Saturday, August 29, 2009


(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The readings we hear today invite us into a reflection on religious observance. Now this is an old-fashioned term, ‘religious observance.’ Nowadays people like to talk about ‘spiritual practice.’ But whatever we call it, we’re talking about the practices that we perform and the day-to-day habits we work on in trying to enshrine spiritual values in our lives. It’s all the stuff that we do with the specific goal of the worship of God and as a response to God’s loving initiative in our lives. In short it’s our religion. Indeed, one possible etymology of the word “religion” suggests that it derives from the Latin verb ligo, which means to tie or bind something. Acts of religion, religious observance, spiritual practice, these are all ways of talking about deliberate, concrete behaviors to which we bind ourselves so as to tie our lives more closely to the God we adore.

It seems to me that the Sacred Scriptures today help us to reflect on three points with this. First, why we observe religion; that is, the question of motivation. Second, what it is we ought to practice. Third, how we can discern, review, and judge our own religious habits or spiritual practices.

The first reading from the book of Deuteronomy addresses the question of why. Moses introduces God’s Law to the people, explaining to them that by observing it, they will give evidence of their wisdom, intelligence, and intimacy with God. Now you only have to look at the newspaper to see or go out into the streets to see how sorely wisdom and intelligence are lacking in our world. It’s because people have forgotten about the Source of Wisdom and Intelligence whom we call God. So by observing religion and doing our daily spiritual practice, we are serving not only ourselves but the world; we are missionary witnesses to the Truth—the truth of itself about which the world has forgotten.

Given this motivation, we are ready to renew or embark on habits of religion and spiritual practice. But what should we do? Exactly what will we observe? This can be a very delicate question, and it brings us to the gospel for the second point. Jesus and his disciples are attacked for the failure to observe. But are they attacked for failing to observe the Jewish Law? No; it’s the so-called “tradition of the elders” that they don’t observe. There’s the problem. These particular Scribes and Pharisees—at least according to St. Mark—were teaching their particular traditional practice as if it were the Tradition, which it wasn’t. This sort of thing goes on among religious people to this day. In Catholic Christianity we have a deposit of Sacred Tradition that is immensely rich, and full of many different spiritual practices and styles. But many times someone will find the little strain of the Tradition that works well for them, and then begin to teach it as if it were the Tradition itself. So you get one person who says that you’re not really praying unless you say the Divine Mercy chaplet every day at three in the afternoon. One says that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the only one worth offering, while another says that only the Ordinary Form is correct. If they’re real spiritual snobs they might say that contemplation is the only real prayer. And though all of these practices are beautiful and holy and dear to God, this line of argument is completely false and dangerous. Prayer is close to the heart and thus close to the temperament of the individual. In other words, there are lots of ways to pray in the tradition because we are the ‘catholic’ or universal Church, and there’s room for everybody. So pray in whatever way you are attracted, and be grateful—for this is the Holy Spirit within you.

The third point is about reviewing and judging our religious habits and our spiritual practice. This is important to do—if the gospels teach us anything about religion, it’s that it can go very wrong. So we always need to step back from time to time and examine ourselves as practitioners of the faith. But here’s the trick: we can’t evaluate our practice of religion by looking at the practice itself. Just because we attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and offer our prayers each day doesn’t mean we’re all set. To evaluate our personal—or even communal—practice of religion, we need to look at what comes out of our heart the rest of the time. Jesus lists for us all the evil that proceeds from our hearts: theft, unchastity, greed, arrogance, envy, deceit, and all the rest. If our hearts continue to produce all of these unabated, then our prayer and practice aren’t working. If we notice our hearts becoming more patient, gentle, chaste, and forgiving, then we know our spiritual practice is working by drawing is further into God. This is why we don’t judge the holiness of our religious observance by the observance itself, but by who we are during the remainder of the ordinary moments, relationships, and interactions of our days.

So let us take up the solid, spiritual food of the tried and true spiritual practice of the Catholic Tradition, and let us watch our hearts so as to rejoice to see how it puts us on the path to sanctity in this life and sainthood in the next.

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