So Western Christians are well
into Lent at this point: if you compare it to a half-marathon [which probably
isn't the best comparison, but I'm a runner, what can I say?] soon the pace
will pick up, and the finish line of Easter will come into view. Once we cross
the line, most of us will drop the spiritual practices that we carried through
the season and return to our normal way of life--in which prayer, fasting and
works of mercy may or may not have much of a place.
I was thinking about all this as
I read this article about Orthodox Judaism in the NY Times:
As most people know, the lives
of Orthodox Jews are strictly regulated by the laws of the Torah, and these
laws are the framework that shapes every aspect of their lives. [As an aside,
every time I read about Orthodox Judaism, I am amazed to learn yet another
specific example of "work" that is prohibited on the Sabbath. This
article notes that Pomegranate--a luxury kosher grocery store--sells "precut
disposable tablecloths" to help people avoid using scissors on the
Sabbath, as well as "specially designed sponges, which don’t retain water,
so you don’t have to do the work of squeezing out water on Shabbat."
Squeezing out water? Who knew?!]
importantly, however, is the significance of those laws for Orthodox Jews, and
the way in which they are viewed by the community. Here's the author again:
Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the
supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your
own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.
For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God
is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation.
They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed
by an external moral order.
The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure
to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They
build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making
religion an everyday practical reality.
The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study,
argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an
imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s
natural way of being.
Meir Soloveichik, my tour guide during this trip through Brooklyn,
borrows a musical metaphor from the Catholic theologian George Weigel. At first
piano practice seems like drudgery, like self-limitation, but mastering the
technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs. Life is less
a journey than it is mastering a discipline or craft.
What religious person can read
that and not feel a little envious? Living in such a way that God's love and
God's will so shapes one's life that one ceases to even think about external
"rules" and only experiences the freedom life with God affords in the
world? I keep thinking about what I can take from that as a Christian.
Unfortunately, given the strong doctrine of sin I have as a Lutheran, I am not
so optimistic that, in this case, "practice makes perfect." Sin
continually rears its ugly head, making it impossible for me to "internalize"
God's will for my life--instead, the old Adam keeps fighting it, and insisting
on her own way. Does one ever "master the craft" of being Christian?
I don't think so.
Yet, at the same time, I guess I
think even if I'm sure the "perfect" part will never come, a life of
"practice" is still a good idea [this is the idea behind spiritual
disciplines, of course]; and continually seeking--and failing, sure--to shape
my life around an awareness of God, and a love of God and neighbor surely is a
worthwhile pursuit. Not only during Lent but throughout the year.