There was a time in my early years in the seminary, when the fascinating books of the Jesuit, Anthony de Mello used to be my bedtime reading. I think I must have bought most of his books that contained these anecdotal stories with an underlying moral message. I also remember vividly that there was a time when his fascinating short stories used to be the introduction to many a priests’ homilies. He had a unique way of telling stories that captivated all types of audiences. Among the many stories, here is one that I can recall clearly.  

“There was a guru [teacher] who sat down to worship each evening and the ashram [hermitage] cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat expired, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the “liturgical significance” of tying up a cat while worship is performed” (taken from The Song of the Bird, 1984).

The story above somewhat relates to the tension Jesus encountered with the Pharisees and scribes that had gathered around Him. They were upset that the disciples of Jesus did not follow the tradition of the elders: “Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?” 

To this Jesus reprimands them for their scrupulous concern with minute pious practices and external rituals, while disregarding essential commitments of faith.  While in the story above the ritual of tying the cat superseded the actual time of worship, the Pharisees were fixated with the ritual cleansing even though one may actually be clean already. 

Jesus’ contention with the Pharisees and scribes was that they were convinced that their rigorous observance of the clear and well-defined norms had given them the sense that they had done their duty and thus have secured God’s approval. It is clear from the Gospel today that Jesus refuses a religion that speaks of relations with God and us in terms of merely obedience and obligations. The only obligation seems to be the openness to love. 

Rites and rituals are integral in the practise of the  Catholic faith. These are means to an end and the end being God. Let us not forget that the rites performed at the celebration of any of the seven sacraments is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ. There is always a danger that rites and rituals can turn to be merely pious tradition. For example, wanting my child baptised because it is a tradition in the family or getting married in the church because walking down the aisle in an ornate church is fashionable photography and makes better pictures. 

Have we ever stopped and asked ourselves why do we do what we do? Many of the actions that we have embraced in relation to our faith has been passed on as “what we should do, must do, or have to do, what we can’t do, and what others will say if we don’t do”. Even the simple acts of making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, kneeling and the responses we make at Mass, can at times become rigorously automated rather than a spontaneous response to God’s initiative to engage with us. 

These rites, rituals, and traditions, regardless of how elaborate or how simple and uncomplicated they may be,  must point to our need for God and to do them with meaning and love. Our faith is a living faith and not meant for the preservation of an ancient tradition. Therefore, let us not reduce our faith in Jesus to just following laws and obligations, but rather to build it on a relationship with Jesus which impels us to do the works of God. Let us not focus on “tying the cat” but on Jesus, the source of our existence. “Faith is a relationship, and not a set of rules” (Pope Francis).

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (29 Aug 2021)