I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.
This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!
It’s been six years since I read Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” but the experience remains with me. It resonated so deeply with my experience of finding God in the silence of nature, beyond cell signals and wifi, beyond human noise. So many things stood out to me, but this quote in particular seemed noteworthy, because we think of “freedom” as “I get to do whatever I want to do.” We fail to recognize that self-gratification makes us prisoner within a set of chains far more inescapable than the strictures we rail against.
Here’s the larger quote:
It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites. No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person. He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse. Therefore his mind and will are not fully his own. They are under the power of his appetites.
The interesting thing is that the section of Evangelii Gaudium from which I drew both yesterday’s and today’s posts is addressed to preachers. Yet both days resonate really strongly with me as a lay person. I’m guilty of this… are you?
While I was preparing a talk called “Who is my neighbor?” recently, I learned that the Jewish law was laid out as a set of concrete guidelines to explain how it looks, in real world terms, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your heart, your soul, and your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Isn’t that interesting? Jesus is all over people in the Gospels for being too rigid and scrupulous about the Law, and Paul takes it to a whole new level. From that, modern Christians sort of naturally assume the Law was intrinsically flawed. But this made me realize the purpose of the Law was the same as what I’m doing here: to try to connect airy-fairy concepts of the faith to a concrete world.
The problem came when scrupulousness and rigidity about the precepts of the law caused people to judge others rather than love them.
I have two thoughts on this, and they’re kind of contradictory. On the one hand, I think the modern Church suffers from the same scrupulosity as ancient Jews. I know I have. Frankly, I think it’s more common among Catholics than we might think. What is Catholic guilt, if not an overwhelming anxiety to make sure we’re doing things RIGHT? And we judge everyone else for not doing the “right” thing. (Cough-cough-liturgy wars-cough-cough)
On the other hand, we tend not to recognize what the precepts of the faith actually mean in real life. All the big political issues of the day–abortion, guns, health care, immigration, race, etc.–looking at these through the radical call to love unconditionally should make all of us squirm, wherever we fall on the political spectrum. The love of money taking precedence over care of neighbor or creation. And so on. It’s like I said to my boys yesterday morning before school, when they were being nasty to each other: “All the religious formation in the world will do you no good if you can’t figure out what it looks like in real life!”
This is the question I leave us all with for the weekend: if showing love is how people will know I am a follower of Christ, HOW do I show love in this moment, this time, to this person I am encountering?
I spent some time yesterday morning–the first full day of school for all my kids–thinking about faith formation for my oldest child, who has now transitioned to public schools. Not all forms of religious formation are going to serve every kid.
And what does good formation look like? One of the things I talked about in my books for families with young kids is that it’s not just about knowing the what. Is it more important to be able to name the commandments in order, or to know what they are and how they apply in real life?
I don’t know what we’ll end up deciding, but I love the idea set forth in this quote: critical thinking formed by mature moral values. What a fabulous vision to set at the center of one’s educational goals! Critical thinking, to inoculate them from the worst of the manipulation practiced by modern life; mature moral values–not oversimplified ones that can’t stand up to the complexities of real life. I love it.