Horizons: Pulling back on the throttle
(POSTED: 1/28/13) I was driving to work this past week when I had the alarming experience of police lights in my rearview mirror. My first reaction was that this guy cannot be after me; but he was. He pulled me over and asked for my license. I was on Route 80 going south. The police officer said that he noticed I was going very slowly; he wondered if there was something wrong. I told him that I have a tendency to drive slowly. He said he could see that there was nothing wrong with me. Then he said,”Patrick, you have to do at least 60 mph on this road to keep up with the traffic. Patrick, get out there and give it a little zoom.”
I have reflected on this experience the last few days. Perhaps I do drive too slowly. My dad did also as he got older; perhaps I am imitating him. Also, the arthritis in my neck and back make me feel physically insecure, and therefore I have gotten slower at most things. But we live in an age that values speed.
Perhaps all of us need to slow things down a bit, especially to become more reflective and prayerful.
You probably have seen the research from the Pew Research Center, NBC, and the Wall Street Journal that most Americans favor not overturning the Roe versus Wade decision of 40 years ago that made abortion legal in America. Those wanting to overturn it are clearly in the minority. Those favoring the decision saw other issues as much more important than abortion. Some said that they did not see abortion as a moral issue. These opinions are most prevalent among baby boomers and young adults.
I do not intend to sit in judgment on others who support abortion. I personally believe that it is morally wrong; but I also know of good people who found themselves having to make such a decision, thinking that it was the best thing that they could do in their circumstances. What troubles me about this recent research is that abortion seems to have become so universally acceptable to our nation and our culture. Again, for some it is not even a moral issue. I worry about moral erosion in our country and world. Years ago, the philosopher Gabriel Marcel warned about the phenomenon of mass mindedness, that is, people becoming non-reflective about morality and operating out of a sort of group-think. Again, I am judging no one; I am a sinful man, who has to deal with my own moral issues. But as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I believe that we who follow him are called to live in and develop communities of conscience, that do not cave in to moral relativism. Paul reminds us of our identity as the Body of Christ in the passage from first Corinthians this week. As the embodiment of Jesus in the world today, we are called to be people of moral discernment and behavior. The old questions: what would Jesus do?, what would Jesus think?, what would Jesus feel? – still have great relevance.
I had a wonderful instructor in moral theology in the seminary. He explained morality as responsibility for the gift of life. He called us away from being reactive and non-reflective regarding moral issues. He taught us that growing, maturing people respond to life, rather than react to it. I make these comments realizing that for too many people respect for life has become a one note song, focusing only on the fight against abortion. Not enough Catholics have embraced Cardinal Bernardin’s vision of the seamless garment of respect for life, that is inclusive of multiple issues concerning morality and justice.
The first reading this week is from Nehemiah, chapter 8. He was a governor and leader among the Jewish people, and with the priest, Ezra tried to lead the people in spiritual and moral reform. God’s people, as recorded by the Hebrew Scriptures, had a tendency to wander from the covenant with God and its moral demands. This moral wandering weakened the nation and made it vulnerable to the attacks of neighboring countries. This infidelity to God and God’s law led the people to be overtaken by Babylon and led into exile in that land for decades. When the people returned home from the exile, Nehemiah and Ezra tried to lead them back to God and moral living. This is why we hear about Ezra proclaiming the law to the people in the first reading. We are told that they wept when they heard Ezra reminding them of the law. Their tears seem to be tears of guilt as they realize how far from God they had grown, and how much they had let go of the covenant and God’s law. Ezra and Nehemiah called the people to moral conversion, to metanoia – to embrace God’s law anew. This first reading challenges us to become people of greater moral discernment and integrity.
Back to my morality instructor – he always taught us that what is right and good has been placed within each of our minds and hearts. We need to make time and engage in effort to allow moral truth to emerge from within us.
How do we engage in moral discernment? We need to become people who listen to ourselves and reflect. We need to be proactive in developing moral responsibility. As we confront the moral issues of our time we need to turn to sacred Scripture for wisdom. We need also to seek out what the centuries old tradition of our church says about moral issues. The church does not contain all wisdom; so we also have to study especially what the contemporary sciences are saying about moral issues. We cannot pretend that we as individuals possess all wisdom; thus we need to consult with mentors, spiritual directors, counselors, and therapists for direction. Moral discernment necessitates that we pray to the Holy Spirit of God for wisdom, insight, and moral courage. As moral truth emerges within us, we have the responsibility to act on it. We should always maintain a posture of evaluation of our moral discernment, trying to assess if we are in moral error and in need of further discernment and conversion.
Examination of conscience is crucial to this process. It is important to look at our lives through the lens of the 10 Commandments; the commandments of Jesus to love God, others, and self; the teachings of Jesus about life in the Reign of God; and the teachings of the church regarding lives of discipleship – especially regarding mercy and justice.
Over the years, I have been impressed with the work of Robert Coles, who has written and spoken on the spirituality and morality of children. What he says about children and morality has truth and relevance for all of our lives. Coles maintains that people grow morally by having moral conversations with peers and with mentors/teachers. When I was pastor, we occasionally had sessions that we called moral conversations, in which people would gather in church to discuss issues of morality under the leadership of a competent mentor. I believe faith communities need to give more time and space to moral conversations with children, teens, and adults. We cannot just live zooming it up at 60 miles per hour. We need to slow down our horizontal movement, for vertical time that we might become communities of conscience. As Jesus read from Isaiah, may the Spirit of the Lord be upon us, leading us to liberty, recovery of sight, and freedom.
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a longtime priest, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.