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The externals of religion: A journey with Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, Stephen Ojapah

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By Stephen Ojapah MSP

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5: 43-48). Saint  Remigius  (437 – 533) said, “because the utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond the love of enemies, therefore as soon as the Lord has bid us love our enemies, He proceeds, ‘Be ye then perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’. He indeed is perfect, as being omnipotent; man, as being aided by the Omnipotent”. 

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In the course of my readings lately I came across the works of Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, titled: The Spiritual Combat and A Treatise on the Peace of Soul. Scupoli was a 16th century writer and mystic who was born in Otranto, Italy in 1530 and died in Naples in 1610. The spiritual Combat first published in 1589, provides timeless guidance in spiritual discipline. St Francis de Sales (1576- 1622), Doctor of the Church and master of the spiritual life, read it every day and recommended it to everyone under his direction. I am equally recommending this book to all those who would love to attain some level of perfection, peace of the soul, and a mastery of the spiritual life. 

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In the coming weeks, we shall explore the various teaching of Dom Scupoli as it concerns our need to grow in spiritual things, and begin to pay less attention to the externals of our religion. “Some who judge only by appearances, make it consists in penances in hair shirts, austerities of the flesh, vigils, fasting, and similar bodily mortifications” Others, particularly women, fancy themselves extremely virtuous when they indulge in long vocal prayers, hear several Masses, Spend many hours in Church, and frequently receive Communion” (Scupoli, Spiritual Combat). This refkects with what Jesus said to us “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).

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For Scupoli, since exterior works are nothing more than dispositions for achieving true piety, or the effects of real piety, it cannot be said that Christian perfection and true piety consist in them. They are, without doubt, powerful means of becoming truly perfect and truly holy. When used with discretion, they are of unique value in supporting our nature which is always indifferent to good and inclined to evil, in repelling the attacks and escaping the snares of our common enemy in obtaining from the Father of Mercies those helps that are so necessary for the faithful, especially beginners.

Jewish law is the focus of many passages in the Gospels. According to one set, especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), Jesus admonished his followers to observe the law unwaveringly (Matthew 5:17–48). According to another set, he did not adhere strictly to the law himself and even transgressed current opinions about some aspects of it, especially the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–5). It is conceivable that both were true, that he was extremely strict about marriage and divorce (Matthew 5:31–32; Mark 10:2–12) but less stringent about the Sabbath. The study of Jesus and the law is, like any other study of law, highly technical. In general, the legal disputes in the Gospels fall within the parameters of those of 1st-century Judaism. Some opposed minor healing on the Sabbath (such as Jesus is depicted as performing), but others permitted it. Similarly, the Sadducees regarded the Pharisees’ observance of the Sabbath as too lax. There also were many disagreements in 1st-century Judaism about purity. While some Jews washed their hands before eating (Mark 7:5), others did not; however, this conflict was not nearly as serious as that between the Shammaites and the Hillelites (the two main parties within Pharisaism) over menstrual purity. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not oppose the purity laws. On the contrary, according to Mark 1:40–44, he accepted the Mosaic laws on the purification of lepers (Leviticus 14).

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In one statement in the Gospels, however, Jesus apparently opposed Jewish law as universally understood. Jews agreed not to eat carnivores, rodents, insects, and weasels, as well as pork and shellfish (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14), and the last two prohibitions set them apart from other people. According to Mark 7:19, Jesus “declared all foods clean.” If he did so, Jesus directly opposed the law of God as given by Moses. This seems to be only Mark’s inference, however, and is not in the parallel passage in Matthew 15. More importantly, Peter seems to have first learned of this after Jesus’ death, by means of a heavenly revelation (Acts 10:9–16). Perhaps Jesus did not, then, directly oppose any aspect of the sacred law. All the above examples where Jesus dealt with the issues of Sabbath healing, cleanliness of food, fasting, purity laws, etc are all talking about the externals of religion. We as Christians must go beyond the optics and the externals of our religion to achieve interior peace and perfection. Luckily, some Christians and Muslims in an Inter-faith conference in Malumfashi last week had the rare opportunity of asking their religious leaders some questions that have remained a source of mistrust amongst them. 

For the first time in the history of Malumfashi Local Government of Katsina State, an Inter-faith conference was organized by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in collaboration with the Commission for Interreligious and Ecumenism for the Diocese of Sokoto, at the Local Government Secretariat on the 8th of September 2021. This conference brought the first class rulers of the community both traditional and the religious leaders. Those who participated had the opportunity for the first time to pose a questions to a different religious leader other than the one of their faith. I will repeat some of the questions asked at the conference, hoping that all of us will continue to reflect on them individually and collectively. 

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The Christians asked the Muslims Clerics the following questions: 

  1.  Why do you find it common that Christians are sometimes referred to as (Arna) infidels
  2.  Why is it that when A Christian greets some Muslims Salamun Alaikun (John 20:21). A Muslim doesn’t respond? 
  3. Why do some Muslims not eat meat given to them at Christian’s festive seasons like Christmas or Easter?

 Among the questions raised by the Muslim participants to the Christian Clerics were: 

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  1. Why do Christian ladies not cover their bodies properly like our Blessed Mother in the Bible is depicted to have done? 
  2. Why do Christians who convert to Islam and die seek to be given Christian burial by their families? 
  3. Why do Christians consume alcohol, as it is prohibited in the bible?

The questions from both sides were many and very welcome for me. I wish we can have more avenues to ask ourselves these and many other questions, so that through them we can get to the interior values of our religions.

Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected])

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