Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Most Natural Burden

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”  Exodus 20:12

I lost my two remaining grandparents last year.  There was nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected about their deaths.  They departed this life after extended struggles with disease and debility, looking ahead in hope.  They died holding the hands of their children.  

My mother and her siblings were alongside them through so much of the dramatic change, and it’s been moving for me to watch this from the sidelines.  For them it was a year of sitting in dozens of doctor’s offices, heating up dinner, writing out notes to guide confused minds, sorting the bills, arranging a last family picnic on a sunny July day.

 It was really all quite ordinary, the ending to a story they had all been expecting to tell for the whole of their lives, but beautiful taken together.  This is how life is meant to be.  To be sure it was a burden, but the most natural burden of all.  

Piety is the word for it, the natural duty we owe to those who have given us life.  For the Romans, it was the fundamental virtue.  They traced the origins of their civilization to “pious Aeneas.”  His great journey began as he fled the blazing ruins of Troy, struggling beneath the weight of old Achises, his aged father.  Horatius, their heroic warrior, had sacrificed his life for piety, defending Rome’s first bridge, the Pons Sublicius, against the Etruscans.  The story was a favorite of Churchill’s, who had learned to recite Mccauley’s great description of it as a Harrow schoolboy.  Maybe you remember the scene in The Darkest Hour when he recited a few verses from the poem, a summons to his people who nearly lost their nerve in the face of the Nazi menace:
“And how can man die better
 Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.”[1]

To me, at least, it seems deeply significant that this is not far from where the Ten Commandments also begin: the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our God. God gave two tablets of the law to Moses.  The first had three commandments outlining our duty to God.  The second had seven, listing our duties to our neighbors.  And though some dispute it, I don’t think the order of the commandments on each table is random.  We are first bound to acknowledge one God only, the source of all good.  And when we look around us at others, first we must honor our father and mother.  If God is giving a law for the whole human race, he naturally begins with what is most universal.  Each of us has been created by God, as He transmitted life to us through our parents.  

We will not all marry. Not all will have the opportunity and inclination to steal or kill or give false testimony.  But each of us has received generously from our parents.  They have given us life.  They have nourished us and cared for us.  Most often, through their guidance, we have come to emotional and spiritual maturity.  As Thomas Joseph White has written, “Children who receive these gifts from their parents cannot repay them by any proportionate compensation.  They remain ontological and moral debtors to their parents for life.”[2]

We do what we can to repay that debt by loving and honoring our parents.  In childhood, we obey them.  In adulthood, we care for them in the inevitable decline that marks the end of life.  Human life begins and ends in dependence, relying upon generous love extended through natural obligation, the practice of piety.  “I don’t want to be a burden,” the well-meaning person says.  Such wishes don’t count for very much.  There is nothing more natural than taking up the burden of caring for those who are closest to us, to whom, as Father White says, we are “ontological debtors.”

This natural obligation must take precedence over many other good things that we may wish to do.  We are all limited human beings, and the choices we make about our use of time and money should reflect these natural priorities.  St. Augustine famously wrote that while we should love all, we cannot do good to all. “But among those to whom we are bound to do good are those in some way united to us.”[3]  In that order of loves, our parents must take a primarily place—charity, literally, should begin at home.  Jesus himself faulted those who ignored this natural responsibility, and St. Paul is blunt and direct in his condemnation in I Timothy 5: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”[4]

Most classical commentators on this commandment have extended it to speak of a natural respect and obligation, a sort of piety toward those other systems and leaders within whose care God has placed us.  We love and respect our country and its leaders, our teachers, those entrusted with keeping the common peace, our employers and the ministers of the church.  Saint Paul summarized this at the close of a famous passage about respecting civil authorities: “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”[5]  

We extend this respect and answer these obligations even when these institutions and their leaders inevitably fall short of what we would wish them to be.  There is but one perfect parent, our Father who art in heaven.  Our own parents, like our policemen, priests and presidents will often fail in discharging their responsibilities.  The Scriptures are clear that much is demanded by God of those to whom He has given authority.  Sometimes those placed over us must be confronted, sometimes criticized, occasionally even resisted and refused.  Jesus gives us an example of this done faithfully in today’s Gospel reading.  But the ordinary, faithful posture for us will be to bear with them in humble loyalty because we trust that God has given them to us and us to them, so that together we might grow in His grace.

When we honor our parents, God assures us, we will enjoy a long life in the land He has given to us.  The promise is probably not so much about living many years, as enjoying a stable, fruitful common life.  God assures us that when we live in this nexus of dependence and gratitude, we will be at peace with each other.  Our leaders will know what is expected of them.  The vulnerable will be protected.  Piety is ultimately for the sake of the common good.  

But we live in a culture where so many social bonds are frayed, and there is a diminished sense of mutual dependence and obligation.  Contemporary American culture is shaped by deep individualism.  Continually, we are told that we can flourish only by leaving home and rejecting our formative influences.  Our cultural heroes are often the rebels, the masters of their own fates. How much traction could a leader get these days with an appeal to “the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our gods?”  We yearn for freedom, but often have little concept about what to do with it once it comes.  

I could cite plenty of examples about how badly out of sorts things have become.  But I think it’s more constructive to reflect on how we may be able to serve our neighbors in love, so that our people may live long in the land God has given to us.  We should be the ones who accept burdens, who honor and care for those who need our help. The frail and confused, the mentally ill and the sorrowful, especially those in our own families and congregation should be always in our prayers and often on our agendas.  In an age of widespread distraction and overheated ideology, many community organizations are in deep need of committed, generous leadership, of people blessed with the kind of gifts God has given many of us.  In a time when everyone seems to have a grievance, a respectful and supportive word to a civic official, a member of the armed forces, a police officer, is an important affirmation that their sacrifices are valued.  And we should do all we can to ensure that no one dies alone. 

The fourth commandment assures us that loving our neighbor begins with a trust in God’s wise purposes.  It flows from deep gratitude for those with whom He has bound us. Piety’s duties answer to the blessings we have received so abundantly. Life has its burdens, but these are tightly bound with its richest joys.

[1] McCaulay, Thomas Babington.  The Lays of Ancient Greece and Rome, XXVII
[2] White, Thomas Joseph, OP.  Exodus.  The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016, 185.
[3] Qtd. in Thomas Aquinas, Explanation of the Ten Commandments.  Trans. Joseph B. Collins, Aeterna Press, 2015, Article 6.
[4] I Tim. 5:8.
[5] Rom. 13:7.

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