How did Jesus live the Commandments in his life? How are his 21st-century followers called to live them? Throughout 2007, Every Day Catholic will feature a series of cover articles on the 10 Commandments by award-winning writer Kathy Coffey. 

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Living in Gratitude
By Kathy Coffey

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17).

In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a riff on classical fairy tales, two brothers sing a duet called “Agony.” In Act One, they spill forth their unfulfilled longing—one brother for Cinderella, the other for Rapunzel.

The former has searched all night for the elusive maiden who fled his dance at midnight. The latter is intrigued by the unattainable woman confined to a tower with no doors. In standard folktale style, the obstacles are resolved, the slipper fits, the golden hair provides access to the tower. Both men marry their beloved.

By Act Two, reality sneaks in. The novelty has worn off, and the brothers once again sing “Agony.” This time, they pour out their desire for a maiden with creamy skin and black hair, who sleeps perpetually in a glass coffin, guarded by a stern dwarf. Snow White, because she is unattainable, has become the object of their affections.

The shift not only creates amusing comedy. It also points to a strange, stubborn trait of human nature: We want what we can’t have. This quirk is addressed by both the Ninth and the Tenth Commandments.

These two commandments may puzzle us North Americans today at several levels. Wasn’t it the itch for something more that explored and settled our frontiers, built the transcontinental railroad, discovered penicillin and designed the computer? Don’t our longings for finer homes, education and health care provide a better world for the next generation? And for those aware of gender roles, isn’t a prohibition against coveting the neighbor’s wife an archaic attempt to protect male property rights?


Rooted in Judaism

If we set the commandments in the context of ancient Jewish culture and values, they make more sense. When the tablets were given to Moses, the people were wandering, vulnerable, without land. How would they maintain their identity? Surrounded by larger, more powerful states, the last thing the Hebrews needed was internal division. Lust and greed would create fissures in a community that needed to stay united for their survival.

Commentators have pointed out a unique feature in this community: the ability to be self-critical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets warn the people that unchecked desire takes a terrible toll on the poor. While the sacred texts of other cultures glorify kings and priests, the Old Testament criticizes both government and church leadership. In the same vein, the commandment encourages individuals to examine their own wants and say no to those that are inappropriate.

Such a stance is helpful to us because it encourages appreciating the family we have rather than restlessly seeking someone better. A comfortable cup of coffee on the porch with the spouse may in the long run satisfy more than unrealized longing for Antonio Banderas or Reese Witherspoon. The balding guy who forgives his wife’s imperfections may act from a long history and a deep kindness. The long-familiar wife has developed a tolerance for hubby’s oddities.

The adage says, “Don’t worry about what you don’t get; worry about what you do get.” Gratitude for the riches we have—this spouse, this child, this home, this job, these friends, even these challenges—is the right response to the God who gave them. Without grateful hearts, we look sadly like the cartoon kids surrounded by Christmas gifts, whining for more.

Admiring the Virtues

No matter what we think we lack, we can choose to focus on what we have. Though I may have a broken arm, the rest of me functions fine. In the context of the Ninth Commandment, we may not have the perfect spouse or “significant other.” But instead of focusing on the flaws, we can admire the virtues.

This doesn’t rule out having serious conversation about genuine failings, working at honest communication or making efforts to improve. But most people change for the better only in a positive atmosphere that invites growth.

In some ways, Christians today are as vulnerable as that small group of Jews that coalesced around their commandments. The larger, more powerful culture surrounding us sneers contemptuously at our values. We, like the ancient Hebrews, find strength when we’re united in gratitude—not comparing ourselves to others or endlessly wishing for someone better.

Kathy Coffey, the mother of four, is an editor at Living the Good News in Denver, Colorado. She has won numerous writing awards. Her newest book is The Art of Faith (Twenty-Third Publications, 2007).

Next: The Tenth Commandment

Questions for Reflection:

• What advice would you offer to a newly married man and woman to encourage them in their relationship?

• What does it mean to you to be faithful? How does this affect your family life?

Love That Endures
By Jeanne Hunt

A psychologist once remarked that the average married couple has one wedding and seven marriages. At least seven times in the history of a marriage the partners commit, with the grace of God, to begin a new chapter in their relationship. Marriage is not meant to be stagnant. The relationship is always moving into deeper union or separation. That movement causes couples to reevaluate where they are together.

“Irreconcilable differences” is a term the civil law gives to a broken union. You will hear couples speak about feeling like strangers: He spent all his time at work. She was no longer physically attracted to me. These are symptoms of a deeper problem. Falling in love is a wonderful beginning, but it cannot be sustained through years of ups and downs. Married love grows from that initial sexual and physical high. It is a second love that is rooted in God’s love and offers a steadfast devotion that endures the decades.

When the union is sacramental, a new dimension is added to the marital journey. The grace allows the couple to yield to God who can lift them from pain, loneliness, and sorrow and offer a new beginning for a failing relationship. The choice is up to the couple: to write a new chapter or to close the book.

