life? Do I have space for God?
Do I seek, respect and respond to his Word?

The rich young man wanted to inherit eternal life.
Do I want to be close to Jesus always?
Do I want to do the best I can with the gift of my life?
Do I believe that I can accept the gift of heaven by the way I live on earth?

Jesus asked the rich young man did he keep the Ten Commandments?
Do I keep the Ten Commandments?
Do i realize that rather than stopping me doing things they free me to be myself?
Do I respect myself as the beautiful creation that God made me?

Jesus looked steadily at the rich young man and loved him.
Do I believe that Jesus looks at me and loves me?
Do I believe that Jesus invites me to share in his life?
Do I believe that Jesus believes in me?

Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.
Do I make space for Jesus in my life through loving and caring for others?
Do I recognize the face of Jesus in those who are marginalized, disrespected, those who live in poverty and those who are vulnerable?
Do I recognize everybody in the world as my sister or brother equal in the eyes of God?

Jesus then told the rich young man to follow Jesus.
Do I believe that Jesus has a plan for my life? Do I make an effort to discover that plan? Do I trust Jesus enough to accept his plan?

The rich young man went away sad.
Do I choose the way of Jesus or do my own thing?
Do I allow God to be God in my life and do I welcome Jesus into my life?

You doubtless have other ways you engage in an examination of conscience, whether in preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation or otherwise. But this struck me as a helpful way of going about the process.

Why Do I Do The Things I Do?

Although I discontinued my subscription to many of the things that come into my e-mail inbox daily before I left for my Camino pilgrimage, among the things I continue to daily receive are the daily meditations of Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I often find them challenging, as well as thought-provoking.

One day last week the reflection, adapted from Rohr’s Francis: Turning World on its Head, Subverting the Honor/Shame System, addressed our motivation for performing religious actions, taking as its starting point Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s Gospel to give alms, fast and pray secretly. Rohr observes

Whenever you perform a religious action publicly, it enhances your image as a good, moral person and has a strong social payoff. Jesus’ constant emphasis is on interior religiosity, on purifying motivation and intention. He tells us to clean the inside of the dish instead of being so preoccupied with cleaning the outside, with looking good (Matthew 23:25-26). The purifying of our intention and motivation is the basic way that we unite our inner and our outer worlds. (Please read that twice!)

All through the spiritual journey, we should be asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this? Am I really doing this for God, for truth, or for others? Or am I doing it for hidden reasons?” The spiritual journey could be seen as a constant purification of motive until I can finally say, “I have no other reason to do anything except love of God and love of neighbor. And I don’t even need people to know this.” When I can say this I have total and full freedom.

While some of us are susceptible to scrupulosity, most of us could benefit from greater self-examination of our motives. Do I do what I do for love of God and love of neighbor? Or do it do it out of a desire to look good? Or out of fear of consequences of not doing so?

I was reminded when I read Rohr’s reflection of something Shane Claiborne wrote in his wonderful book titled The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Claiborne quotes his teacher Tony Campolo as asking, “Even if there were no heaven and there were no hell, would you still follow Jesus? Would you follow him for the life, joy, and fulfillment he gives you right now?” Claiborne writes, “I am more and more convinced each day,” he says, “that I would.” In the words of St. Paul, “The love of Christ impels me.”

Is it the love of God and others that impels you, or something else? A question for all of us.

Contemplation for Busy Lives

Yesterday I rounded out my two-day/four-talk visit to Villanova with a lunchtime talk on Contemplation for Busy Lives and an afternoon address on Catholic Social Thought and Just Wage.

The lunchtime talk was informal, and allowed time for discussion and contemplative practice, but I began by talking about why making time in our busy lives for contemplation is important. There has been increasingly interest in mindfulness meditation for secular aims: mindfulness improves productivity and concentration, lowers blood pressure, etc. But my interest is in the value of contemplation for our spiritual growth.

I suggested three reasons it is imperative that we make time for silence in our lives. First, we need awareness to act with freedom. Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I say Viktor Frankl, but that has always been a common Buddhist saying.

