Monday’s reading for the Christian liturgy is a Genesis passage most Jews and Christians recall with ease. Abel’s dead, the Lord comes looking for him and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain’s reply?
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Remember the song, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother? Even back in the days when I thought the Bible and religion pure fallacy, I loved that song. And sang it at the top of my lungs. A vivid demonstration, I think, of the law written in each of our hearts. Even-perhaps especially-when we deny its presence.
Like you, I’ve heard this Genesis passage countless times and sure never correlated it with mediocrity or excellence, certainly never to my life. To my habits or as a prescription for closing the distance between God and me.
Until I listened to Fr. John Farao’s homily this past Monday.
First, a review of the passage is warranted:
Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. Abel for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “Not so ; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.Genesis
A very careful read of the words explains. They are simple statements: Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. Abel for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.
Until I listened to Fr. John, I had never heard this message. For sure, the reading never applied to me, to my habits of mediocrity. The star of this story is Cain and his inability to acknowledge the excellence of his brother’s offering when compared to the lackluster-mediocrity-of his own. I seriously doubt that Cain got up that day intending to murder his brother. No, he got up “and brought some of the fruits of the soil…”
Grabbed a handful of whatever was closest and easiest to gather. Because so often, I am not paying attention. Or I am trying to fit too many tasks into too little time. Hurrying…get this thing done in order to move on to the next thing. Perhaps that’s what Cain was doing too.
But Able selected one of the best of his flock. To do this, Abel must have taken extensive time…searching through what was likely his large flock to compare and contrast the animals. His intention clear, focused and patiently looking for excellence. Cain and Abel: It’s all about excellence. versus mediocrity And when confronted with the truth, Cain sulked, got angry because he felt shame. So much shame that he was incapable of hearing the warning of his Best Friend.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Shame: sound familiar? After eating of the tree, they realized they were naked-read they were ashamed. And doesn’t the evil one and his minions always feast on our shame? They know how precisely to use it. How quickly our shame turns to anger because we forget to turn to Christ. We forget to say, “I am sorry Lord.”
Instead we blame someone. Anyone, everyone for what we detest in ourselves. And the distance between us and Him widens. Over time, becomes a chasm.
I realized, while listening to this reading in a way I never had before, why my friend St. Teresa of Avila spoke of washing the dishes as prayer. And Brother Lawrence, in his classic Practicing the Presence of God found washing the floors and the most mundane tasks to be holy. Because their intentions were toward His Glory. Accepting each task as an opportunity for perfection. And during those many times when I’ll return to my habits of mediocrity?
Stomp on shame.
Accept that I lapsed.
And ask for Grace.
After forty days of practice, look forward to a new discipline over my actions. But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”