Dear Donagh,

…. At this stage of my life I'm fed up with all the rules and regulations in the Catholic church and I can't take it anymore.  I decided I'm going to become a zen buddist. They don’t have any rules, they just meditate.  When I was in school religion was just the ten commandments, there was little or nothing about love, and absolutely nothing about meditation.  Will the church ever be free of rules and just teach meditation and love?  Clare

Dear Clare,

A friend told me about a friend of his who was repairing the roof of his brother’s house when the ladder slipped and he fell to the ground.  As he lay there, badly injured but conscious, his 4-year-old nephew ran up to him and said, “It’s all right, uncle Tom.  I won't tell anyone!” 

The first stage of moral development in a child is a rigid adherence to external rules.  I'm afraid the approach to morality in the Catholic Church, particularly in the last few hundred years, attempted to keep us in a state of moral infancy.  Times out of number I've seen grown men and women agonise over trifles, while being perfectly blind to serious matters like forgiveness, peace-making, and love.  The moral theologian Seán Fagan remarked that in matters of morality adults were treated like children, while in matters of doctrine children were treated as if they were adults.  So yes, Clare, I agree that our house is not in order.  Perhaps it never was and never will be.  It seems instead to be a never-ending process of going bald-headed for something while leaving other essential things behind; then having to recover what was left behind; then running once again with something that is not the whole story.  It’s rather like walking.

There are far fewer rules and regulations in evidence today than there were fifty years ago.  Why do you pick the present moment to give up on it?  It seems to me to be a very exciting and challenging time, full of hope.  The Catholic Church has the theological resources to pull itself out of the ruts it gets itself into.  When people are talking rules and regulations you can point out that the Ten Commandments are from the Jewish faith, not the Gospel. (In fact the ten are just a selection of 613 commandments in the Old Testament.)  Jesus did not set those Ten Commandments aside; they are basic human morality.  But when he spoke from himself he spoke of a new commandment of love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). The story was often lost in the telling, but it wasn’t lost on everyone.  There is a passage in Aquinas that for many years has seemed to me the most startling and the most profound thing written by a theologian on moral theology: “What is central in the law of the New Testament, and on which all its power is based, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” (Summa Theologiae I-II, 106, 1)

Here’s a big puzzle.  You can be commanded to obey, to behave this way or that; but how can you be commanded to love?  External behaviour is subject to external rules, but how can the inner movement of our spirit be commanded? Can you be commanded to remember, or to forget, or to feel…? How can you be commanded to love?  Meister Eckhart provided a key insight. The command to love, he said, is not an external command but an inner one; it is an inner drive and urgency of our being. In "commanding" us to love, Jesus is telling us to look, to see our true nature and to follow it. It is like the inner urgency to eat when you are hungry, to drink when you are thirsty. "When I am thirsty, the drink commands me; when I am hungry, the food commands me. And God does the same. He commands me to such sweetness that the whole world cannot equal. And if a person has once tasted this sweetness, then indeed he can no more turn away with his love from goodness and from God, than God can turn away from His Godhead."
All that seems very far from rules and regulations.  To sum up: when something becomes deep in us, it is no longer a rule or regulation; you could say it is a law – in the sense that it is the law of our being.  It is not somebody standing over us with a rule-book.  It is the truth of what we are. 

If you are looking to escape from rules I'm afraid becoming a Buddhist won't help you. (By the way, you should start by spelling the name right. And don’t begrudge them a capital B.)  They have the Precepts – any number you want.  There are rules and regulations in every religion.  The question is how they come to bear on you and how you experience them.  For example, anyone learning a skill is quite happy to hear all the rules in the world. The skill in question is love.  What we all hate is being bossed by heartless or stupid people.  These too are widely available in every religion. 

By the way, you don’t have to become a Buddhist in order to learn things of great value from them.  In fact Buddhists are unlikely to encourage you to become a Buddhist; they do not proselytise as Christians and Muslims do.  I am grateful beyond words for what I received in Zen, but I wouldn’t go annoying Buddhists by letting on to be one of them.  Don’t cut your own roots; nothing good would come of that.  Jump into the deep end of your own religion.  It’s only at that end of the pool that you can see something of what Buddhists are about. 

Good luck, Clare.  God bless.

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