At these seven times of crisis, the most common temptation is to look for another partner, for one who is “better” than the one we have. The world teaches us that marriages are disposable, that we can trade in one partner for another, more perfect version. Reason, however, tells us that this is folly and that we are just trading one set of problems for another. To covet another is grounded in selfish desire. Catholic marriage is permanent. The covenant vow brings every grace necessary to endure seven or seventy endings and beginnings.

For Family Response:

Observe how TV, magazines, newspapers, etc., present faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Use this awareness as a springboard for discussion with your children.

Media Watch
Bridge to Terabithia
By Frank Frost

After seeing the theater trailer for Bridge to Terabithia I had expected to see a movie filled with animated creatures and special effects. But Bridge to Terabithia is essentially a live-action parable in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web.

Terabithia tells the story of two middle school misfits who discover together the power of imagination to free them from bullies and to discover their true potential. I put it in the parable category, because the many worthwhile lessons it clearly intends to teach are unmistakable.

Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is an eighth-grader who is feeling overwhelmed in a family with four sisters. His financially struggling father is disappointed in him. He tells Jesse to get his head out of the clouds, and wishes he would take an interest in cars instead of drawing. On his first day back at school it is apparent that Jesse will continue to be ridiculed by bullies. Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) is a new girl in his class who becomes an instant outcast as well, bullied by a large, mean-spirited girl named Janice (Lauren Clinton).

As fate would have it, Leslie’s family has just moved in down the road from Jesse, and the two become friends. At Leslie’s urging they risk swinging across a nearby creek on a rope and enter a wild forest complete with an abandoned tree house. On repeated visits to the forest they repair the tree house and, in their imaginations, transform the forest into a magical place where together they can triumph over threatening forces.

Birds and squirrels become attacking beasts, and creaking trees become hulking giants. One amusing fantasy detail is the way the tree giant takes on the facial features of the bully Janice, who then becomes a benign giant when Leslie wins her over in their real world.

Bridge to Terabithia is based on Katherine Paterson’s book, which is very popular in schools. A special feature on the DVD uses interviews with teachers to lay out themes found in the movie: the importance of relationships, the need for tolerance and trust, the power of the imagination, self-identity and finding your own unique place in the world, and dealing with grief.

An interesting production detail is that Katherine Paterson was inspired to write the book as a way to explain grieving to her young son David, when a friend of his was killed, and David Paterson is now serving as the co-writer and co-producer of the movie.

For decades we’ve studied literature in schools, discussing novels and stories to mine their insights. In spite of the fact that movies have become the most consumed literature of our time, we rarely find—in school or elsewhere—structured opportunities to discuss and appreciate films for the art they can be and for the expressions of our common humanity they can provide. With the universal availability of DVDs today, maybe that is beginning to change.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

Blessed Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853)

What is the core work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society? That’s easy: serving the poor. Who is the layman who founded the society two centuries after its namesake lived? A bit tougher: Frédéric Ozanam.

He was born in France amidst the reverberations of revolution. Hostility to the Church and Christianity was intense, and Frédéric engaged in many heated debates about the role of religion as he pursued studies in law at the University of Paris. Those debates led him to the realization that Christians had to do more than talk about their faith. They were called—and he was called—to put faith into action.

Paris was gripped by poverty and squalor. Frédéric and several companions entered a new, gritty world, offering direct help to the poor in the city’s tenements. In 1833, he took the lead in forming a group under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest who had responded to the crying spiritual needs of the peasants of his earlier day.

After finishing his studies in law, Ozanam earned a doctorate in literature and taught at the Sorbonne. As an intellectual, he sought to understand the underlying causes of poverty and to promote the role of the Church in his day. As a committed Christian, he continued his direct service to the poor, whom he saw as “messengers of God to test our justice and our charity….”

Encouraging him in his teaching and his work was his wife, with whom he had one daughter. Frédéric died at age 40. At his funeral, he was described as “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God….”

His feast day is September 8.

Joe Flannigan

Each morning, Joe Flannigan turns to a book of daily reflections to help guide him through the day. The words he reads never fail him, words such as “There are very few for so much work. Our Lord will help you with your labors.”

The book contains the wisdom of some of the men and women who have played key roles in the St. Vincent de Paul Society over the centuries. As national president of the society in the United States (based in St. Louis), Joe welcomes regular reminders that, while the needs of the poor are great, he and his fellow Vincentians are in fact doing God’s work. They do that work through the society’s 4,600 conferences in the U.S. and its 650,000 members in 140 countries around the world.

“As Vincentians we are called to enhance the dignity of the poor, to allow them to fulfill their destiny and to recognize that we are all one. As long as people are suffering, it is our responsibility to respond,” Joe told Every Day Catholic.

A retired marketing executive, he helped to form a local Vincent de Paul Council 16 years ago at his parish in Brunswick, New Jersey. He hasn’t stopped since in his efforts to follow the mission of the society: to serve and befriend the poor and to see the face of Christ in theirs.

Joe’s duties as president keep him on the road and take him to places of power such as Capitol Hill. “Serving the poor also means bringing justice to the poor,” he said, including calling attention to the need for children’s insurance protection, affordable housing for the poor, immigration reform and mental health services for the poor.

In other words, continuing the work Frédéric Oznam began almost 175 years ago.

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