For many people, the idea that one can choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus is a radical one. We so often behave as if there is no choice, reacting automatically to whatever the stimulus is. But when we react without choice, we react without wisdom, and we react without the benefit of God’s grace. And we know the risk when that happens: How many times do we react automatically – particularly when the stimulus in question is something negative (for example, someone criticizing us or otherwise saying or doing something we don’t like), and then later wish we could have the reaction back? Part of the benefit of a regular prayer practice is that a habit of contemplation helps teach us that there is space between action and reaction. There is space for wisdom, for grace, for choice.

Second, we need reflection to be able to learn from our experience. We lead busy lives. We spend much of our day multitasking. And even if we do one thing at a time, we experience too many things, too many feelings, too much happens for us to process things as they are occurring. We need the time to reflect on our experience. To see where I noticed God. Where I didn’t. Where I acted with more or less freedom….compassion..widsom. Indeed, that is the primary goal of the Ignatian Examen, which has been part of my daily prayer for over a decade.

Finally, mutuality in our relationship with God means we need space to be able to hear God. At the heart of contemplation is the encounter with God/Holy One/Ground of being (whatever name you wish to use). In today’s lives, taking time out to noursih that mutual relationship is more more important than ever.

From there, we talked about how we organize our priorities and I made some suggestions for incorporating various practices into our daily lives. Fittingly, we ended by stopping our talking and sitting in the silence.

Religious “Persecution” In a Pluralist Society

Yesterday afternoon I delivered the Thirty-Seventh Annual Giannella Memorial Lecture at Villanova University School of Law. Told I could speak on any topic broadly related to law and religion, my topic was What is Religious “Persecution” in a Pluralist Society?

In my talk, I explored the question of how we should think about what we mean by religious persecution in a pluralist society like the United States and whether we should be concerned with the use of the term “persecution” for the kind of issues that have given rise to that label in the United States.

After talking about why I think the term “persecution” is an inappropriate label for many of the instances to which it is applied, I spoke about why I worry about the use of the term “persecution” both with respect to those who utter the words and those who hear them.

My concern is that once someone sees themselves as “persecuted,” their instinctive reaction is to fight and resist. And the fight becomes fierce because a kind of circle the wagon mentality arises and anyone outside that circle is the enemy. And when we are talking in religious terms, the enemy is evil. If I believe I am persecuted, I must fight to defend myself. It is not just that someone disagrees with me, I am being attacked.

The result of language of persecution is demonization of those who disagree. In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss writes,

The myth of persecution is theologically grounded in the division of the world into two parties, one backed by God and the other by Satan. And everyone knows that you cannot reason with the devil. Even when the devil is not explicitly invoked, the rhetoric of persecution suggests that the persecutors are irrational and immoral and the persecuted are innocent and brave. In a world filled with persecution, efforts to negotiate or even reason with one’s persecutors are interpreted as collaboration and moral compromise. We should not attempt to understand the other party, because to do so would be to cede ground to injustice and hatred.

This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about disagreement and is not about dialogue. The response to being ‘under attack’ and “persecuted” is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy war, the same things happens; we have to fight with those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground.

Not surprisingly, this kind of attitude inhibits the ability to find any kind of common ground – indeed, to even acknowledge the possible existence of common ground.

There is also an unfortunate effect on those who hear the words. First, the more the language of religious persecution is used for things that are not really persecution, the greater the danger of trivializing the real persecution that exists. There becomes a real credibility problem that makes it much harder for people to take real threats against religion seriously. There is a bit of the “boy who cried wolf” too many times reaction. Moreover, many people feel that calling the kinds of things I’ve mentioned as examples here “persecution” cheapens and detracts from “real” instances of persecution around the world.

Second, the more language of persecution is used, the more likely it is the opponents of a broad concept of religious freedom will tend to argue that anything short of persecution ought to be acceptable. It makes persecution that which we seek to avoid, rather than claiming a strong positive space for things that fall short of an acceptable definition of persecution.

Third, people accused of persecution are also likely to go into a fight mode, creating the possibility of backlash that results in an even narrower understanding of what constitutes persecution and what kinds of protection ought to be granted on religious grounds.

