I remember the first time I went to a symphony concert. I sat expectantly and was taken aback to hear a great cacophony of noise. ‘What’s that?’ I asked my father, puzzled. ‘It’s the musicians tuning their instruments’ he told me. And of course, once that chore was over, the most beautiful music began, with ravishing harmonies. I sometimes think that spirituality is like those musicians tuning their instruments. Or at least, like the string players in the orchestra. They have to get the tension right. Too loose or too tight, the strings will not play true and will render music that is not quite right.
The same is true of our life of faith. We have to have laws, rules, customs, that guide us. Without these our life is shapeless. This is the equivalent of having the strings adjusted tightly. But the life of faith has to be more than a following of law. It has to come from our heart and it has to follow the promptings of the Spirit. This is the equivalent of loosening the strings. Too tight and our spiritual life is mechanical and we are literally uptight. Too relaxed and our spiritual life is marred by too much indulgence and we are literally loose-living. The secret is finding a balance, the right tension. And just as musicians have to adjust repeatedly, sometimes even in the middle of a concert, so do we have to look at our spiritual life and see if we have the right balance.
Take today’s readings. Our first reading from Deuteronomy (4.1-2, 6-8) invites us to think of Moses addressing the People of God as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Their journeying is over. Moses exhorts the people to be faithful to the Torah, to their laws and customs. Nothing must be added, nothing taken away. The Law is to be obeyed in its entirety.
The Law of course is more than a code. It is a sign that God has drawn near to his people, has entered into their history, has made them his people. It will be their distinctiveness. Soon after this passage the Law is summarised in what you and I know as the Ten Commandments. The Law, then, gives us structure, character, guidance. It sets limits.
But as Christians we see this in the light of Christ. This is for us the supreme revelation of God. Jesus did not set aside the Law – if you doubt that, see Matthew 5.18. Instead, he asked the people to see how their relationship with God challenged them to live the inner meaning of the commandments, as reflected in our gospel today (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23).
Spiritual life is not mere conformity but a daily shaping of our lives trying to live lives that are disciplined, honourable, generous, thoughtful and responsible. It is the law of love. Jesus regards this teaching as so important that he calls the people around him to draw nearer (v 15) so that all can hear it. We are asked to live as those who feel loved by God and who seek in turn to love their neighbour.
There are things that we should do, and things that we should not do. We see the need for law, for structure, for guidance, for setting limits. We see them in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In short, there has to be a balance in our life of law and grace, of custom and initiative. Do we ever get it right? The answer must be that we do not know ourselves and that only God knows. But we can say that we have to be like those musicians who pause now and again to tune their instruments. It takes time to get the right tension, it takes practice and it takes perseverance. We do what we can and God does the rest.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.