“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
These words were written about 1,900 years ago, attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, in a volume of Jewish Talmudic writings and aphorisms known as “Pirkei Avot, The Wisdom of the Fathers.”
About two years ago, I attended a funeral Mass at St. Michaels for Connie Walker. Connie was, as supervisor of chaplaincy services at Providence St. Peter Hospital, constantly working with faith leaders from many spiritual traditions.
She served as a chaplain to patients and families and also originated a program that provided chaplaincy training throughout the region.
She was the “go-to” person to solve the most agonizing problems presented by the most distressed among the patients and families who found their way through the hospital’s doors.
She had a genius for knowing where the “unofficial” resources were and how to tap into them.
A focus of Father Jim Lee’s homily remembering Connie was the invocation of what has become known as Oscar Romero’s Prayer, honoring the archbishop who was martyred for standing up to human rights abuses in El Salvador.
It is a meditation on the importance of, but necessary incompleteness of action, in furtherance of one’s spiritual path:
“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said; No prayer fully expresses our faith; ...
“This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that one day will grow; ... we provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
I was struck by this elegant expansion of Rabbi Tarfon’s words. I don’t know whether the bishop who wrote the Romero Prayer was consciously tapping into the Jewish Mishnah, but he was surely tapping into the same waters as Rabbi Tarfon — the idea that creation is less an event than a vector, an ongoing enterprise taking us in a direction and to a place we cannot completely know. It is our spiritual obligation to partner in this enterprise by working to fix what is broken, heal the sick, house the homeless, keep faith with the captive.
There is no other reason to honor Archbishop Romero with it. Or Connie.
What brought this to mind recently was how Pope Francis has made this idea a centerpiece of his ascension to office: Humility about the reach of one’s own vision, but action nonetheless.
He set the tone in his inaugural homily: “When man fails in his responsibility as custodian, when he doesn’t take care of creation and his brothers, then we find space for destruction, “and went on to proclaim that the signal role of the papacy was to “open its arms to all the people of God and embrace with affection and tenderness all of humanity, in particular the poorest, the weakest, the smallest … Whoever is hungry, thirsty; the stranger, the “naked, the sick, the prisoner.”
But perhaps most encouraging for one involved in interfaith work is that he has repeatedly proclaimed that he is committed to partnering with all those of faith, Christian, Muslim, Jew and all others who share a sense of the holy obligation of healing action, in — as he wrote to the chief rabbi of Rome — “a spirit of renewed collaboration and at the service of a world that can be ever more harmonious with the will of the Creator.”Barnett Kalikow is board president of Interfaith Works. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.