Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Do First, Understand Later: Feast of St Elizabeth Ann Seton

The person who acts in righteousness is righteous … no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother.” – 1 Jn 3:7, 10

When I was in my teens, I did not really understand why my parents wanted me to go to Mass or boring religion classes on Sundays. I did so partially out of obedience, but even more so out of love and admiration for my elders. Years later, I understood. I realized that those times of going to Mass and learning about Catholicism really helped. Those experiences provided the crucial data I needed to make an informed choice to embrace the Christian faith on my own.

There is a similar wisdom in the Jewish understanding of “righteousness,” or keeping the commandments. The statement "na'aseh v'nishma = we will do and then we will understand" epitomizes the Jewish approach to keeping the faith. The Jewish people promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws.

This approach to religion makes a lot of sense: act your way into a new kind of thinking. Because our brain is neurologically wired to habitually thinking, it actually resists change. A shift in behavior is easier than a change in mindset. Although it’s great to think our way into a new kind of acting, the reverse happens more frequently. We make ourselves exercise, then we are convinced of its benefits; we let go of unhealthy behaviors, then we glimpse at freedom; we love first, then we learn to accept that difficult person. Fr Herbert McCabe said it well: “Prayer is like love; you won't really begin to understand until you do it.”

The First Letter of John challenges us: “If anyone says, ‘I love God, but hates this brother,’ he is liar for whoever does not love a brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 Jn 4:20). It’s an application of “first love the human being next to you, then you will understand God later.”

The life of St Elizabeth Ann Seton’s  (1774-1821) whose feast we celebrate is a fascinating study of "na'aseh v'nishma”. She lived a tough childhood, married into a wealthy family, and quickly became a widow caring for five children and seven half-brothers.  Soon after her husband’s death, she converted to Catholicism and began this incredible outreach to the poor, sick, and uneducated. In a few short years, she laid the foundation for the American parochial school system that persists today. With each step of the way, she followed God’s will first, then grew to understand it later.

Can the Jewish idea of “Do First, Understand Later” help with our New Year’s resolutions or efforts to grow this year? Or with Jesus’ commandment to love?

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