Service and Spiritual Practice
Our spiritual forebearers knew there was something special about feeding the hungry, helping the poor, welcoming the stranger, and lifting up the brokenhearted. Considering how daily survival--without indoor plumbing, no less--was an all-consuming enterprise for just about everyone, their insistence that selflessness represented the fullest expression of spiritual life was truly radical.
Throughout religious history, prophets in all traditions have made a fuss about the heavenly virtues of making nice. The fact that several died trying to make this point may explain why lesser mortals have sometimes failed to fully appreciate the spiritual benefit of righteousness in the form of generosity. To this very day, proponents of the major world religions view service as spirit-in-action and if not a direct means of salvation, at least a way of doing quality time while here on earth.
If the mere mention of the world religions--any or all of them--gags you, try to remember that for every spiritually oriented person who recoils with horror at the formalism of organized religion, there's a religious one who squints suspiciously at what all is currently classified as spiritual. Try not to get too distracted by disputes about form and expression. Instead, focus on the one thing all biggies agree upon in either scripture or commentary: the importance of serving others with decency, generosity, and love. Here's a closer look at what the Western traditions have to say about service, especially its impact on the hereafter.
For the observant Jew, the practice of righteousness (tzedakah) is considered much more than the decent thing to do, it's a commandment (mitzvah). While not one of the tableted top ten, it is among the 613 individual commandments that form Jewish law (Halakhah). The twelth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides identified tzedakah as perhaps the most important obligation of Jewish life--a pretty awesome designation when you consider the complexity of Halakhah.
Flip through the first five books of the Bible for detailed instructions about what a righteous person ought to do and what will happen when such guidelines are either followed or ignored. In Genesis, for example, Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers and, as is frequently the case, these visitors turn out to be angels. The aged, barren Sarah is blessed with fertility, Isaac is born, and a nation is founded. In Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God commands Moses to teach the Israelites about such things as the practice of tithing (i.e., giving one-tenth of one's income); leaving the gleanings of harvest for the poor and alien; and giving generously to those in need without a grudging heart. Obedience to these commandments, the ancient Israelites are told, will bring peace and prosperity; disobedience will bring on sudden terror, wasting diseases, desolation, and the ever-threatened plagues.
While Jewish response to strict observance has changed over the centuries, tzedakah has retained its importance as a value and form of ethical action that goes way beyond donating money, planting trees in Israel, or sending a stranger home from the Passover table with leftovers. These are necessary, but not sufficient acts. For Jews, generosity is a way of being and being-in-the-world that includes social justice issues.
As the "chosen people of God" in addition to being survivors of slavery and genocide, Jews throughout history and of every denomination have embraced the moral responsibility to further human rights and freedom. Recognizing that all beings are created in the "likeness and image" of God is reason enough to extend loving-kindness to all God's created. Righteousness and identity are therefore bound together in this lifetime.
Depending on the era, rabbinic sage, and God-only-knows what else, Jewish belief is not exactly divided, but not exactly coherent on the matter of what happens after death and why. Rabbis of the Talmudic era taught that adherence to mitzvot would be rewarded after death, but should be followed without that spiritual carrot because they are divinely decreed. First-century rabbis had a whole heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom) thing figured out, complete with time frames for arrival and departure from each. By the time Maimonides got around to tidying up centuries of written and spoken stuff, heaven and hell had been reduced or, depending on your perspective, elevated to metaphor. In any event, he considered intellectual achievement as valid a qualification for immortality as moral action. Judaism, like all other religious traditions, also had its mystics who spent considerable time and energy arguing about whether the transmigration of souls was a form of punishment for committed sins (i.e., not following the mitzvot) or just a cosmic second chance to do a better job of bringing righteousness into the world.
If Judaism makes anything clear, it's that serving others is more than good, it's essential and you'll just have to wait and see how the eternal consequences of social action pan out. With 613 commandments to follow, don't count on tzedakah clinching your entrance into the heavenly Garden of Eden (if it exists); on the other hand, it can't hurt. Add prayer and repentance to the mix and you're almost there.
