…. I was talking with an elderly neighbour of mine recently and I happened to mention that Christmas Eve used to be a day of fast and abstinence. I remember my father saying so. She hit the roof! I won’t tell you what she said about the Church and the priests in the old days. Nothing but rules and more rules, she said. Was it really as bad as that? Do you remember those times? I don’t think today’s young people would take any notice of those rules. Certainly not my two daughters, who are in their 20s. You’d wonder if it’s the same Church…. [Margaret]
Your friend would have been even more irate, I imagine, if she realised that many of those rules were probably devised by people who exempted themselves on the grounds of age. But never mind. Yes, there were too many rules. It’s easy to ridicule them now, but in those days they didn't have the shock-value they have when we dig them up and read them today. They were no more than what people expected at the time. In 1953 Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin wrote this in a Lenten Pastoral Letter: “We take occasion to express our grave disapproval of the practice which has begun to show itself of permitting young women to compete in cycling and athletics in mixed public sports.” In support he quoted pope Pius XI, who imposed rules for “the separation of the sexes which the law of nature and Christian prudence demand.” Strange statement…. From the beginning of the human race the law of nature would seem to have been consistent in demanding just the opposite! Yes, there was a degree of absurdity about many of the rules, but I think most people sat lightly to them. I knew a man many years ago who could quote in meticulous detail every regulation about fasting and abstinence, but it never occurred to him that he should observe them himself, even though he was in the age-bracket for it. That era has passed, and there’s no point in becoming angry about it. If anyone should be angry, it’s the people of that era, but they never seemed to me to be unduly stressed about these things. People have always had a sense of humour and a sense of proportion, and that is what kept them sane.
It wasn’t always like that. St Thomas Aquinas (+1274) expressed what must be the most penetrating insight ever into 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 of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” Grace could not be a ‘law’ in the same sense as written laws, such as rules and regulations. It is not carved on stone or written on parchment, but inscribed in the heart. He pointed out that any further precepts that Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few.” Quoting Saint Augustine (+ 430), he said that these should be insisted upon with moderation, “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, while “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free.” They were both following St Paul’s teaching, especially in Romans, chapters 3 and 8.
Let’s take a closer look. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” These are familiar words, but instantly puzzling when you think about them. You can be commanded to obey, but how can you be commanded to love? External behaviour is subject to external rules, but how can the inner movements 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. ‘When I am thirsty, the drink commands me; when I am hungry, the food commands me. And God does the same. [In commanding me to love] God commands me to such sweetness that the whole world cannot equal. And if a person has once tasted this sweetness, then indeed they can no more turn away from goodness and from God, than God can turn away from Godhead.’
The command to love, then, is not an external command but an inner one (meaning, in you - inscribed in your heart - rather than in some code); it is the drive and urgency of the Spirit in your deepest being. It is like the urgency to eat when we are hungry, to drink when we are thirsty. Or it is like the ‘urge’ an acorn has to become an oak tree. In commanding us to love, Jesus is telling us to look at our true nature and to follow it. This expresses the fulfilment of God's promise: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33).
Beside this, all the detailed regulations of old seem now to have been a distraction from the deepest thing, taking up space that was badly needed for the proclamation of the Good News.
Yes, Margaret, it’s still the same Church, but like a house, it looks different in different weathers and seasons. Thank God we live in a time when the essential stands out more starkly.