Sunday, August 07, 2011

To Save Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks

I have been thinking lately about an occasion on which a friend in the Charismatic movement decried the rules and conditions attached to novenas, the gaining of indulgences, the practice of pious disciplines, etc., and the alleged tendency on the part of many people to get so caught up in these rules as to deprive themselves of peace of mind and freedom of spirit.  Some relief was expressed over the fact that many of these rules have been abandoned over recent decades.

Naturally, I objected, and registered my protest.  I admit to being of a legalistic bent -- it is no accident that I became a lawyer.  But although I have previously decried, in this space, the tyranny of petty rules and regulations, the question of religious disciplines and devotions does not come under the category of petty rules.  Rules that help us in the primary business of our lives on earth -- gaining heaven -- cannot possibly be thought of as petty.  In fact, I submit that Catholics who would like to do away with rules and disciplines in the Church come dangerously close to courting a parsimonious, judgmental spirit that may one day lead them out of the Church altogether.

It would be wonderful if we were all so mature in our faith as to be able to fly straight to God like an eagle flying up to the sun, instead of needing signposts and guides and road markings and other things that assure us that we are on the right path.  But Jesus knew better when He instituted the Church, and gave her the power to make rules in His name.  These rules are not bludgeons against charity; they are the product of charity.  They are tutors.  They help us to love God in the way He wants to be loved.  They help us to persevere in prayer.  For some, they help to make up for a lack of childhood formation.  They make it clear whether or not we have attained some spiritual goal for which we have striven, such as the gaining of an indulgence.  (Some Catholics, by the way, are in the unexamined habit of conceding that Martin Luther was right about indulgences, forgetting -- if they ever knew -- that he opposed not merely the sale of indulgences but indulgences themselves, which violates the teaching of the Church.)  In short, the rules are teachers, helpers and supports.  They are a means by which God not only meets us halfway, but actually stoops all the way down to us in our littleness.

There are those who think that obedience to rules is a bad reason for ever doing anything for God's sake, and that if we are going to pray or attend Mass or use the Sacraments, it is worthless unless we do so in a spirit and with a feeling of joyful generosity.  The ultimate end of such thinking is the belief that it is wrong to require Catholics to attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, or to receive Holy Communion or go to confession at least once a year.  I submit that this view is not only foolhardy but opposed to generosity.  The inescapable facts are that we still suffer the effects of original sin, and therefore most of us will not do what we ought to do unless we are required to.  For proof, one need look no farther than the effective abolition of Friday penances.  If we have the choice whether to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, then most of us will not do it.  I did not do it until I entered the Order of Preachers, in which year-round Friday abstention is still practiced.  Nor can the case be made that the world is a better place for the failure of Catholics to observe disciplines.  This is probably one of the reasons why the bishops of England and Wales are bringing back mandatory abstention on every Friday of the year.

But those who don't like obedience are overlooking one very important thing: God does like obedience.  Ask any faithful priest or religious, in whose lives obedience is central.  St. Faustina teaches that the tiniest acts stamped with the seal of obedience are of immense value in God's eyes.  And most of us ought to know from experience that most of the time, God wants us to labor in obedience in order to train us up in the will to do His will.  Good feelings about doing things for His sake are a pure gratuity that He grants or withholds at His good pleasure, and so it is a mistake to judge the quality of good acts based on their presence or absence.  Merit lies, not in our feelings, but in our will.  And our will, tainted by the effects of original sin, needs training.  Hence rules.

Rules consistent with the Gospel and made in charity uphold the weak.  For some people -- maybe many or even most people -- obedience to rules is all they have to keep them on the straight and narrow.  Far be it from anyone to judge the quality of their love for God, or to take away their only support during hard times.  To abolish the rules is not freedom.  It is not mercy.  It is in fact an act of brutality.  It is the breaking off of bruised reeds, and the quenching of smoldering wicks.  God save us from those who want to "save" us from rules.

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