Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Better Part: A Midweek Rumination

     And here I am again, spirit refreshed and mood greatly improved. I do hope my Gentle Readers appreciate how important it is that I go to daily Mass – for their sake.

     Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part; it will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:38-42]

     Who has not heard the query “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” [Mark 8:36] Surely few Americans are unfamiliar with that statement of Jesus’s. The welfare of the soul – our immortal part – is more important than any other consideration. However long your body might live, it’s not even a speck compared to the lifetime of your soul. Regardless of your temporal circumstances, it deserves absolute preferential treatment.

     Mary had chosen to nourish her soul at the feet of the Son of God. She’d recognized the opportunity and had set it above all other opportunities and duties – and Jesus ratified and protected it. Martha, by comparison had chosen the temporal duties of a hostess. She’d made a “category error,” which Jesus pointed out to her. It’s as simple and imperative as any of his other lessons.

     Your soul is infinitely more precious than anything you possess, including the life of your body. It is you. I had one character make that point to another under supremely urgent circumstances: after having received a set of disclosures that had called her whole existence into question:

     “So what do you think?”
     He cocked an eyebrow. “About what, dear?”
     “About having a golem for a parishioner.”
     Ray’s laughter surprised them both. “You’re not a golem, Chris. If I remember the legend, a golem was created from mud, inscribed on the forehead with a Kabbalistic symbol, and sent out to do physical labor its owner didn’t want to dirty his hands with.” He peered at her theatrically. “No Kabbalistic symbol on your forehead, and having hugged you, I’m pretty sure you’re not made of mud.”
     She laughed in response. “That would make it pretty hard to keep my clothes clean. Okay, so I’m not a golem. What am I, then?”
     Ray took his time over it. She watched him intently as he composed his answer.
     “A superwoman,” he said at last. “That is, a human woman with powers beyond what other humans possess. And according to the Nag, you have a mission to go along with them. Does something about that bother you?”
     She sat back and let her eyes slide closed.
     “I’m a made thing. Not like you or anyone else, except...my mentor. Maybe I have a couple of extra abilities, and I’m not ready to argue about the mission.” Her eyes opened and stabbed into his. “But what about what I’m missing?”
     “What would that be, Chris?”
     She looked away as if in thought. Ray steeled himself to wait patiently. Presently she spoke the most plaintive words he could have imagined.
     “A soul.”
     Ray gasped. “Why would you think you don’t have one?”
     She frowned. “Frankenstein’s monster didn’t.”
     “That’s your standard for comparison? Christine, that was fiction. Anyway, Frankenstein was a man. He assembled his monster from bits of corpses. Your maker created this entire universe. He just got around to making you a little after the rest of it. Why should you think you have no soul?”
     “Because—” She halted, plainly baffled by the seeming contradiction. Ray reached across the table and took her hands again.
     “Christine, I’m a priest. I have to work from certain postulates. According to those postulates, the soul is the seat of conscience, of an individual’s real and unalterable identity. Creatures without souls are also without moral choice. They act strictly from innate drives, motivations built right into their flesh. You can’t have a moral nature, the ability to know right from wrong, unless you have a soul. You can’t love, or be grateful, or understand loyalty or duty or justice. So either those postulates are wrong, or your soul is as real and valuable as mine.”
     An intensity Ray hadn’t felt since his ordination flowed into him and through him. He pressed her hands together between his own and chafed them gently. “A very wise man once said, ‘You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.’ The soul is the individual, the only part of you that really matters. Let’s imagine for a moment that your maker—Evoy?—didn’t possess God’s power to make souls. Actually, that’s a good assumption: the soul eventually returns to God, so it would make sense that it must be from God, not from any lesser source. All the same, God gave Evoy the power to make you. Can you really believe that once Evoy was done designing your flesh, God wouldn’t step right in and take care of the rest? Would a God Who sent His only begotten Son to suffer and die for our sakes—Who allows us to exist at all—be so cruel?”

     I’m prouder of that passage than of anything else I’ve written. You are your soul and your soul is you. Guarding and nourishing it is your highest duty. And it’s not merely a matter of observing and honoring the Commandments.

     Our temporal lives are important as proving grounds for our souls. While we live, we learn: about ourselves, about other people, and about the laws God has written into the very fabric of reality. Life tests us on those lessons in ways both great and small. In meeting those tests we exert the greatest of our temporal gifts: freedom of the will.

     Note how many atheists also disbelieve in free will. Such persons are determined to “reason away” individuals’ responsibility for their choices. In no venue is this more important than our moral and ethical choices: specifically, how we choose to treat one another.

     If I may refer to this morning’s earlier tirade, my animus against politics and the political class would be meaningless were there no such thing as free will. If individuals’ “choices” were truly predetermined by physical realities over which no one has any control, there would be no point in moral or ethical studies. Without free will, conceptions such as responsibility, desert, and guilt would vanish as well.

     But you know better. You have a conscience that prompts you to do what you should, cautions you when you’re tempted to do what you shouldn’t...and chides you when do it anyway. It arises from your immortal soul: the “better part” that Mary nourished at the feet of the Redeemer.

     Our electoral convulsions, as annoying as they are, are wholly external and irrelevant to our moral lives, including how we act on our moral and ethical knowledge when we’re put to the test. One in the political class, regardless of his representations about “my faith,” is far more likely to disregard the voice of his conscience than a private person. That alone is sufficient reason to abjure politics as it’s practiced here and now...and possibly how it ever has been and ever will be.

     In a way, this is a reminder: Politics, politicians, government edicts, and the actions of agents of the State have no bearing on your personal moral standing. As Herbert Spencer put it many years ago:

     I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House [of Parliament] could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

     Right and wrong, good and evil, are above and apart from all considerations of politics, law, and government. Robert A. Heinlein, who styled himself an atheist of a sort yet could not refrain from entertaining important, challenging moral questions, realized that as well:

     “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for what I do.” [From The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress]

     And it is so.

     May God bless and keep you all!


Bill St. Clair said...

"You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."

One of my favorites! Thank you for reminding me.

Anonymous said...

I had thought maybe that first passage was from Heinlein's "Friday".
And I mean that as a compliment.
Either way, this bit "You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." is classic wisdom.
- Charlie

JWM said...

Thank you for this. After a look at the news, and some ugly exchanges on Facebarf yesterday, this helped to re align my perspective on the morning.


Manu said...

I used to wonder why the political Left so adored Islam, and so hated Christianity. Some of it, of course, is an enemy mine situation. But at the root of it is this: Christianity posits free will, that you have choice. Islam is fatalistic, Allah chooses all and the individual chooses nothing. Leftism changes the deity around somewhat. Perhaps it is Marxist dialectic and the end of history. Perhaps it is the notion that humans are all identical meatsacks, and no independent thought truly exists.

Whatever the specifics, the great war of our time will not be fought between Right and Left, Black or White, or otherwise, though shades of this may exist. Rather, the conflict will be fought between the Fatalists, and the Individualists. It is as old as time.

That is why Christianity is hated so much. Tyrants don't want people who believe in free will even though, underneath it all, the tyrant believes in his own freedom -- just not that of others. The reasons are obvious. So it is paramount for the tyrant to deny the existence of the soul, so as to enslave the body to his will.