Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Good fences make good believers

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 14, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Many people popularly agree with the well-known line in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Fences”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But perhaps they agree without fully realizing the substance of their agreement. The line sounds pithy and wise. However, in the context of the poem, it actually is a grumbled comment from the author’s recalcitrant neighbor who just insists on the upkeep of a stone wall which separates their property. The author seemingly sees little value in the constantly repeated repair of a barrier which passersby irresponsibly knock to pieces – and which he himself wishes were dust. The neighbor insists on reconstruction, seeing the wall (or fence) as somehow necessary to maintain identity, family tradition and perhaps even for the defense of personal integrity.

There are fences and there are fences. Once there was a time when fences were required by law simply to identity the borders of one’s real estate. Their ghosts can be spotted still in the hinterlands of the Northwest. Other fences merely are decorative, providing an easel for climbing flowers or serving as borderlines for plants, shrubs and whatnot. Then there are fences which protect property from the idle hands of mischief-makers and vandals. And, of course, there are fences which control: penning in roaming beasts of burden or yelping pets.

Then there are unique fences: the kind that serve the sole purpose of honoring a place of special significance. Sometimes this kind of fence can be found around a national monument. More commonly, its type is discovered in cemeteries, of all places, where their oft uncared-for condition still identifies the resting place of a loved one.

The one thing that fences of all varieties share is that they are the construct of human hands – whether their purpose is mundane or noble.

This verbal meandering through fence types was inspired by a passing comment encountered in commentary on a Scripture passage recently used at Sunday Mass. The particular passage narrated a scene in which Jesus is accosted by some perturbed Pharisees from the religious power palaces of Jerusalem. (Talk about fence builders!) Their problem: some of his disciples have not been following the well-established Jewish tradition of washing one’s hands before eating a meal. The Scripture commentary referenced this hand-washing, not as a hygienic propriety (as our contemporary culture would be prone to) but as “a fence around the law.” The image seeks to convey an important observation abut the interplay between the covenant law of God and the human need for additional contribution, as it were, to point it out as well as enhance its importance. Much like the fence around the resting place of a loved one in the cemetery.

The disturbing problem (that Jesus forthrightly corrects) was that the Pharisees equated a slavish adherence to the maintenance of the fence (washing hands before eating) with standing right before God. The first became a litmus test of the latter, manifesting a total lack of perspective on God’s covenant love. As Jesus boldly stated it, they had made a mere human construct equal to God’s saving love – and were stuck in their spiritual blindness. One isn’t holy because he or she does the hand-washing thing. The washing makes one mindful that meal is more than the consuming of food; for the attentive of heart (created by the additional act of hand washing) it is fellowship and encounter with the sacred.

Interestingly, neither in this passage nor anywhere else in any of the Gospel narratives, does Jesus even suggest the possibility of destroying such fence, leaving behind only an adherence to the “spirit of the law” – a kind of “God will love me anyway” attitude. In actuality, he respects both the fence and the covenant relationship. God’s saving love is not a written human construct, open to the changing waves of relativism that knock at its stability. In Judeo-Christian spirituality, the “law” is a rich, living relationship of saving love. That’s why, for example, the psalmist often champions that following the precepts of the Lord God brings life! (How different from our notion of law as restrictive fencing – something to knock down, or respect only while someone in authority is watching.)

Anyone’s relationship with God can – and does – get engulfed by the surge of human activity and business. Fences of the proper kind are needed all the more to point the heart to that saving relationship and to enhance its value. Otherwise, the sacred dimension of the profane becomes blindly and mistakenly blended. Much like how the resting place of a loved one in the cemetery easily could become lost to the trampling crowds unless a fence is placed around it.

We live in an age and religious culture which in many ways seek to tear down the fences that identify and enhance the deeper, truer and enriching elements of human existence, even the consciousness of God’s abiding presence. We often see fences as demeaning and restrictive. Sometimes, even divisive. For us, fences seem to signal limitation on personal freedom. No one is going to tell us what to wear to Mass on Sunday! No one is going to tell us what we can and cannot eat on Fridays! No one is going to tell us if we can or cannot eat a snack bar before going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion! No one is going to not chew gum at Mass! No one is even going to tell us when we have to go to Mass!

We bristle at fence-makers because we are ignorant of the importance of the fences they build. The result: down go the fences, neglectfully – stone by stone, board by board – as they fall prey to the misled vandalism of hardened hearts. Until all that is left is a non-descript landscape of rubble. The sacred is nowhere to be spotted and reverenced. And the people wander, like sheep without a fence.

Christian spirituality is not only preserved but also strengthened by the careful building and maintenance of fences. Over the years the wisdom of the Church has produced a variety of such – even if they have been adjusted or refurbished over time – in order to keep our pilgrimage focused on the Source of our life and being. Genuine penance for our stubborn sinfulness, for instance, begs for the fence of the laws of fast and abstinence (reduced officially now to a mini-fence because for so many they had become a Pharisaical litmus test of being a good Catholic). Our encounter with God in the community’s liturgy calls for the fences of silence, decorum, and even appropriate clothing. Likewise the enrichment of all we do (24/7, as they say) begs for a fence which points to the value of taking Sabbath from the deadening tempo and rhythm. Similarly, the heart of our Christian identity calls for the fence of (at least) one-hour fast from food and drink, thereby pointing to the importance of our sacramental nourishment with the very Body and Blood of Christ.

Just as mused in Robert Frost’s poem, it is not always easy to determine when a collapsing fence calls for repair or replacement. But fences are needed. They not only make good neighbors. They also make good believers. We tear them down or ignore their repair to our own spiritual detriment.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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