When we live and work in close quarters, we are bound to rub elbows with other people. Usually during the cold and flu season, the literal sort of elbow rubbing limits the transfer of harmful bacteria and not-as-harmful cooties, by avoiding the shaking of hands. Rubbing elbows may lack the personal and robust features of an honest-to-goodness handshake, but the intention is commendable, and the execution is reliable and effective. And it is often also accompanied by an awkward but warm smile and lots of kind words and well wishes for a swift and relatively pain-free recovery. In contrast the figurative sort of elbow rubbing is often not pleasant at all. Although it is seldom done with premeditation, when it does happen it is often an impulsive act, and some unfortunate unsuspecting soul is left emotionally injured or spiritually scarred.
We possess a most terrible and awful power to wound and inflict damage upon the human spirit. It takes no more than an unkind word or a critical attitude sometimes to disregard a person’s worth. And the closer the connection or relationship we have with another, the more vicious, destructive, and hateful the harm we are capable of inflicting. In a moment of frenzied rage and misery, we are likely to forget that mutual love and friendship will expose our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to others, and theirs to us. And when we bear malice and resentment in our hearts, the urge to use their vulnerabilities and weaknesses against them will be difficult to avoid.
The choice to be gentle, kind, accommodating, and forgiving with the people we live and work in close quarters does not always come naturally. It must be learned. And it is learned best from those who live it well. Children are always listening and watching, but often not for the things we hope. And actions will always speak louder than words. So people who are unappreciative and ungrateful will likely teach others by their words and actions to also be unappreciative and ungrateful. And people who are vicious, demeaning, and intolerant will teach others by their words and actions to also be vicious, demeaning, and intolerant. When we carelessly wield our terrifying and awful power to hurt and destroy the human spirit, those we potentially hurt the most will be those with whom we live and work in close quarters. So it is important that we employ more frequently and intentionally that otherwise terrific and awesome power we also possess that instead nurtures, strengthens, and heals the human spirit.
St. Paul points out to the Christians in Corinth that there is a wisdom that eludes the powerful, wealthy, influential people of this age who seem unable to penetrate the depths of God. This wisdom concerns our salvation which comes about only through Jesus Christ. They did not believe him. They did not listen to his teachings. They closed their minds to the powerful signs that he accomplished among them, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving hope to the poor, raising the dead. He clashed with those for whom the Law of Moses was regarded the height of God’s revelation. They built their religious observance around it. They built their civic life around it. They weaponized it against everyone else whom God was inviting to a richer and fuller life of grace.
Now even the passage from the book of Sirach, written a few generations before Jesus, already hinted at a greater mystery beyond the Law itself. Unfortunately, it is often easier and more convenient to recede into a more literal observance. But the Law is clearly not God. God is the Giver of the Law who beckons his people to a covenant relationship that surpasses the mere observance of rules and precepts. When Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his time, he would often point out their hypocrisy, their inability to see the heart of God’s instruction laid out in the Law.
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The word “righteousness” encompasses the totality of what allows a person to stand blameless before God. The scribes and Pharisees, and those who advocated the strict and literal observance of the Law conveniently used the authority enshrined within the Law itself to bolster their thinking. And Jesus challenged them to dive deeper, deeper into the mystery of God’s mind and heart, to that which will potentially transform literal observers of the Law into partners in covenant and heirs with him to the life of grace. We instruct children and those whose understanding is immature to adhere to a more literal observance of rules and precepts. But seeing with the eyes of God and listening attentively to the voice of the Holy Spirit enables the human mind to penetrate mystery, to achieve that wisdom that is not of this age.
So when Jesus gave us the greatest commandment, that we love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves, he was inviting us beyond a literal observance of rules and precepts into a living, healing, nourishing life of grace. While we ultimately desire for our children a life of freedom and all manner of success filled with abundant opportunity and blessing, we still need them to learn their letters and numbers, how to read and write, how to be respectful, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ to learn cooperation and effective communication, to gain self-confidence and be able to defend their opinions and choices. It’s an uphill climb they will resist at first, losing focus and perspective. But once they acquire experience and insight, they are no longer hindered by a mere literal observance.
Our family life here at St. John the Evangelist church is a composite of many customs and practices. We observe the universal laws of the Catholic church enshrined in the Catechism and Canon Law. We follow sets of rules and precepts laid down by the US Conference of Bishops and our own bishop in Richmond. We follow certain customs and practices particular to our own parish in order to promote order and harmony. But none of these laws, rules, precepts, customs, and practices of themselves necessarily draw us closer to the heart and mind of God unless we dive deeper and enter the mystery and grasp the wisdom that God alone can give.
As our family life at home is built upon layers and levels of laws, rules, precepts, customs, and practices, the gold standard is still and always will be a joyful, respectful, compassionate, supportive, nurturing, forgiving, and faithful relationship between loving persons regardless of our differences and our disagreements. Such is also the bond that unites us all who claim this church community. We are not mere consumers of religious products and services. We are not mere members of some religious club or society. Rather we are members one of another, a family with God as our head, and each other as sisters and brothers brought together in mutual love and fidelity.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020