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Bible Reflections View Comments

Rules, Rituals, and Relationships
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, September 2, 2012
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A friend who grew up in an extended farm family tells the story of a Sunday morning when his uncle and cousins were leaving for church and their neighbor had an emergency involving a broken fence and escaping cows. His uncle’s response was, “We can’t help you right now. We have to go to Mass.” Their fear of committing a mortal sin by missing Mass that day led them to ignore the needs of their neighbor, who lost thirteen cows that day.

 Any society, religious or secular, needs rules to survive and to thrive. But when the rules become ends in themselves, more important than the people involved, they can do more harm than good. Religious rules and rituals can easily cross a line to something akin to magical gestures. Something deep-seated in the human psyche seems to hearken back to primitive beliefs that a god could be controlled by an exact series of words and gestures.

The early Hebrews were surrounded by cultures who relied on ritual to placate distant gods. The covenant with the one God was a far different thing, an intimate relationship between God and the people of Israel. Moses’s exhortation to the people to follow the Lord’s commands is clearly rooted in this covenant relationship. The commandments flow out of and nurture that relationship. If we are in right relationship with God, we will also be in right relationship with one another.

By the time of Jesus, Moses’s command to carefully observe the commandment had been distorted into restrictive rules and rubrics. This in spite of Moses telling them not to add to the commandments he was giving them. Rabbis over the centuries referred to this as “putting a fence around the Torah.” By observing a growing number of rituals in order to avoid small sins, the people were less likely to commit any major sin against the commandments.

The intention here is certainly a worthy one. We see something of it in Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, when, for example, he counsels against anger as a way of avoiding murder. But too often the minor rules had more to do with merely external gestures than with a change of heart.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that a clean heart is more important than clean hands. And he reminds them that Isaiah and the other prophets warned against claiming divine authority for merely human rules and precepts. Keeping a strict set of rules can be far easier than dealing with the messiness inevitable in human life and relationships. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to make decisions, we don’t have to take any personal responsibility for consequences. We rely on someone else telling us, “Do this. Don’t do that.”

Our Catholic culture has certainly gone through periods of strict rulekeeping through the centuries. But when those rules allow us to hold ourselves apart from the suffering of another person, we have to ask ourselves if this is what Jesus intended. At the heart of the Gospel message is the command to love God and neighbor. No rule or ritual is more important than that. We need to keep this in mind when faced with difficult decisions in our own lives.


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Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi: Mystical ecstasy is the elevation of the spirit to God in such a way that the person is aware of this union with God while both internal and external senses are detached from the sensible world. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi was so generously given this special gift of God that she is called the "ecstatic saint." 
<p>She was born into a noble family in Florence in 1566. The normal course would have been for Catherine de' Pazzi to have married wealth and enjoyed comfort, but she chose to follow her own path. At nine she learned to meditate from the family confessor. She made her first Communion at the then-early age of 10 and made a vow of virginity one month later. When 16, she entered the Carmelite convent in Florence because she could receive Communion daily there. </p><p>Catherine had taken the name Mary Magdalene and had been a novice for a year when she became critically ill. Death seemed near so her superiors let her make her profession of vows from a cot in the chapel in a private ceremony. Immediately after, she fell into an ecstasy that lasted about two hours. This was repeated after Communion on the following 40 mornings. These ecstasies were rich experiences of union with God and contained marvelous insights into divine truths. </p><p>As a safeguard against deception and to preserve the revelations, her confessor asked Mary Magdalene to dictate her experiences to sister secretaries. Over the next six years, five large volumes were filled. The first three books record ecstasies from May of 1584 through Pentecost week the following year. This week was a preparation for a severe five-year trial. The fourth book records that trial and the fifth is a collection of letters concerning reform and renewal. Another book, <i>Admonitions</i>, is a collection of her sayings arising from her experiences in the formation of women religious. </p><p>The extraordinary was ordinary for this saint. She read the thoughts of others and predicted future events. During her lifetime, she appeared to several persons in distant places and cured a number of sick people. </p><p>It would be easy to dwell on the ecstasies and pretend that Mary Magdalene only had spiritual highs. This is far from true. It seems that God permitted her this special closeness to prepare her for the five years of desolation that followed when she experienced spiritual dryness. She was plunged into a state of darkness in which she saw nothing but what was horrible in herself and all around her. She had violent temptations and endured great physical suffering. She died in 1607 at 41, and was canonized in 1669.</p> American Catholic Blog Lord, keep me in your care. Guard me in my actions. Teach me to love, and help me to turn to you throughout the day. The world is filled with temptations. As I move through my day, keep me close. May those I encounter feel your loving presence. Lord, be the work of my hands and my heart. Amen.

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