[Justified by law?]

Dear Donagh,

…. When I was growing up in the 1950s we knew how to behave as children.  Parents and teachers told us what we could and couldn’t do.  There were rules for everything.  Now it seems there are no rules at all and children can do whatever they like.  Why am I writing to  you about this?  Because I think the priests never mention any rules either.  There used to be rules for fasting and abstinence, there used to be the Six Precepts of the Church which I haven't heard a word about in 50 years or more.  We don’t even hear about the Ten Commandments now.  Is it any wonder that children don’t obey any rules when they don’t have any rules to obey?  Priests and bishops used to stand up for law and order.  Now it’s all freedom and do what you like.  Do you think things will ever come back to the way they were?  Alice

Dear Alice,

Yes, I know that many things appear scrappy and unregulated now.  Almost everywhere you look, there’s a mess – big or small.  The really big messes – the systemic messes – are made by ‘big’ people: look at world politics, for example; there you can behold the Seven Deadly Sins writ large.  And some of the clergy have not been strangers to that territory either.  I'm saying this because I don’t like to see all blame fall on the shoulders of anxious  parents and teachers. 

There have always been young people who broke the law.  Every day was a busy day for ‘Lugs’ Branigan.  (In case you haven't heard of him, he was a hefty policeman who administered tough love to petty criminals in Dublin city, from the 1940s till the 60s.)  Today news in instantaneous: if a young person breaks the law they are up before a judge, and the whole country knows about it within the hour.  This gives the impression that there are far more criminals today than there were in the past.  Maybe I'm living in a bubble, but I meet a lot of teenagers in the course of a year.  Around 3,000 of them come to our Centre here in Tallaght every year for a day of retreat and reflection.  I'm always pleasantly surprised (should I be?) at how good they are!  Like you, I hear many negative judgments about young people, but I have never met an obnoxious one here.  I always find them open, honest, and friendly.  No doubt the badly-behaved ones take care to stay away, but they are far outnumbered by the well-behaved.  Something is working right.  I don’t believe I was like that towards priests and teachers when I was their age.  I kept the rules, but there was little or nothing underneath; it was just a way of escaping notice – the law is the safest place to hide.  That's how most teenagers were in my time. 

If we see only law and law-breaking we see nothing else.  I need hardly remind you, life is always messy, and especially so when the mess is hidden.  In the past the whole society conspired to hide the most shameful messes, the systemic ones: the ones that were so deeply embedded in institutions that they were not recognised as law-breaking.  Law-breakers are more exposed now, and so their careers tend to be shorter than those of their predecessors.  

Am I saying that keeping rules is always hypocritical?  Not at all, but it can easily become so.  External compliance reveals little.  The Christian tradition has a great deal to say about this.  St Paul wrote, “If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ!  You have fallen away from God’s grace” (Galatians 5:4; see also Galatians 3:11, 24; Romans 3:20, 28, etc.).  The law he was referring to was no set of petty regulations but the law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  From that law we Christians have inherited the Ten Commandments.  

The relationship between law and freedom is a never-ending theme.  Take this example.  As the world went to pieces in the 14th century, there was a group of people in the Rhineland who called themselves ‘The Brethren of the Free Spirit’.  They considered that law-keeping of any kind was worthless, even when the laws in question were the Ten Commandments; and they began to behave accordingly.  As you would expect, they were quickly outlawed.  The trouble with them is that they saw no subtlety in the relationship between law and freedom; for them it was either/or.  And the trouble for everyone else was that the condemnation of their views was equally unsubtle.  And it was directed at too wide a target.  Many good people – including the Rhineland mystics, and especially Meister Eckhart – came under suspicion of being sympathetic to the Brethren of the Free Spirit.  It became dangerous even to mention the word ‘freedom’.  All of that is a familiar theme, right up to the present day.  

Now for a bit of depth and subtlety.  A confrère of Eckhart’s, Bl. Henry Suso, leaped to Eckhart’s defence (because Eckhart seldom slowed down for long enough to explain himself).  Suso wrote, “St Paul says that no law is made for the just person.  But [I say] the just… conduct themselves more submissively than others because they understand from within, in the ground of their being, what is proper outwardly for everyone, and they see everything in this way. The reason they are unfettered by the law is that they do freely, out of an attitude of detachment, what ordinary people do under compulsion.”  By ‘detachment’ he did not mean a lack of interest or engagement, but an absence of self-interest. 

The same theme crops up everywhere.  In Zen, for example, there’s a question whether the enlightened person is subject to the law of causality.  To answer yes is just as wrong as to answer no; a Zen master would reject both answers; it is not either/or.  You have to get inside the question, just as you have to get inside your own freedom; you have to become one with the law.  In a Zen monastery in Germany I saw a carved sign in the carpenter’s workshop that said, “To break the law is to lose your way.”  Grim, I thought, but true.  But below it, part two: “To keep the law is to lose your way.”  It was the same subtle insight as Suso’s – these identical responses from two entirely different sources.  If you can't see further than keeping the law, you are in a similar position to the one who breaks it.  St Paul gave us the key in the passage I quoted above: “If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ!  You have fallen away from God’s grace.”

All of this says nothing about clearing up a mess.  Messes we will always have with us, no matter what we do.  We need to learn to live with heart, in the midst of every mess.  I have more to say on this, but not now.  I spent some part of Covid lockdown time writing a book which I called The Holy Mess: Making the Most of our Misfortunes. 

I don’t think we will ever again be as we were in the 1950s.  It was the best of times and the worst of times - like every age. There’s no point in being nostalgic about that time, because it will never come back; and for the same reason there’s no point in lamenting it.   We are called to live now, in our present-day conditions, and to try not to make a worse mess of it. 
Take care, Alice.  Stay safe.


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