Red Mass Reflection

Diannuid F. O’Scannlain, Red Mass Reflection, 43 Gonz. L. Rev. 1 (2007).

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“[Y]our light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”[1]

This summer the Portland Museum of Art has been host to a marvelous exhibition of masterworks from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Holland. One of the most striking is surely Rembrandt’s massive and dramatic The Denial of Peter.[2] In it, Rembrandt has placed St. Peter at the focus of our attention, turning toward the bright light of a servant girl’s candle and, presumably, the light and warmth of the fire around which soldiers and others have gathered. Poignantly and ironically, our Lord looks back over his shoulder at Peter, who has—literally and figuratively—turned his back on the Light of the World.

We might consider the light of the candle held by the servant girl (as she asks whether Peter knew Christ) to be the light of suspicion that falls from time to time on any of us as believers. It can be a harsh light of scrutiny and derision, as when religious believers are likened to unthinking fanatics or benighted fools, clinging to myths that genuine enlightenment bids us to shed. Or it can be the light of our own rational doubting, pondering perhaps the unfair death of a loved one or the pain of submitting our own will to that of God. In either kind of case, this light can distract and detain us from the path to the Father, from following his Son who is “light from light.” %CODE2%
Similarly, we might consider the light of the fire around which the gawkers and bystanders have gathered to be the warm light of comfort that beckons us to leave the fray of life’s difficult engagements. The glow of the world’s consolations, the warm comfort of easy indifference: these, too, can draw us off the path toward what St. John of the Cross called “the living flame of love.”

I choose this image to frame my reflection with you today because lawyers, if not uniquely, nonetheless intensely, feel the division of heart, mind, and soul that Peter must have felt as he had to choose which light to embrace in those painful moments of his denial. In our society, lawyering, however much it might be the object of cheap jokes and facile scorn, remains a much sought after and much respected profession. People are rightly proud when their sons or daughters are admitted to a fine law school like Gonzaga’s; the variety and intellectual challenge of the work of lawyering continue to attract keen and talented minds to our nation’s law schools; and even the much derided cost of billable hours reflect a high value that is placed upon our profession, however imperfectly.

Just so, we who have the privilege to study and to work in the law run risks akin to Peter’s. Our profession is by its nature a public one: we are intermediaries in disputes, our work produces and applies the common precepts that shape our civil polity, and, for good or for ill, the most important lawyers in our system—the nine justices of the Supreme Court—are frequently expected to help us to settle some of our most fundamental questions as a society.

As such, we who practice the law are rightly the subject of scrutiny—collectively and individually. The result is that the sharp glare of other people’s expectations, other people’s accusations, and, from time to time, our own self doubt, threaten to alter our course or our resolve. The desire not to be attacked or accused, the desire not to be derided or questioned, and the attraction of resolving our doubts by giving into them, as Oscar Wilde once suggested he dealt with temptation, can be quite powerful indeed.

In a like manner, our profession can be extremely rewarding in terms of material benefits, prestige, and influence. The allure of luxury and security, of power and attainment is powerful stuff indeed. The chance to warm oneself by the consoling fires of this world, while others lay down their lives for something greater is a temptation faced more than once in the life of the lawyer, who is blessed with so many ways in which to ply his or her talents and exercise this great craft.

As Catholic lawyers, we are by no means immune to these distractions: indeed, we may be more prone to them. Because we outwardly profess, in our creed, in our common sacramental life, in the way we shape our homes and order our lives, that we are pledged to serve the will and the glory of God. Without engaging in the discourse of victimhood, I may say that in our times that very outward profession invites the harsh glare of some of our best and brightest. A casual rundown of some of’s best selling books of the past year would tell us that “God is Not Great” because “religion poisons everything” (Christopher Hitchens’s latest book),[3] that religious belief is just a delusion (Richard Dawkins’s book title “The God Delusion”),[4] or that Christianist Theocrats are about to take over the world, or at least the nation. In such an atmosphere, it is natural to think twice about what to profess, and why.

