By Kathy Coffey
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17).
In Stephen Sondheim’s musical
Into the Woods, a riff on classical
fairy tales, two brothers sing
a duet called “Agony.” In Act One,
they spill forth their unfulfilled
longing—one brother for
Cinderella, the other for Rapunzel.
The former has searched all
night for the elusive maiden who
fled his dance at
latter is intrigued
by the unattainable
to a tower
with no doors.
In standard folktale
style, the obstacles are
resolved, the slipper fits, the golden
hair provides access to the
tower. Both men marry their
By Act Two,
in. The novelty
has worn off,
and the brothers
This time, they
pour out their
desire for a
and black hair, who sleeps perpetually
in a glass coffin, guarded by a
stern dwarf. Snow White, because
she is unattainable, has become the
object of their affections.
The shift not only creates amusing
comedy. It also points to a
strange, stubborn trait of human
nature: We want what we can’t
have. This quirk is addressed by
both the Ninth and the Tenth
These two commandments may
puzzle us North Americans today
at several levels. Wasn’t it the itch
for something more that explored
and settled our frontiers, built the transcontinental railroad, discovered penicillin and
designed the computer? Don’t our longings for finer
homes, education and health care provide a better
world for the next generation? And for those aware of
gender roles, isn’t a prohibition against coveting the
neighbor’s wife an archaic attempt to protect male
Rooted in Judaism
If we set the commandments in the context of ancient
Jewish culture and values, they make more sense.
When the tablets were given to Moses, the people
were wandering, vulnerable, without land. How
would they maintain their identity? Surrounded
by larger, more powerful states, the last thing the
Hebrews needed was internal division. Lust and greed
would create fissures in a community that
needed to stay united for their survival.
Commentators have pointed out a
unique feature in this community: the
ability to be self-critical. In the Hebrew
Scriptures, the prophets warn the people
that unchecked desire takes a terrible
toll on the poor. While the sacred
texts of other cultures glorify kings and
priests, the Old Testament criticizes both
government and church leadership. In the
same vein, the commandment encourages individuals
to examine their own wants and say no to those that
Such a stance is
helpful to us because
it encourages appreciating
the family we
have rather than
someone better. A
comfortable cup of
coffee on the porch
with the spouse may in the long run satisfy more
than unrealized longing for Antonio Banderas or
Reese Witherspoon. The balding guy who forgives
his wife’s imperfections may act from a long history
and a deep kindness. The long-familiar wife has
developed a tolerance for hubby’s oddities.
The adage says, “Don’t worry about what
you don’t get; worry about what you do
get.” Gratitude for the riches we have—this spouse, this child, this home, this
job, these friends, even these challenges—is the right response to the
God who gave them. Without grateful
hearts, we look sadly like the cartoon
kids surrounded by Christmas gifts,
whining for more.
Admiring the Virtues
No matter what we think we lack, we can choose to
focus on what we have. Though I may have a broken
arm, the rest of me functions fine. In the context of
the Ninth Commandment, we may not have the perfect
spouse or “significant other.” But instead of
focusing on the flaws, we can admire the virtues.
This doesn’t rule out having serious conversation
about genuine failings, working at honest communication
or making efforts to improve. But most people
change for the better only in a positive atmosphere
that invites growth.
In some ways, Christians today are as vulnerable as
that small group of Jews that coalesced around their
commandments. The larger, more powerful culture
surrounding us sneers contemptuously at our values.
We, like the ancient Hebrews, find strength when
we’re united in gratitude—not comparing ourselves
to others or endlessly wishing for someone better.
Next: The Tenth Commandment
• What advice would you offer to a newly
married man and woman to encourage
them in their relationship?
• What does it mean to you to be faithful?
How does this affect your family life?
Love That Endures
By Jeanne Hunt
A psychologist once remarked that the average married couple
has one wedding and seven marriages. At least seven
times in the history of a marriage the partners commit,
with the grace of God, to begin a new chapter in their relationship.
Marriage is not meant to be stagnant. The relationship is
always moving into deeper union or separation. That movement
causes couples to reevaluate where they are together.
“Irreconcilable differences” is a term the civil law gives to a
broken union. You will hear couples speak about feeling like
strangers: He spent all his time at work. She was no longer physically
attracted to me. These are symptoms of a deeper
problem. Falling in love is a wonderful beginning,
but it cannot be sustained through years of
ups and downs. Married love grows from that initial
sexual and physical high. It is a second love that is
rooted in God’s love and offers a steadfast devotion
that endures the decades.
When the union is sacramental, a new dimension
is added to the marital journey. The grace allows the
couple to yield to God who can lift them from pain,
loneliness, and sorrow and offer a new beginning
for a failing relationship. The choice is up to the
couple: to write a new chapter or to close the book.
At these seven times of crisis, the most common
temptation is to look for another partner, for one who is “better”
than the one we have. The world teaches us that marriages are
disposable, that we can trade in one partner for another, more
perfect version. Reason, however, tells us that this is folly and
that we are just trading one set of problems for another. To covet
another is grounded in selfish desire. Catholic marriage is permanent.
The covenant vow brings every grace necessary to
endure seven or seventy endings and beginnings.
Observe how TV, magazines, newspapers, etc., present faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Use this awareness as a springboard for discussion with your children.
