Basic Housecleaning for the Soul

Dear Folks,
We never outgrow reviewing the basics. This week we read the Ten Commandments (Exodus
20, see also Deuteronomy 5). Pope Saint John Paul said that the Ten Commandments formed
a foundation, and the Beatitudes were a structure to be built on that foundation, reaching
higher and higher with no limit. To have a sound structure, we must regularly attend to the
foundation.
We begin: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of
slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in
the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the
earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.” The first principle is Who is
God and who is not. We want to be in charge and do things our way. From the beginning,
there has been temptation to do things our way rather than God’s way (see Genesis 3 about the
Fruit Incident, and Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel). It forbids carving idols, not because
God hates sculpture (He doesn’t: see Exodus 25:17-22; Numbers 21:4-9), but because of the
danger of thinking they could possess God. This goes back to who is in charge. This was a
problem with the Temple as well. There was a sense that God was uniquely located in the
temple (see Psalm 18:7), and some people thought that as long as the temple was in Jerusalem
God would take care of them no matter what they did. Jeremiah said, “Do not put your trust
in these deceptive words ‘The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the
Lord!’ (Jeremiah 7:4).” If they didn’t do things God’s way, there would still be
consequences. Imagine thinking that a St. Christopher medal would protect me so I don’t
have to drive carefully: it isn’t going to work.
Do not take the name of the Lord in vain. Nowadays, cancel culture has sometimes raised
language policing to ridiculous levels, but it is true that how we talk matters. Our talk should
always contribute toward reverence for God. Keeping holy the sabbath day means that we
break from the usual routine to focus especially on God. Of course, central to that is
worshipping at the Eucharistic Liturgy. When people need to get tasks done and not doing
them would cause hardship, we remember it is supposed to liberate, not strangulate. Sometimes people must work on Sundays, but still, it is important to find some way to break the
usual pattern so it is not just another day.
Honoring Father and Mother is a particular case of respecting authority. That is part of the
recognition that our understanding and our perspective is limited. It also means putting what
we think and what we want in second place. In our society, that is a radical idea.
Do not kill. This means respecting all life, from conception to natural death. It includes
standing up for the lives of others and helping those who cannot sustain themselves. This also
means respecting each person’s dignity. This is a huge job. Where people are viewed as
objects or commodities, standing up for life is a battle. We have a lot of work to do.
Do not commit adultery. God made marriage, sexuality, and family core to what it is to be
human, and they are sacred beyond words. Revering how God made us is an enormous part
of protecting human dignity. We have a lot of work to do, and it begins with learning more
about theology of the body. You shall not steal. The right to property is a part of human
dignity, and we are called to honor that. You shall not bear false witness against your
neighbor. This would include passing on rumors and memes that are harmful and that we
don’t know are true (but we want them to be because they match our prejudices). Even
recognizing that much would be a great step forward for our society.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife (or husband) and you shall not covet your
neighbor’s stuff, two distinct but related commandments. If it is sinful to do something, it is
also wrong to enjoy fantasizing about doing it. There is a part of our brain that doesn’t
distinguish between fantasy and reality (which is why we are sad when a fictional character
we like dies in a story). It may seem harmless because it is in our heads, but that is the most
crucial territory of all. When we entertain ourselves by fantasy about doing bad things, it
rewires our brains to believe, bit by bit, that it is not so bad, that it is good and friendly, and
then, even if we do not act it out, it means our hearts are less and less in doing what is right.
Much housecleaning to do.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

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