Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,
the snow and moon.
The monk was eccentric, controversial, an iconoclast, and deeply religious. To the Western mind, his iconoclasm might seem wishy-washy. Yet Christ and St Paul say something similar. Our Lord, whose feast of the Sacred Heart we celebrate on Friday this week, said that He did not abolish the Law, but rather that He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). Whilst Paul, the persecutor-turned-persecuted for faith, tries to show his compatriots and contemporaries that clinging to the old Law is at best a waste of time, and at worst an obstacle to growth in Christ. Unlike the Law, the Gospel is not meant to be a set of instructions on how to be good and how to become righteous in the eyes of God. It is not a programme of self-improvement nor indeed a way to facilitate a journey of self-discovery. It is not merely a message, it is a power, an invitation and aid for a new life. St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (3:20):
So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful.
The thrust of his letter is to show his readers that important as the Law may be, it is superseded by faith in Christ. It is only by looking to unite our hearts to Christ’s Sacred Heart that we approach perfection. It may well be true that Christians know right from wrong more than pagans, but the Law does not in itself help them to avoid wrong, only to identify it. It is easy to think that as a practising Christian or religious person one is ahead of those who are lost in what one identifies as sin and depravity. But from a salvific point of view, we are in the same position, all depending on grace. For Catholics, this is evident in the Holy Mass. The penitential rite at the beginning of the liturgy proclaims that there are no boundaries between us and the unrighteous.
Hence, Immanuel Kant too was inspired by St Paul in his moral philosophy, particularly the Pauline claim that the law is “written in our hearts”. Compare this to Kant’s “moral law within”, which alone, along with the starry heavens above, filled his mind with ever-new and increasing admiration and awe. In the East, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu voiced a similar view, stating: “My teachings are older than the world. How can you grasp their meaning? If you want to know me, Look inside your heart.” Christian teachings precede the creation of the world insofar as they are eternally true and divinely derived.
This sentiment of freedom in relation to the Law is echoed in the lives of many saints as well. The Law exists to keep us on the right path, to make us aware of it, but the Law is not itself the Way, the Truth, and the Life: this is Christ alone. This is why St Augustine could confidently say: “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will.” St Philip Neri, the reluctant founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, would state a similar point of view nearly 1,200 years later when he allowed people to come and visit him in his rooms late at night. Others, self-proclaimed protectors of piety, complained about this, to which he calmly replied: “They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin.” St Philip had a reputation for unpredictability, charm, and humour. The humanity of his personality brought many people to the faith, rather than any set of rules he bequeathed.
Ikkyun Sojun’s original poem serves to remind us that the Law is important, but life takes place outside the confines of rulesets. Without rules, there can be no life, only chaos, but living only within the framework of directives, the spirit is stifled. Picasso is said to have quipped, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Genius needs to work within boundaries, or anything goes. Christians should not break the commandments. But devotion to Christ’s Sacred Heart emphasises the new and vital commandment that he left us with: the law of love. True greatness lies in being free while observing the rules, as Christ Himself did. Or, to put it more succinctly: the truth will set you free (John 8:23).
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