Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Passover Now

The following is a portion of a letter I wrote recently to a friend,

Always a pleasure to hear from you, I was touched by the story of how nuns hid your family during the Shoah. I think that story beautifully illustrates two strains within Catholicism that I believe exist in all organized religions. In all of the world's great religions there is an emphasis on Compassion. That "God" is compassion and that as God's children we are called to a personal transformation to become like God who is Compassion. This spiritual process is precisely that, a process through which we chose to become more empathetic towards others and ourselves.

Recently, observant Jewish people all over the world celebrated Passover. The Passover story that most of us grew up with in America featured Charlton Heston as Moses. The climax of the film is when Moses parts the sea and the finger of God writes the Ten Commandments. However, I think the real story of Passover is the forty years in the desert. Forty years, in the Scriptures, represents a life span (a generation).

After the dramatic deliverance from Egypt, comes a life long journey. In the desert the people grumbled against Moses. They longed for the flesh pots (reliable food rations) of Egypt (slavery). I am reminded of Churchill's quip that those who prefer security to freedom deserve neither. In Torah it states that God sent serpents to afflict the people, the recipient of Churchill's quip probably felt similarly afflicted.

The Torah states that the people had a change of heart and God then commanded Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a staff. The people were required to look upon the bronze serpent to be healed. Think about that. In the wilderness, they had to face what they feared in order to be healed.

The desert sun transformed the gold of Egypt into a heavy and useless burden. What the people originally considered a treasure became a burden. In life's journey we learn to drop into the sands those things we initially thought indispensable. We discover that things (and people, including ourselves) we took for granted are the authentic treasures.

All of that to say, that religion is a first step towards spirituality and that spirituality is not an end in itself, but rather a process towards something greater. That "something greater" is personal integrity, integration with others and with nature, and the fruits of this harmony are peace and serenity.

The problem with all of this is that most of us do not want to face our fears, precisely because we fear them. Most of us want to avoid the work required by the spiritual process and most of us do not want to find ourselves in the situation of the freed Jewish slaves. We, like they, want security and we want to be in control.

Religion (and spirituality) can be externalized and thereby, the perfect place to hide from ourselves, others and God (Compassion). It can be the perfect place to avoid the work of authentic spiritual growth. Religion can be reduced to a myriad of laws that must be obeyed, a game we play. God can be reduced to a celestial version of the IRS that will audit and penalize anyone who dares to violate the smallest part of the law.

The danger here is that religion becomes a "Contract Religion" in which, if I do "X" God must do (give me) "Y." If you happen to believe in a divinity, this is both delusional and blasphemous. It also leads to a false “spirituality” that gradually puffs up the adherent with pride. I am good/holy/superior because I do "x, y and z" while others are ignorant or sinners.

In each of the world's religions, both strains can be found. People may view their tradition as possessing insights and Scripture as a starting point that challenges to both personal and communal development. Alternatively, people may view their tradition as perfect, what Cardinal Dolan called "settled matters of faith" that require no further discussion, thought and certainly not any change. This vision requires personal and communal conformity to attain an idealized utopia. I am reminded of the preface in the book “Brave New World” that states, “The problem with utopias is that they are possible.”

The first vision sees the tradition, Scriptures, laws, etc as being in place to serve people. Practical compassion is the transformative imperative of this understanding. The second vision sees people being in place to serve the tradition, Scriptures, laws, etc. Purity codes and doctrinal/dogmatic rigidity are the hallmarks of this understanding.

The Passover story is not something that happened in ancient history. It is something that is happening today in my, your and everyone’s life. Like the slaves then, we must stand up to our oppressors to gain our freedom. Like them that initial freedom will be sweet, but brings with it the difficulties of personal responsibility. Like them we must face our fears. As we journey through life, we learn who and what is of true worth and value in our life. “The Promised Land” is not a geographical destination; it is a state of being, a way of relating with others and ourselves now.

Post Script: A hopeful sign.