In moments of crisis, we go back to the basics of our faith
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm
and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught,
either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
I’m struck in today’s readings by the firmness and weightiness that the Scripture authors employ in their language. From the first reading: “We ask you…not to be shaken”; “brothers and sisters, stand firm”. From the psalm: “He has made the world firm, not to be moved.” In the Gospel: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…[you] have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.”
I know exactly why this language stands out to me. Last week, I ended up in the hospital, faced with some difficult health decisions. (I’m okay now!) And, as often happens in moments of crisis, I found myself instinctively reaching for a Rosary, or rattling off decades on my fingers to quiet my anxious thoughts. In recent days, I’ve appreciated how having a loved one in the hospital awakens what I lovingly call the “old church lady” in everyone—friends are calling on the phone (an exceptional feat for us Millennials); acquaintances are offering to drop off dinner (or, in a more modern twist, offering to order us UberEats); Jesuits are saying Masses for us; one Catholic Worker I know stepped away from Maryhouse’s never-ending chores to pray in the chapel; my mom even sent me a Mary medal with a prayer straight out of the 1950s: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” (A quick Google search reveals it’s actually from the 1800s, but you get the point.)
It is probably obvious from my reaction to these things that I am not a traditionalist Catholic. I prefer contemplative prayer to rote; “Here I Am, Lord” to “How Great Thou Art”; Mass in a school gym with felt banners to Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Yet here I was in the hospital, praying with all the “thee”s and “thou”s and thinking, however improbably, maybe I should do a novena. A novena!
I’m struck in today’s readings by the firmness and weightiness that the Scripture authors employ in their language.
What is it about crises that makes so many of us into “old church ladies”? I think it has to do with the “weightiness” alluded to in today’s Scriptures. I’m touched by the line from the first reading: “Hold fast to the traditions you were taught…by an oral statement.” When Pope Francis was first elected, he moved the hearts of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square by leading them in the simple prayers that are the first ones Catholics learn through oral tradition, before we can even read: The Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Glory Be. In times of crises, we go back to these basics. They hold the weight of centuries, which is palpable in their outdated language. They’re a firm hold when everything else is spinning out of control.
But the “weightiness” invoked in the Scriptures describes much more than rote prayers or even “church lady” traditions like dropping off a casserole for someone sick. Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and you have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.”
Ultimately, the traditions that feel weighty—the novenas, the Rosaries—that we turn to because they give us words to say when we don’t have any, can be as empty as the tithes of the scribes and Pharisees. The true weight, which in no way comes at the expense of the traditions but fulfills them, lies in the virtues at their root. It’s not the Hail Mary that matters so much as the faith; not the words of reassurance so much as the hope; not the casseroles or Uber Eats so much as the love.