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The Greater Good

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

The late author, Donald E. Westlake, wrote crime novels, some of which were (intentionally) very funny. In one of these books, the lead character, Dortmunder, is being pressed by another criminal to take on a dangerous job. He responds to the proposition saying that in these types of situations he feels the need to consult the motto on the family crest: “Quid lucrum istic mihi est”. Dortmunder then translates the Latin as follows: “What’s in it for me”.

Unfortunately, this could well serve as the motto for much of our society today. It’s an increasingly common refrain: I don’t need/want this or that benefit (maybe healthcare or subsidized food for the poor) so why should I pay for it. This concern with our individual rights versus the broader good has been a challenge for many decades though now seems to be reaching new highs (lows?).

When I became a citizen I learned that the U.S. motto is “E Pluribus Unum” meaning Out Of Many, One. The idea being that we create one nation from many peoples. (By the way I think it would be good for us as individuals and for the country overall for every American to go through the citizenship process as an adult so that they appreciate the thoughtful foundation upon which this country was built.)

It struck me that Jesus might have used E Pluribus Unum Himself, with a little modification, in His public ministry. As the Son of God, Jesus knew that we were all one, the Body of Christ, but also knew that we didn’t understand it. This is why He put so much emphasis on love. That if we loved the Father and each other, we would indeed all realize that we are one in a very fundamental, connected way.

Our path to real love is usually enabled by some combination of prayer, good works and self-denial. While all three can be a challenge in their own way, for many of us, prayer can be the most difficult and confusing to get our heads around. Theologians tell us there are basically two types of prayer: in very oversimplified terms (my favorite approach), they are private prayer and public prayer. While most of us understand in some way the notion of private prayer, the second one, public prayer, doesn’t get (in my humble opinion) sufficient explanation. Public prayer, or Liturgical Prayer, as its referred to by theologians, is universal in scope and about praying for the needs of the world. The Mass would fall into this category. That’s not to say that the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is not deeply personal, it definitely is, but that the overall mass has a broader context.

It is unfortunate to hear some Catholics remark, with regard to attending mass: “I don’t go to church because I don’t get anything out of it”. And while on some occasions that may be true, it’s actually not that important that you do get something identifiable out of it. The Mass is about more than the “small us”. Coming together, hopefully weekly, even as our distracted, stressed, annoyed, hurried, children-toting selves, we have an opportunity, to nourish one another by our mere presence, where we don’t focus on what separates us, but try and live the words “thy kingdom come” for an hour.

Harking back to the greater good, it might be worth thinking about having our own personal Bill of Rights to supplement those written by James Madison, with something along these lines: You have the right to remain silent, to deepen your prayer life with God. You have the right to own and consume less, so that God’s gifts will be more fairly distributed. (Note, this can and will be used as testimony for you on Judgment Day.) And finally, you have the right to come together, two or more in Jesus name, so that all might pray for a sense of heaven here on earth.

See you in church.


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