The Second Reading from the Book of James presents a series of contrasts, setting vices of both the human heart and human behavior against the idea of “wisdom.” What would these two lists look like in a contemporary context?
“Community In Mission” is a blog by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. One of the priests of that archdiocese, Monsignor Charles Pope writes occasionally for this blog. Over the years, he has observed many adults in the current generations have adopted – or have kept- characteristics of teenagers. He recently wrote an article on his observations entitled, “On Being The Adult In The Room.”
- Demanding all of one’s rights while avoiding most of one’s responsibilities.
- Refusal to accept the responsibility they have leading to a lack of personal accountability.
- Blaming others for one’s own personal failings.
- Expecting others (including government agencies) to do for me what I should do for myself.
- Irrational aversion to authority – or the irrational fear of using the legitimate authority they have (parents).
- Aversion to instruction or correction and the irrational rejection of the wisdom of elders and tradition.
- Lack of respect for elders.
- Being dominated by one’s emotions and carried away easily by the passions.
- Obsession with fairness, evidenced by the frequent cry, “It’s not fair!”
- Obsession with being and looking young and the aversion to becoming or appearing old.
- Obsession with having thin, young-looking bodies.
- Glorification of irresponsible teenage idols.
- Titillation and irresponsibility regarding human sexuality.
- Inordinate delay of marriage and widespread preference for the single life.
Where are the behaviors coming from? At it most basic level, we are dealing with disordered desires, which are the effects of Original Sin. In contrast, Scripture Scholar, Ian Mackervoy, in What Faith Should Do – An Easy English Commentary On The Letter of James talks about “wisdom” – a virtue that is:
- Clean from selfish ambition.
- Set apart to do the things of God.
- Peace-making. It does not fight but brings people closer together and nearer to God.
- It knows and acknowledges the weakness of human beings.
- It helps them.
- It does so by being gentle and kind.
- It is open to reason and will listen to what other people say.
- It does not insist on its own rights.
- It is always ready to help and not to blame.
- It has sympathy for all those who are sad.
- It helps those who suffer.
- It has the pity and the love to do good for them.
- It shows respect for all people.
- It does not make distinctions or do things from prejudice.
- It is sure about what is true and has good standards that do not change.
- It does not pretend or act a part.
- It does not work for its own benefit.
- It is reliable
Basically James is setting before us a choice – whether to please ourselves, our needs, our emotions, our “rights” – or to please God. To please God and to help our neighbor is what is understood as “The Law Of Love.”
So how do we move from one list to the other? Jesuit Father Dennis Hamm, S.J. says that the author of the Book of James is saying that the remedy for disordered desires is prayer, not because prayer is magic but because prayer:
- Acknowledges the proper authority of God (more on that in a minute).
- First, places oneself within the world of a special relationship called “the covenant.” In this relationship, God fulfills his promises and asks us to do the same.
- Encourages “meekness.” This is not being wimpy but, much like placing a bit in the mouth of a wild stallion, is strength under the control of another.
- Opens the heart to a healing of addictive and disordered desires.
Prayer also places us in right relationship with “Authority,” from the Latin auctoritas and auctor which means ”originator” or “promoter.” As our “originator,” God is well aware of what we need to, not only survive, but to thrive! As “promoter” God provides what we need to achieve that fullness of life.
Concretely, what would this look like programmatically? The following is one example of a “spiritual exercise” which has five steps and takes 15 minutes:
- Read one passage of Scripture.
- Simply going over the events of the day.
- Without judging ourselves, asking, “Was this a good thing?” “Was this a bad thing?” “Was it both?” “Was it neither?”
- How did I react or handle myself during these moments?
- What is God saying to me through this?
Today’s liturgy begins with the following prayer: “Guide us according to your “law of love” because all mankind is in need of this law.” The result of following the law of love means establishing harmony within our life, which, in turn flows out and provides harmony and blessings within the greater human community. The recognition of this line constitutes the essence of wisdom.