Bridge to Terabithia
By Frank Frost
After seeing the theater trailer
for Bridge to Terabithia I had
expected to see a movie filled
with animated creatures and special
effects. But Bridge to Terabithia is
essentially a live-action parable in
the tradition of Charlotte’s Web.
Terabithia tells the story of two
middle school misfits who discover
together the power of imagination
to free them from bullies and to discover
their true potential. I put it in
the parable category, because the
many worthwhile lessons it clearly
intends to teach are unmistakable.
Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is
an eighth-grader who is feeling
overwhelmed in a family with four
sisters. His financially struggling
father is disappointed in him. He
tells Jesse to get his head out of the
clouds, and wishes he would take an
interest in cars instead of drawing.
On his first day back at school it is
apparent that Jesse will continue to
be ridiculed by bullies. Leslie Burke
(AnnaSophia Robb) is a new girl in
his class who becomes an instant
outcast as well, bullied by a large,
mean-spirited girl named Janice
As fate would have it, Leslie’s
family has just moved in down the
road from Jesse, and the two become
friends. At Leslie’s urging they risk swinging across a nearby creek on a rope
and enter a wild forest complete with an
abandoned tree house. On repeated visits
to the forest they repair the tree house
and, in their imaginations, transform the
forest into a magical place where together
they can triumph over threatening forces.
Birds and squirrels become attacking
beasts, and creaking trees become hulking
giants. One amusing fantasy detail is the
way the tree giant takes on the facial features
of the bully Janice, who then
becomes a benign giant when Leslie wins
her over in their real world.
Bridge to Terabithia is based on
Katherine Paterson’s book, which is very
popular in schools. A special feature on
the DVD uses interviews with teachers
to lay out themes found in the movie:
the importance of relationships, the
need for tolerance and trust, the power
of the imagination, self-identity and
finding your own unique place in the
world, and dealing with grief.
An interesting production detail is
that Katherine Paterson was inspired to
write the book as a way to explain
grieving to her young son David, when
a friend of his was killed, and David
Paterson is now serving as the co-writer
and co-producer of the movie.
For decades we’ve studied literature in
schools, discussing novels and stories to
mine their insights. In spite of the fact
that movies have become the most consumed
literature of our time, we rarely
find—in school or elsewhere—structured
opportunities to discuss and appreciate
films for the art they can be and for the
expressions of our common humanity
they can provide. With the universal
availability of DVDs today, maybe that
is beginning to change.
What values do you find in this film?
By Judy Ball
Blessed Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853)
What is the core work of the St. Vincent de Paul
Society? That’s easy: serving the poor. Who is the
layman who founded the society two centuries
after its namesake lived? A bit tougher: Frédéric Ozanam.
He was born in France amidst the reverberations of revolution.
Hostility to the Church and Christianity was
intense, and Frédéric engaged in many heated debates
about the role of religion as he pursued studies in law at
the University of Paris. Those debates led him to the realization
that Christians had to do more than talk about their
faith. They were called—and he was called—to put faith
Paris was gripped by poverty and squalor. Frédéric and
several companions entered a new, gritty world, offering
direct help to the poor in the city’s tenements. In 1833, he
took the lead in forming a group under the patronage of St.
Vincent de Paul, a French priest who had responded to the
crying spiritual needs of the peasants of his earlier day.
After finishing his studies in law, Ozanam earned a doctorate
in literature and
taught at the Sorbonne.
As an intellectual, he
sought to understand
the underlying causes of
poverty and to promote
the role of the Church in
his day. As a committed
Christian, he continued
his direct service to the
poor, whom he saw as
“messengers of God to
test our justice and our
Encouraging him in his teaching and his work was his
wife, with whom he had one daughter. Frédéric died at age
40. At his funeral, he was described as “one of those privileged
creatures who came direct from the hand of God….”
His feast day is September 8.
Each morning, Joe Flannigan
turns to a book of daily reflections
to help guide him
through the day. The words he reads
never fail him, words such as “There
are very few for so much work. Our
Lord will help you with
The book contains
the wisdom of some
of the men and
women who have
played key roles in
the St. Vincent de
Paul Society over the
centuries. As national
president of the society in
the United States (based in
St. Louis), Joe welcomes regular
reminders that, while the needs of
the poor are great, he and his fellow
Vincentians are in fact doing God’s
work. They do that work through the
society’s 4,600 conferences in the
U.S. and its 650,000 members in 140
countries around the world.
“As Vincentians we are called to
enhance the dignity of the poor, to
allow them to fulfill their destiny and
to recognize that we are all one. As
long as people are suffering, it is our
responsibility to respond,” Joe told
Every Day Catholic.
A retired marketing executive, he
helped to form a local Vincent de
Paul Council 16 years ago at
his parish in Brunswick,
New Jersey. He hasn’t
stopped since in his
efforts to follow the
mission of the
society: to serve and
befriend the poor and
to see the face of
Christ in theirs.
Joe’s duties as president
keep him on the road and take him
to places of power such as Capitol
Hill. “Serving the poor also means
bringing justice to the poor,” he said,
including calling attention to the
need for children’s insurance protection,
affordable housing for the poor,
immigration reform and mental
health services for the poor.
In other words, continuing the
work Frédéric Oznam began almost
175 years ago.