For both – for both those who claim to be persecuted and those accused of doing the persecution, the language of persecution ratchets up the “crazy” emotion, creating dangerous polarization. Candida Moss calls the language of persecution “discursive napalm, ” dialogue-ending language – and I think there is much truth in her conclusion that “In the political and religious arenas, [abandoning the narrative of persecution] would allow us to find common ground in debates that are currently sharply polarized. Rather than demonizing our opponents, we could try to find points of agreement and work together.”

The failure to do so risks turning some people off to Christianity altogether. That is a sad and unfortunate result – if people view Christians as cry-babies who rant about persecution, our evangelization efforts will falter; people will be much less likely to be able to hear the message of Christ.

The entirety of my remarks will be published in the Villanova Law Review.

The Primary Confessor

One of the books I am currently reading is Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by Fr. Paul Farren. Since even many Catholics who don’t regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation do so during the Lenten season, it seemed a good book to pick up for my flight to Philadelphia yesterday.

Many people view Reconciliation as an unpleasant duty that must be undertaken from time to time, or a required appeasement of a judging God, thinking of it as something that makes God feel better, something we do for God. Something that gets us back into God’s graces.

That misconceives the real nature of the Sacrament. As Fr. Farren observes

The sacrament of Reconciliation is primarily that sacred place and moment when God confesses. The primary confessor in the sacrament is God. What does God confess? God confesses his love, his forgiveness, his gratitude, his confidence, his trust and his belief in us. It is God’s confession that enables us to confess. God’s attitude creates a safe and non-judgmental environment for us to be true to ourselves and to be true to the one who loves us most.

We see the truth of this observation several times in the Gospels.

We see it, for example, in the story of Zacchaeus. Here is Zacchaeus – a short man who couldn’t even see above the crowds. He is unpopular, not what we think of as a good person. This is not someone who was on the guest list of most people’s dinner parties. Most people wanted nothing to do with him. Those who didn’t think he was vile simply thought he was unimportant. But Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house – effectively saying: Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend. And it is Jesus’ greeting Zacchaeus with joy that is the cause of Zacchaeus’ promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated. God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love.

Michael Himes makes the same point when he write that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as the community (in the form of the priest to whom we confess) acknowledges that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”

What we are really asked to do in the sacrament of Reconciliation is to accept the loving embrace of God. To accept that, in Fr. Farren’s words, “God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in God. God believes in us far more than we will ever believe in ourselves.”

Choices That Convey That Women Are Optional

There is no shortage of strong and independent women in the Bible. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, viewed by many as presenting a low view of women, there are numerous stories of courageous women, women who take strong leadership roles and women with independent personalities.

What we hear proclaimed at Catholic Masses however, is not the entire Bible, but only those portions selected for inclusion in the Lectionary (the book from which Mass readings are taken). Thus, choices have to be made about what to include and what to exclude from the Lectionary. And those choices – intentionally or not – convey a message.

What is excluded from the Lectionary conveys to women that they are not important. The Lectionary gives short shrift to many stories of women, including strong women with important accomplishments in our faith history—they are either ignored completely or included only on weekdays and never on Sunday. So we hear nothing ever of Deborah, a prophet and judge of Israel; the Lectionary completely ignores her song of victory. The strong, brave, faith-filled figures of Ruth and Naomi appear only in two weekday readings in every three-year cycle. Courageous Esther gets only one weekday reading. Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection is only one of two possibilities in each cycle for Easter morning, despite the fact that she was the first to see the risen Christ.

In addition, and I was reminded of this in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, the Lectionary makes stories of women (or portions of their stories) included in Gospel passages optional, such that they may be excised to shorten a lengthy Mass reading. Thus, the story of Anna the Prophetess is often excised from the Gospel for the feast of the Presentation. Similarly, Jesus’ healing of the woman with a hemorrhage – such an important image regarding what it says about Jesus attitude toward the taboos that existed at the time – is part of a long passage involving the healing of Jairus’ daughter and is often excised, keeping the focus on the portion of the passage relating to Jairus. In the example of last Sunday, in which Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, the portion where she goes off from her encounter with Jesus – transformed by that encounter – and evangelizes the people of her town is optional. Thus, in the version I heard Sunday morning, we are told simply that many of the Samaritans in the town began to believe in Jesus, rather than that many began to believe in him because of the testimony of the woman.

