27 Apr 2008
“‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’” (John 14:15) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
The words love and commandments don’t seem like they should fit together all that neatly. Love seems to imply agreement and cooperation, while commandment is more along the lines of: “You have to do this whether you like it or not.” The tension between the two is always present in religion because religion is the fretful union of individual spirituality and institutional communion. Spirituality is our personal sense of who God is and who we’re supposed to be. It’s where we personally find our union with Him and thus our spiritual strength. And just try and tell someone, anyone, that you think, their spirituality, is irregular or questionable,k or imagine someone saying that to you. Just try, for instance, to even tell those families who by force have been taken away from the Yearning for Zion ranch-compound out West, whose children en masse have been put into foster care with strangers because of accusations of systemic physical and sexual abuse, just try and tell them, for all their peculiarities, that their spirituality is at best muddled and at worst destructive. After all they have been through recently, I bet they believe more strongly than they ever did before. Spirituality is a powerful emotion because it’s direct and unmediated. And because of all this people don’t let go easily even if everybody else things they’re crazy.
Then comes along church. An institution. A place of rules. Hierarchy. Tradition. A mediator between God and the faithful. Now all of a sudden that spontaneous and personal union with God has commandments watching over it. For many people this is why religion and spirituality compete rather than cooperate. But if we are tolerant enough to not caricature church just as institution, that she’s only concerned about her own benefit and continuance and not about the spirituality of her members, then maybe we can begin to appreciate Jesus’ words that today combine for us the ideas of love and commandment. Hopefully we can see in church a way to improve and deepen our spirituality.
I was reading in Science Times this past Tuesday that David Blaine, you may have seen some of his TV specials, he’s a street magician, will be on the Oprah Winfrey Show Wednesday. He’s planning to break the world duration record for holding your breath. He’s going through a lot of training to do this. He plans to go without breathing for over 16 minutes. What I was surprised about in the article, is that when you hold your breath, after a very short while, you feel that pressure building up in your chest. You’d think it was because of the lack of oxygen, but it’s really the build-up of carbon-dioxide, the stuff you expel as you exhale. Try it - after church. Hold your breath and then watch that the first thing your body requires when you quit is to exhale, not inhale. We’re getting rid of the bad first to then make room for the good.
I think that’s the way we need to look at Jesus’ connection of love and commandment, or if I can phrase it a bit differently, of spirituality and institution. Spirituality is profoundly personal, but it can also be profoundly off-base. Since it’s current, let me again use the example of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. As the women were being transported by bus one of them held up a sign to the bus window that said: “SOS. Mothers separated. Help.” I think we can all understand the anguish of a mother and child being separated, but this same group of people expels their older sons to find their own way in the world, a world for which they are not in the slightest bit prepared. They have to do this because of polygamy. One man has many wives. Therefore, you have to have more girls than boys on the ranch. How they managed to do this is by dumping the boys, just got rid of them. When you have a fundamental disconnect like “SOS. Mothers separated. Help” and throwing their boys away, then something’s wrong with that kind of spirituality. It then becomes the purpose of the institution to point out that this needs to be re-thought, that somewhere and somehow spirituality got sidetracked and knocked off course. Just like we need to expel the carbon-dioxide before we can inhale the oxygen, it becomes the purpose of the institution to remove the bad so that we can then concentrate on the good.
I’ve already forgotten who said it, but I remember the punch-line: “I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.” It sounds like something the comedian Steve Wright would say with his eccentric logic. But anyway, the lesson is still there: We should work toward our goal as directly as possible. Being a vegetarian may be indirectly helpful to animals, but it directly does a job on plants. The goal of faith is a loving, personal union with God, and sometimes it takes the rules of the church to get us there as directly as possible. Sometimes it takes the entirety of the experience, inspiration and community of the church to guide our own individual spirituality, sometimes it takes all this to convince someone to consider the need for spiritual guidance.
Jesus didn’t only talk about commandments for their sake alone. He purposely linked love and commandments together. For just as we can point out the problems of the spirituality of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, we could just as easily point out that it is an institutional church that sanctioned it in the first place. That particular church got lost. Any church as an institution has to have Christian love as her single, most-important priority. Church isn’t only about figuratively exhaling the bad; it is about getting to the good as directly as possible. The moment any church loses sight of how her commandments, institutions, traditions and rules are based on Christian love, that is the moment that church loses her authority as a spiritual guide.
This is why Jesus links together those seemingly opposing ideas of love and commandment. Neither one alone is sufficient. They work as checks and balance for each other, and only together can they work to bring us to God. And for this working union of love and commandment, of spirituality and institution, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)