Rules have their place in religion—but we need zeal to be fully human

Pope Francis laughs with a woman at the Vatican July 6. A new book offers insight into the pope's philosophy of communication. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

If you are looking for a luncheon recommendation when dining in Ellinwood, Kan., I heartily recommend the Saint Joseph’s Catholic School cafeteria. I do lunch there quite a bit. There is a wide variety of baked goods, and the cooks are always experimenting. I recommend the baked and breaded peppers or the squash soup, which they were offering to the students on a past Lenten Friday.

The clientele is varied. At the eighth-grade table, I recently joined a vigorous debate on the relative merits of Harry Potter versus The Lord of the Rings. And, if you are curious to see how many ways food can be eaten without the aid of cutlery, try the third-grade girls. Their ham sandwich sans pain is remarkable.

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Recently, Marcie, the kindergarten and first-grade aide, was absent. I only join the kindergarten students for after-lunch conversation, as my presence seems unduly to slow their meal. But, with Marcie absent, I opted to take her seat at the first-grade table. Remi, who was sitting across from me, immediately informed me that St. Andrew was kicking Buster’s shins under the table.

There is a sharp contrast between the Ten Commandments and the zeal that comes over Jesus in the Gospel of John.

I suggested that St. Andrew not kick Buster’s shins, as they were delicate. Buster asked what delicate meant.

“Easily harmed.”

Buster asked what “harmed” meant.

You know what “harm” means.

Buster then pulled his shirt up, over his belly, revealing a rotund armature. “I’m not delicate. I’m well padded.”

Just then a girl walked by my seat at the end of the table and asked if she could have a second milk. “Sure, why not?”

Only a fool thinks that every desirable action is life-giving and that nothing should ever curtail individual decision.

“You have to write it down!” Remi, sitting across from me, intervened.

“Write it down?”

He fetched a clipboard from a nearby shelf. “Mark it down that she got a second milk.”

“What do I write?”

Remi was patient but a bit perplexed at my ignorance. “Put an ‘M’ in front of her name.”

Just then Mrs. Coleman, the teacher assigned to the lunchroom that day, stepped over and thanked me for taking Marcie’s place. I had had no intention of taking Marcie’s place, but why eschew gratitude? Besides, by then, more and more students were coming by, requesting second milks.

St. Andrew then reported that his straw had malfunctioned, necessitating his drinking his milk directly from the carton. I advised caution but to no effect. Clipboard still in hand, I fetched a towel from the kitchen for clean-up.

A fulfilled human life requires more than avoiding evil. It needs to evidence a zeal for the good.

With all this activity, two fish sticks were still on my plate. Buster’s try was immaculate. He asked if I was going to eat them.

“Did you want them?”

“No, I want more than that, and I want my own. Can I go for seconds?”

There is a sharp contrast between the Ten Commandments, presented to us in Exodus, and the zeal that comes over Jesus in the Gospel of John. But do not draw the disparity between the Old and New Testaments—or religions, for that matter. It is more foundational than religion, a division within the ranks of our humanity itself. It is a fault line between those who must be prodded and those who push. Sometimes the fissure runs within ourselves, depending upon the part of life under consideration.

Prodding has its place, just as the Ten Commandments have a role in our religion. We need to be told and told clearly that some actions are not life-giving and must be shunned if we wish to live life at its best. Governments and religions often tell us what we should not do, under pain of law or sin. We can debate individual injunctions, but only a fool thinks that every desirable action is life-giving and that nothing should ever curtail individual decision.

If you want an adjective that comes close to capturing the Third Person of the Trinity, try “creative.”

So what might be called the prodding of commandments and laws has its place in our lives, but a fulfilled human life requires more than avoiding evil. It needs to evidence a zeal for the good. Indeed, living a moral life is much more about asking what should be done than simply noting how we have successfully avoided what should not be done.

For example: It is a good idea to read the Ten Commandments in preparation for confession. It is an even better idea to add the Beatitudes. Avoiding that which is truly inhuman is half of what it means to be human. Seeking out that which expands our humanity is what it means to be a happy, fulfilled person.

Avoiding sin requires clarity, in commandment and in conscience. That is sometimes a challenge to achieve. But zeal for the good requires real creativity. We do not list that as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but a synonym for creativity—inspiration—reveals the role of the Spirit in our lives. We certainly have no adequate picture of the Holy Spirit, but if you want an adjective that comes close to capturing the Third Person of the Trinity, try “creative.”

Our world is like a school cafeteria. It needs rules. You want an extra milk? We have got to write it down. If you are coming from the kitchen, you use that door; if you going to the kitchen, you use the other. Rules protect life, but they do not enhance it. And the very nature of human life is its constant need to be enhanced, to expand and to become more of itself each day, with each generation. For that, we need zeal. So if someone hands you a clipboard, don’t just stand there.

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 John 2:13-25

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Nora Bolcon
7 months 3 weeks ago

I really enjoyed this article. It took a while living my life like a boat with no oars to realize how unhappy such a life style is. For me it's total gospels. I love the whole Bible but it is the gospels that I can find no flaw in any teaching. Love God above all else and treat all people the same and the same as i want to be treated works. Living by he Gospels makes my life work and makes life joyous.

Dan Acosta
7 months 3 weeks ago

Father Klein, this reflection on rules and zeal caused me to stop and think. In 1 Cornthians 3:1-3, St Paul tells us why rules are important: "Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh. While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving in an ordinary human way?"

There came a wonderful moment in the raising of our four children when the lightbulb came on in their brains and each child looked beyond the rules their mother and I imposed discovered the depth of our love for them implied in those rules. When they experienced that "aha" moment, the rules took on a new meaning for them, and our enforcement of those rules was no longer necessary. They had gone from milk to meat. Too many fallen-away Catholics have left that religious/spiritual childhood (and the Church) because they misunderstood the rigor of having to chew their food and resented their weaning from the breast. Jesus's zeal for His Father's house and the Beatitudes are pretty chewy nutrition indeed. Thank you!

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