The Wisdom of the Father
Respect Life Sunday, 2012
What comes to your mind when ‘Respect Life Sunday’ arrives as it does this time each year? What sort of associations do you make? What sort of feelings rise to the surface? Do you consider it a time for peaceful contemplation; or is it — as it is for a lot of folks — an occasion for conflict and dispute? Are you inclined to take an attitude of openness and affection toward other Catholics, and toward your fellow Americans; or does your stomach tie itself in a knot in anticipation of encounters that will tax your ability to show respect for others and which will lead you to feel disrespected? Do you ever find yourself wondering, as I do, why respect is in such short supply on ‘Respect Life Sunday’?
I suppose that if it weren’t for the social dysfunction in our country, and the social dysfunction in our Church, this day might be a time for conversation. A time for conversation and a time, perhaps, for conversion as well. If you would allow me this flight of fancy, I would like to suggest what sort of path a discussion of life issues might follow if we lived in a world where conversation actually was possible.
Imagine, if you can, speaking with people who weren’t afflicted with a desperate need to be right. Imagine, further, that you yourself possessed a tranquility of mind that enabled you to prefer a discussion where learning was painless to an argument that enabled you to vanquish those with a differing view. In other words, imagine you lived in a world where it were possible for people to share their thoughts about respect in a respectful way.
I have a thought which I invite you to consider respectfully and that is that the message of respect for life, and the message of social justice, and the message of Christ’s gospel, and the message that God wishes to reveal to you personally, so that your own heart can be healed are, in fact, all the very same message. The message is a divine message. It is the glorious wisdom of the Father; and it is a wisdom, to quote Isaiah, “as high above the wisdom of men as the heavens are high above the earth”.
God operates in a different way than we operate. God makes sense of things in a different way than we make sense of things. God teaches in a different way than we teach and those who learn from God have an experience far different from those who try to learn from us.
Certainly you are aware of the people who need to do a better job of respecting life than they’re doing. Your desire to assist others who might benefit from learning things you already know is, no doubt, coming from a place of kindness and generosity in you. By all means share your wisdom with others, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about sharing your wisdom with those who need it.
The wrong way, I believe, is to compile a list of things one must do, and a list of things one must refrain from doing in order to respect life. Some Catholics are attempting to compile lists that are sufficiently clear, and sufficiently comprehensive to convey the lessons of respecting life. From that list of good and bad behaviors – which is, of course, only an outward manifestation of a respect for life – those who are learning respect for life can be given, or can be promised a reward for doing the things that show respect for life. Similarly, those who are learning could be given, or be threatened with punishment when they neglect to do as they must to respect life. Once we are committed to this style of teaching respect we will naturally condemn those who do what those who respect life must not do and praise those who refrain from doing those things.
The problem with this strategy is it simply doesn’t work; but the fact that it doesn’t work never seems to dissuade some from trying the same strategy over and over. The reason the strategy fails is not because the lists of do’s and don’ts are incorrect. Tweaking the list isn’t going to solve the problem. The problem is that when one attempts to use the techniques of men to transmit the wisdom of God distortion and confusion are inevitable.
I have long believed that God has only one commandment and it’s a commandment issued to all of creation. That commandment is, “Be joyful!”. In Latin, the word is ‘Gaudete’ which is more like, “Y’all be joyful!” or “Be joyful together!” The Pro-Life message, the message of respect, the teaching of social justice emanates from the Father. It is not a human invention. If it were human, it could be properly passed along using the human method of teaching — which is the method of ‘reward and punishment’, the method of ‘behavioral modification’, the method of ’operant conditioning’. But it’s not a human invention, it’s an expression of God’s glory; and, because it is from God, it can only be shared in methods consistent with God’s kindness and mercy. And, because it is from God, it contains, at its core, the commandment to be joyful.
If you receive God’s message of life, and accept that message, your heart will be filled with joy. On the other hand, if you mishandle God’s message and attempt to promote it using the human ways that are as far beneath God’s ways as the earth is beneath the heavens, your message will be joyless. If you come to understand God’s message of life by exchanging your stony heart for a heart of flesh, your thoughts really will be God’s thoughts and you really will understand life as God wants you to understand it. Of course, to do this, you will have to notice that your heart really is stony. You have to notice it, and you have to admit it before God. In other words, you have to repent. The unrepentant, after all, are the ones who “look and look but never see and listen and listen but never hear.” Those who try to understand God’s message of life without first changing their thinking are going to think themselves into more darkness than they began with.
Life comes from God, and the understanding of life comes from God as well. God has given us the responsibility to learn to respect life, but we wouldn’t even know what God meant if we tried to understand his precepts with our faulty human thinking. It is wise for us, as we come to respect life, to also respect how impossible it is to understand using our own ‘human thoughts’. Once we respect our human limitations, we might better be able to respect how difficult things are for those who are still trying to make sense of God’s message with their old way of thinking.