There is an altar in the center of the human heart, and we can't bear for it to be empty.
[First in a Series on Reclaiming the Ten Commandments for Our Times – Ed]
How do you know what your priorities are? One answer: Look at what has the first claim on your time, energy and money.
How do you know what your priorities should be? That’s a different, harder, and more important question.
I’ve been thinking about priorities since I recently saw a child, no more than 10, stop what she was doing, take out a small kit, and test her blood sugar. She has a robust form of diabetes and has to monitor herself to stay healthy. I was struck that this little girl, very calmly, unselfconsciously and matter-of-factly stopped what she preferred to be doing (playing with other children) to do what she knew she needed to do and must do. She’d been taught well a clear sense of priorities, to the degree that she could understand, and it seemed to me that she was taught in a way that would allow her to understand better when she was older.
What if we taught our children (and ourselves!) about God that way?
Observing that child, I concluded that proper priorities are those that we cannot afford to treat as secondary or worse. In other words, if proper priorities are not treated as such, dire consequences would follow—whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. Priorities stem from our acknowledging or ignoring reality. Ayn Rand said, “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” That little girl was taught effectively not to ignore the reality that she has diabetes, and so she has a proper sense of priorities.
What about us? Why can’t we adults, supposedly more mature and certainly more schooled (if not educated) than that child, have a proper sense of priority when it comes to the place of God in our lives? The First Commandment (Exodus 20:3) is first for all else follows from it: “You shall place no gods before me.” In other words, only God may be God, only God may be supreme in our lives. We often pay lip service to those words, but do we actually live those words by arranging our lives accordingly, that is to say, with proper priority?
There is an altar in the center of the human heart. The human heart cannot bear for that altar to be empty. If the living God is not on the altar, acknowledged, worshiped, loved and obeyed, some other god, a false god, some dead idol will be placed on the altar. The idol may be from a pagan pantheon, or it may be an obsession with the State, or an addiction, a relationship or a pleasure. In any case, the idol cannot give life, and, left unchecked will bring about death in this life and in the next.
There was a time when idolatry was the norm. With the advent of Christendom, the religion of the one God held sway over individuals, cultures and nations. That time is over. For the past few decades, we have moved into what many call, at least in the West, the “post-Christian era.” Tom Gilson warns us against using that phrase:
A word like “post-Christian” was never destined to last long in the first place. Great cultures aren’t known by what they used to be, but by what they are. (Who calls medieval Europe post-pagan?) It made sense, for a few decades, to describe Western culture in terms of the Christianity it was leaving behind. But now a new faith has swept the old one totally aside.
The “new faith” he speaks of is “self-worship,” making idols of our selves and our selfish desires. There are as many gods as there are human beings, and these gods will inevitably conflict. Etienne Gilson warned decades ago: “When the gods contend among themselves, men must die.” In attempting to “free” ourselves from the living God, we have “freed” ourselves into the Law of the Jungle.
The Church gives us clear guidance regarding what the First Commandment requires of us, so that we may live with proper priorities: We owe the living God worthy worship; we owe God lives lived with faith, hope and love. Today, sit down and make a list in answer to this question: “If my life were truly formed, informed and transformed by the First Commandment, how would it be different from how I’ve been living it for the past year?” Be honest, be specific, and be accountable—share this list with the Lord in prayer and with a friend in confidence. Let’s learn that lesson from that sick child who knows that she can’t afford to put first things second.
When I write next, I will offer another reflection on reclaiming the Ten Commandments in our times. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
[Hear Fr. Robert McTeigue discuss this topic with John Harper, on Relevant Radio by clicking here.]
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