Similarly, as lawyers whose lives were claimed for Christ at our baptism, we are nonetheless not shielded from the claims upon us of lucrative partnership, of professional advancement, or of the chance to exercise our own power and authority. As American Catholics, we inhabit a subculture well represented by my own family—immigrants who came here with very little wanting the chance to prove themselves in an exciting new world. That assimilationist spirit is a great gift to us, but comes with a special kind of risk: we may try so hard to prove to the world that we are able to thrive in it that we lose any sense we might otherwise have that part of our task is not to embrace the world but to call it to change. As members of a largely immigrant subculture in a culture often suspicious of our “Popery,” American Catholics know well how strong the call of comfort must have been to Peter in the cold darkness of the hours of our Lord’s agony.

“[Y]our light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”[5]

Letting our light shine before all so that God may be glorified means doing our work as lawyers with the highest standards of integrity, with uncompromising ethics. That means, of course, not violating the professional ethics to which we are committed as members of the bar, but it means so much more as well. It means being honest and forthright in our dealings, and collegial and cooperative even in adversarial relationships. It means pursuing our work with zeal and the very best of our God-given talents. It also means learning to strike a balance between the work that we do and our other commitments—to family and friendship, to church and God. This last implication is quite important: within our profession and within our world we have much to offer as lawyers who can embrace this noble calling without shedding other responsibilities.

And so today’s readings are so right for us in this Red Mass. They remind us that the light we are devoted to is the bright light of our loving God—of the one who told us that the most comfortable life we can lead is the one that does not stop to count the cost of serving others. We learn from Christ the Teacher that the most comfortable wardrobe one can own is to be comfortable in one’s own skin—able to sleep at night knowing one has served one’s neighbor and one’s God. That kind of comfort comes from the vision laid out by the prophet Jeremiah: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”[6]

These readings call us to stay focused on the one true Light of the World as we undertake this privileged profession of ours. Law, after all, belongs to the people, and when we perform our duties well we serve the people. Law is a crowning achievement of humanity, for it suggests that our God-given gifts of reason and communication offer a way to settle disagreements without resort to force or trickery. In this way, a life in proper service of the law is one serving the noblest of ends, and one that recognizes that solidarity of persons that is at the heart of our Catholic tradition.

The key for us is not to be distracted along our journey by the kinds of lesser lights that can make us forget that if, as St. Paul says in our second reading, “love is the fulfillment of the law,”[7] then love—love for our brothers and sisters—must be the background principle that animates and shapes our understanding of the law.

Which brings us back to Peter’s dilemma. He faced a series of temptations on that terrible night which tore him between two vocations that beckon to us as well: one is that calling from God to put our talents and energies as lawyers to the service of our community and the glory of God; the other is the persistent call of our own ego and of voices contrary to the Lord’s that bid us to serve selfish ends or otherwise unholy aims.

How right then that early in this school year the Gonzaga legal community gathers around the altar of Christ the Teacher to worship, to listen, and to ask the Lord’s aid. I suggest we pause today to ask the Lord to help us in our dark nights to remember the true light, and to follow it in our study, in our work for clients, in our public service. May our profession be the credit to the best of humanity that it is called to be, and may all we do within it be to the great glory of God.


*. United States Circuit Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This reflection was delivered on September 18, 2007 at the Red Mass held at St. Aloysius Church on the Gonzaga University campus. The views expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my colleagues or of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. I would like to acknowledge, with thanks, the assistance of William R. Dailey, CSC, my law clerk, in preparing these remarks.

[1]. Matthew 5:16 (New American).

[2]. Painted in 1660, Rembrandt’s The Denial of Peter was inspired by the scene following the Last Supper and Jesus’s arrest in which St. Peter, as predicted by Christ, three times denied that he knew Jesus. Mark 14:66–72 (“And a little after, they that stood by and said again to Peter, Surely thou art of them: for thou art a Galilean, and thy speech agreeth. But he began to curse and swear, I know not this man of whom ye speak.”).

[3]. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).

[4]. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006).

[5]. Matthew 5:16 (New American).

[6]. Jeremiah 31:33.

[7]. Romans 13:10.

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