Contemplative Writing Exercise:
Moses Maimonides, who took on the humongous task of collecting and compiling all extant Jewish oral traditions, legal practices, rituals, and customs, in addition to centuries of rabbinic commentaries, debates, and rulings, into an enormous encyclopedia, made some pithy observations about the Jewish practice of tzedakah. According to him, the eight degrees of righteousness in the form of giving proceeds incrementally. Not only does each stage represent a deeper level of consciousness about the act of giving, but also a more comprehensive understanding about the impact of receiving.
MAIMONIDES' EIGHT DEGREES OF TZEDAKAH
1. To give grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret; 2. To give less than one should, but with grace; 3. To give what one should, but only after being asked; 4. To give before one is asked; 5. To give without knowing who will receive it, although the recipient knows the identity of the giver; 6. To give without making known one's identity; 7. To give so that neither giver nor receiver knows the identity of the others; 8. To help another to become self-supporting, by means of a gift, a loan, or by finding employment for the one in need.
When it comes to why and how people give, apparently not much has changed in almost one thousand years. As you contemplate this enduring wisdom, write your gut responses to these questions:
* Where am I right now in relation to these standards of giving? * Under what circumstances do I adjust the way I give to others? * What would it take for me to consistently achieve the highest level of tzedakah?
Christianity's scriptural basis for social action is manifest most notably in Jesus the Christ's teaching about the greatest commandment. When quizzed on the subject by the hostile Pharisees, Jesus selected the commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" from the hefty list in Leviticus. He likened what would become known as the Golden Rule to the "first and greatest commandment to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," thus placing love at the center of all Jewish law. Like other rabbis of his time, Jesus advanced the spiritual necessity of hospitality, charitable acts of giving, tithing, and gleaning.
But Jesus, in his role as radical rabbi, had a more expansive notion of tzedakah, calling upon his followers to surpass the righteousness of the dominant priests and teachers of law. Jesus challenged man-made laws about time, place, person, and manner. All four gospel books of the New Testament tell parables and report instances of gleaning, feeding, forgiving, and miraculous healing unfettered by legalistic interpretations about Sabbath observance, or who should be worthy of compassion. Mosaic Law may have gone on and on about the importance of righteous acts, but Jesus actually hung out with lepers and other outcasts--sometimes without even ritually washing!
Actually, Jesus did more than hang out with the dregs of ancient society, he reached out to them and defended their God-given right to existence. The Kingdom of Heaven truly awaited those who served the less savory members of the human family. There's no debate among Christians as to whether heaven and hell exist--they do, nor is there debate about who gets a trip to eternal paradise--Believers. Things heat up among the faithful over the role "good works" play relative to salvation.
"Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead," wrote James in an epistle to members of the early church. Nevertheless, this passage juxtaposed with others most notably by the apostle Paul, about the supervening power of grace through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have made for centuries of sectarian wrangling and no shortage of bloody battles among Christians. Indeed, many scholars have argued that the Protestant Reformation happened in large part because of Luther's scripturally based insistence that grace, not greasing the local cleric's palm, was the sole source of salvation. In recent years, Catholics and Lutherans have formally agreed to agree that salvation is obtained through the merciful grace of God, although most Catholics would still insist, albeit more quietly, that the willingness and ability to perform good works is itself prima facie evidence of grace.
Sectarianism aside, Christians of all denominations share with Jews a deep and abiding regard for righteous action which, for Christians especially, is perceived as a form of love-in-action. Both crucifix and cross express this love, the former as evidence of obedience and sacrifice for others; the latter as evidence of a God who is eternal, living, and present at all times, especially to those who would call upon Him in this lifetime. Christians also share with Jews a call to address the root causes of human suffering.
