Monday, July 16, 2012

The Outward and the Inward

Monday: 16 July, 2012 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 1:10–17 / Matthew 10:34–11:1
The Outward and the Inward
Inherent to human expression of religion is the desire to do something. All major world religions have particular practices and gestures. In the Old Testament we can see that God gave very exact instructions both for corporate worship and for personal daily living. Common expressions of faith are meant to be helpful. They can be instructive. They can help provide identity. They can give a tangible focus where otherwise “faith” can be a rather abstract thing.
So in the Church we have the Sacraments. We also have standard gestures like the sign of the cross and genuflection. We have devotional aids such as the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours. We have special memorials and feast days. We have various sacramentals like the scapular.  All of these things can be instruments of grace in our lives, helping us to focus on Jesus and learn to love him more and more.
Yet there is a danger. It is the danger identified by Isaiah. Outward expressions can become such a focus that they supplant their intention, which is to keep our hearts fixed on the Lord. Because while religious form is inherent, it is also inherent for human nature to seek its own way. Even “religious” people are tempted to use religious activity to rationalize selfish behavior. Religious activities can be merely a veneer of practices which are easily seen on the outside and yet mask what is truly in the heart. But God knows.... and He is not impressed with counterfeit religion. This is message through Isaiah in today’s reading. God wants our hearts. He asks for first place.
One way we can assess our spiritual integrity is by what has first place in our lives. An honest look at our budget will show how we use our money: selfishly or charitably. Another context is our relationships. Do we try to impress people? Do we seek our Lord’s approval above all else, or do we calculate what our friends or even our family will think? Jesus says a hard thing in today’s Gospel –– that he has come to set members of a household against each other! Of course Jesus wants us to have godly families, but he is adamant that even family cannot be “god.”
This reality has come to my wife and me in an acute way. As we have grown in giving Jesus more and more of our hearts through our journey into Catholicism, her immediate family does not understand. They see the outward things that Catholics do more than they see the true heart of the Church, and they are afraid that we have been attracted to the kind of empty religious forms Isaiah warns about.
That is a warning we all need to heed all the time, but Isaiah’s warning is not about the forms themselves. It is empty form that God hates –– forms and activities which do not come from our hearts. Jesus wants us to love him, and anything that helps us love Jesus more is good. Use the forms; enter into the established practices. Just don’t let the outward take over so that our hearts are somewhere else.

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