"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness." (Mattew 23:27)
“Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by the marginal”. These are words of advice I received from my spiritual director as a young seminarian. They might as well be words Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of his time who had forgotten the reason behind the countless rules and regulations they followed. Forgetfulness of what was truly important, because of an inordinate concern for what was inessential was one the Pharisees’ gravest faults.
The externals, of course, are not unimportant, but they’re of secondary importance. And we must learn to see beyond them; for they can distract us and draw us away from the true substance of our life, our faith, and our vocation that ought to be our true concern. Worse—because as the prophet Jeremiah says—“the human heart is deceitful beyond measure”, we can, without even being aware of it, use them to hide the areas of our lives that need the purifying fire of God’s grace instead of getting buried beneath a pile of trappings and trinkets.
I had a friend in seminary who was ordained a few years before me. He spoke six languages fluently, was very intelligent, extremely meticulous to the point of scrupulosity—especially about the liturgy, and was always decked in the trappings of clerical life. We used to tease him about loving ropes, lace, gold embroidery, and what we called ‘clerical jewelry’. He began wearing fiddle-backs and birettas long before they became fashionable again. He wasn’t a bad guy, but for some reason—we his friends always felt uncomfortable about certain things. Like something just wasn’t right.
In 2001, my friend invited me to visit him at his place. After having lost contact with us for several years since he received his doctorate, I was happy to be seeing him again. Three of us went to see him. Happiness, however, turned to bewilderment, shock, and even anguish when we met him. He had left the priesthood, had left the Church, and was living with a man he had met.
I haven’t spoken to him since. But this particular episode has always served, for me at least, as a reminder that unless we are honest and sincere, unless the externals of our lives are consistent with our internal reality, we will always be in danger of becoming like the Pharisees: lost in the peripherals having forgotten the essential—or worse, using the peripherals as a cover to hide things that are inconsistent with our commitments.
And so I leave you with the same words of advice my spiritual director gave me when I told him about my distress concerning my friend: “Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by the marginal”.
Remember, there is one reason, and one reason alone why we are here—why you are in seminary, and why we are priests: and it is to grow in holiness, and in our knowledge and love of Christ and of our service to God’s people. Everything else is secondary.
Do not fall into the trap that the Pharisees, and religious leaders of every age and yes, of every religion bar none, sometimes find themselves falling into.