Contemplative Writing Exercise:
THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT
During the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia wrote the definitive handbook for Christian monasticism which, by the time he took up the quill, had already been plodding along for two hundred years. The Rule is relatively brief yet comprehensive, providing excruciatingly detailed directions for living spiritual life in community. St. Benedict covered everything from the sublime (e.g., how to integrate prayer into daily life) to the ridiculous (e.g., how monks should sleep). With specific regard to service, chapter 4 lists no fewer than 74 "tools of good works" and in chapter 53, "The Reception of Guests," readers are reminded that "all who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ."
Despite its archaic language, the Rule has enduring meaning and value. Taken as a whole, the Rule outlines a way of life based on order, discipline, and balance.
The stability that results from this spiritual lifestyle, insists St. Benedict, is what makes it possible to successfully integrate work-in-the-world with the work-of-God.
The Rule of St. Benedict, which has survived for nearly fifteen hundred years, also has value for those who live in the secular world. Write your spontaneous responses to these questions:
* How do I currently balance interior and exterior needs and responsibilities? * Under what circumstances or conditions am I willing to be humble, honest, and obedient? * What would it take for me to be able to see God in all people?
The Eastern Traditions
While it may seem overly simplistic to lump Buddhism together with the conglomeration of sects that constitute Hinduism, both have similar perspectives about service. Indeed, the whole point of serving others shifts somewhat when it comes to these Eastern faith traditions, primarily because of their response to two cosmic questions.
Ask "Why am I here?" and get ready to wrap your brain around the concept of "Full Realization" or "Enlightenment" which, by the way, is the liberating bliss of realizing that everything is illusion. The point of being here is to get to there and serving others provides a means of transportation. Ask "What happens when I die?" and you can expect to hear something that sounds like "Plan on coming back until you get it right." The doctrine of reincarnation guarantees eternal lives, and service is one way to get it "right."
The principle of quid pro quo, embedded in the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, is more blatantly revealed and revered by Eastern practitioners who believe that true service is, at its core, an act of self-purification for the giver. Ethical and compassionate action not only provides opportunities to reduce the personal greed, selfishness, and cravings that inhibit spiritual progress, but also gives rise to merit (punna) which, in turn, purifies the mind of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that cause suffering (dukkha). The Buddhist practice of charity (dana) and Hindu practice of selfless service (seva) plus the wisdom that emerges with regular meditation is what makes enlightenment (nirvana) possible.
Although Eastern practitioners are more apt to call them "dialogues," sectarian squabbles about social responsibility exist here as well. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, for example, are divided as to whether liberation should be put on hold for the sake of others. Mahayana Buddhists venerate the bodhisattva, a being who practices generosity, morality, renunciation, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and evenmindedness throughout many lives to lessen the dukkha of others. The bodhisattva voluntarily stalls final attainment (and therefore release from the painful cycle of life, death, and rebirth) to lead other sentient beings to nirvana. By serving others first, the bodhisattva represents the ultimate expression of compassion. Theravada Buddhists invite all sentient beings to reduce their own suffering by seeking release from greed, selfishness, acquisitiveness, and attachment through practices (including ethical actions) that expose and expunge negative mental states. There is nothing to hold onto; letting go and giving it all away is a path to and beyond Self.
In the Eastern traditions, meditation in its many forms is a core practice, one that reveals the ego's desires and the mind's frantic antic attempts to cover them up. Practiced regularly, it brings freedom from the ignorance that gives rise to dukkha and softens the heart so that the supreme Oneness of all beings is realized--if only for a split second of ecstatic consciousness in this lifetime. Maybe longer in the next, depending on your attainment.
Despite any appearances to the contrary, meditation offers a way to become free from the individual self with its narcissistic concerns and petty problems. Compassion, the awareness of another's suffering, is a quality-of-being that can be cultivated. Loving-kindness (metta) meditation is an exquisite practice that will help you open both mind and heart to others. The practice of metta dissolves fear and anxiety through the silent or quietly audible repetition of four short resolves or wishes, starting with your own beleaguered self:
May I be free from danger. May I have mental happiness. May I have physical happiness. May I have ease of well-being.
Excerpted from Deliberate Acts of Kindness by Gould, Meredith. Copyright © 2002 by Gould, Meredith. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.