The examples could go on and on, but they all convey that women are optional and that their stories are less important than those of men. I am not suggesting that is the intention, but the perception created is one that should be of concern.

Just Follow the Simple Instruction

In today’s first Mass reading from the Second Book of Kings, we meet Naaman, an army commander of the King of Aram and a leper. The Israeli girl who is servant to Naaman’s wife reveals that if Naaman presents himself to “the prophet in Samaria,” he will be cured of his leprosy.

When Naaman finally arrives at the home of the prophet Elisha, he is given the message “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”

This advice angers Naaman, who had expected that the prophet “would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy.” He is incensed by the advice to wash in a river that by his estimation is a quite ordinary one. What is so special about the water in Israel that makes it better than the waters of his homeland?

Naaman’s servants argue with him, “if the prophet had told you to do something quite extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.” And so he washes in the Jordan seven times and is healed.

I always cringe a little when I hear this passage because I think we are not so different from Naaman. When it comes to God (and probably not just God), we like big. We like flashy. We like extraordinary. We like heroic acts and big deeds.

When it comes to experiencing God: Come to us in a big flash of lightening or a burning bush, we ask. Do something spectacular and dramatic to get our attention. And sometimes God does. But other times He comes to us in a tiny whisper.

When it comes to our life task: Give us some big deed to do. I think our expectation is that we will find our salvation in the equivalent of walking across the desert or climbing mountains or some other extraordinary or heroic acts. Shouldn’t there be some big, complicated, heroic act that will gain us the prize. Instead God says: Just love. Just be love. Love me. Love one another. Nothing big. Nothing flashy. Just love.

To paraphrase the servants of Naaman: If God had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more now, do as God asks.

Being. Not Wanting, Having or Doing

The other day my friend Richard Burbach posted a wonderful poem by Edwina Gately, titled Let Your God Love you. The poem reads

Be still.
Before your God
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God
Look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God –
Love you.

I was reminded when I read it of something Evelyn Underhill wrote in The Spiritual Life:

We mostly spend [life] conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have and to Do. Craving, clutching and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual, even on the religious plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of the spiritual life.

The essence of the spiritual life is Being. Such a simple statement, yet one we have to be reminded of over and over again.


Two Brothers and Their Demons

Today’s Gospel gives us a familiar tale: Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Many of us have prayed with this passage many times, perhaps doing an Ignatian Contemplation on it. At times we identify with one or the other of the brothers.

Ron Rolheiser, talks about the fact that our hearts are a “murky cauldron of grace and sin, angels and demons” and that to go into the desert, as we do in Lent, means staring in the face our inner demons.

He illustrates the demons we face through the two brothers in the Prodigal Son parable: “the demons of the prodigal son, grandiosity and unbridled sexuality; and the demons of the older son, paranoia and joylessness.” Rolheiser writes

Grandiosity is the demon that tells us that we are the center of the universe, that our lives are more important than those of others. Unbridled sexuality is the demon of obsession, addiction, and lust. Its urge is to bracket everything else – sacred commitment, moral ideal, and personal consequence – for a single, furtive pleasure.

Paranoia is the demon of bitterness, anger, and jealousy. It makes us believe that life has cheated us, that the celebration is always about others, and never about us. This demon fills us with the urge to be cynical, cold, distrustful, and cursing. Finally, the last demon in this family tells us that joylessness is maturity, that cynicism is wisdom, and that bitterness is justice. This is the demon that keeps us from entering the room of celebration and joining the dance.

Rolheiser suggests that each of these demons are inside each one of us. I suspect he is right. Perhaps not to the extent we see them actualized in the two brothers, but at least strains of each.

Can you identify each in yourself? Can you stare your demons in their face?