Exodus, Lent, and becoming a true nation

Ten years ago, I began a most extraordinary Lent by walking up the Aventine Hill to the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the first day of the Roman station church pilgrimage – an eight-week journey that led to the book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, co-authored with my friend Elizabeth Lev and my son, Stephen. Liz Lev is the premier Anglophone art-and-architecture guide in the Eternal City, and her masterful descriptions of the Roman stational churches confirm the truth suggested by Stephen’s evocative photographs (best appreciated in the e-book edition of Roman Pilgrimage): beauty opens windows into the deep truths of Catholic faith. My contributions to the book – reflections on the liturgical readings of each day from Ash Wednesday through the Octave of Easter – helped make that Lent a particularly rewarding one, as writing those meditations made me dig deeper into the readings from Mass and the Divine Office. 

Every Lent, the Church reads the first 20 chapters of the Book of Exodus in its daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. Familiarity, alas, can mute the power of that inspired book, the linchpin of the Old Testament. During Lent-2011, I found new meaning in Exodus through a closer reading of the commentaries by the Fathers of the Church that accompany the story of Moses and the nascent people of Israel in the breviary. The first millennium Fathers drew spiritual nourishment from Exodus because they treated the second book of the Torah as a source of wisdom, not as an artifact to be dissected. This year, my Lenten journey through the Book of Exodus will be further complemented by the commentary of a contemporary man of wisdom, Leon R. Kass.  

Despite its many confusions, our era has somehow contrived to produce the ideal teacher in Leon Kass: learned humanist, medical doctor, bioethicist of distinction, gentleman and wise counselor – a Jewish scholar who once helped Catholics at the Pontifical Gregorian University read the Scriptures as they’d never done before. Kass’s new book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (Yale University Press), complements his previous epic, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press); both books grew out of many years of an intense, searching exploration of those biblical texts with students. And out of that open-minded reading of Exodus, a familiar story takes on fresh meaning: now, through Kass’s commentary, Exodus offers us a profound reflection on what it means to be a true people, not merely an aggregate of individuals or a network of families. 

What makes a people, a nation? According to Exodus, a nation needs a shared story. In the case of the people of Israel, that was and remains the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, where bondage prevented them from being truly a people. A nation also needs a founding event, in which the people consent to a common way of life. In Exodus, that constituting event is the free acceptance (as Kass winsomely puts it), of “a yoke that becomes a tree of life” – the Sinai covenant, the Ten Commandments, and the Mosaic Law. And a true people need a worthy response to the human aspiration to be in touch with something greater than ourselves. So Exodus instructs its readers to reject false worship (the golden calf) for the sake of true worship – the worship of the One who alone is worthy of worship; the One who enters history to liberate his people and asks them to follow his path into the future.   

The Book of Exodus thus raises important questions about our contemporary American situation. Can we be the self-constituting nation of the Constitution’s preamble – “We the People of the United States” – if future generations are taught a false story of America by the New York Times’ mendacious “1619 Project,” now being imposed on schools around the country? Can we be truly a people if, instead of the preamble’s purposeful, covenantal commitment to form a “more perfect Union” that will “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” our relationships as citizens are merely transactional – you get something, I get something? Can we be a true nation if we worship the false god of wealth, bow to the false messiahs of identity politics, and indulge the false ethic of “I did it my way”? 

There is much to think and pray about this Lent. The Book of Exodus is a good companion on the journey, and Leon Kass is an admirable guide to the truths found in that great book.   

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.