The older I get the more I like modesty in another.
At the mid-life point, many of my peers have made their contribution in a chosen field of work. Sustained effort over a significant amount of time devoted to one thing. We think of this in adults who have been privileged to find a path. We can draw an arc of achievement over, say, that person’s 70 years.
But I was surprised to learn that an arc can sometimes also be drawn over the brief life of an infant. Can be seen in the death of an infant. Death can show us this sometimes. And for me, did show it. All that could be have been done had been done, and in the sorrow and rage and disillusionment, I could feel, so unexpected, a mysterious sense of a life having been fully lived. She was not yet a toddler. She still moved in the world by being carried along by others. Yet I saw her achievement in the days between her death and her funeral. It came to me against reason and against desire. But it came. And with it, her modesty. That it was absolute.
I have known Scott Wood for I suppose thirty years. Trained as an attorney and a lover of literature I thought he would be good to write about Moses and the Law. I’ve known him as the husband of one of my closest friends, a father now grandfather, a law professor, mediator, an observant Catholic and most recently, an activist of Restorative Justice.
He has many awards I’d never known about such as the St. Thomas More Medallion Award for outstanding moral, intellectual & professional contributions to the law & society, The Madonna Della Strada Award, The CSJ Center Hidden Heroes Award from the nuns of the Congregation of St. Joseph, and this year, The Bert Thompson Award for Faith Based Programs from National Association of Community and Restorative Justice Board of Directors.
These doors he stepped through. These stars in some night sky. Portals through which one is invited to pass. And he did pass. Into mansions. Into palaces of meaning. Into mercy.
Through Mary Rakow’s surprising reprise of Exodus 20 coupled with Anselm Keifer’s stark image of mortality and eternity, I felt a deep sense of hope. God’s seemingly severe and endless rules and instructions, as re-envisioned, open to mercy. God’s dream is to offer man endless invitations to union with Him, endless ways for each person to bind her heart to His mercy.
Bernadette’s re-imagining of Exodus, Chapter 20, also opened me to a fresh appreciation for God’s justice. During my forty years as a lawyer and law professor I have often felt the same weight of seemingly endless rules that oppress Moses as he labors to remember and teach each word to the Jews. As did Moses, I too have wondered whether the law is just an endless flow of prohibitions, sanctions and mandates. Is learning the law’s particularity like staring into a night sky trying to remember each star?
Moses’s frustrating exhaustion in his encounter with the law-giving God is captured in Keifer’s “Sternenfall” (Falling Stars). If we take Keifer’s figure of a man as if he were Moses, he looks more than exhausted; he looks defeated, lying like a corpse, rather than restfully dreaming. God’s law is too unknowable, too impossible for mortal men. Moses’s parched and barren earth could never be enlivened or enlightened by God’s cold stars.
Keifer’s vision of despair shows solitary man under infinite space swarming with constellations like gold dust. There is no God, just countless stars, each an oppressive rule or prohibition.
But in Bernadette’s imagining of Moses’s encounter, God is near. Moses hears God’s breath and expresses the yearning of every human heart: “I need to see you. I need to see your face.” No more commandments. Show me your glory. But God refuses because man cannot bear such an intimate encounter. Still, God shows mercy and gives Moses a fleeting glimpse of His receding back showing His robe spangled with stars like gold dust. Moses sees the law afresh. Now awakened—no longer prostrate in a death-like sleep– Moses sees the stars as separate openings into God’s heart, God’s mercy. God’s voice softens: “Pick one and come to me.”
Scott Wood is a Professor Emeritus at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. In addition to clinical courses in Legal Writing and Professional Responsibility, he has taught seminars in Law and the Catholic Tradition, Restorative Justice and Law and Literature.