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What Does the Book of Maccabees Teach Us About the Yoga Debate?

                                           The martyrdom of Eleazar

Today’s first reading was from the second book of Maccabees where a courageous man of God named Eleazar chose death rather than cause scandal by pretending to eat forbidden meat. What does this Scripture teach us about the heated debates surrounding yoga, mindfulness, centering prayer, and a variety of other practices that originate in non-Christian religions?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Eleazar found in 2 Maccabees 6:18-31, he was an elderly scribe who was being forced by the king to eat pork even though this meat was considered unclean by the Jews. Refusing to be defiled, and risking death, he spit out the meat and refused to eat it. Because he was so beloved, even by his so-called enemies, those in charge took him aside and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could eat legitimately, thus only pretending to eat the pork. His response?

“Send me to Hades! At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my olde age and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”

In other words, he would rather die rather than even appear to be consenting to a practice that originated in a non-Christian religion.

To this day, this holy man who was put to death for his faith, is immortalized in Scripture. “This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.”

There are many lessons to be learned from this Scripture, but foremost is how it teaches us about the seriousness of the sin of scandal.

As the Catechism teaches, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (No. 2284).

Jesus Himself issues the same warning when He tells us, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18:6).

Scandal can be caused by laws or institutions, fashion or opinion. (No. 2286)

Eleazar, and so many other Old Testament figures, understood the gravity of this offense and would rather face death than risk leading another astray. As St. Paul teaches, in Romans 14, setting aside a practice that could scandalize another – even if we don’t agree with their opinion – is the prime example of “acting in accord with love” (Romans 14:15).

So what does this have to do with the practice of yoga, the popular practice of mindfulness which is based in Buddhism, or with Centering Prayer which adopts from the Hindu practice of Transcendental Meditation? In a word – everything.

For example, yoga is universally associated with Hinduism. Even if you’re “just doing the exercises,” the story of Eleazar explains why even the appearance of adopting a pagan practice could lead others into sin. In the case of yoga, a person could be led to believe that engaging in Hinduism is okay because they see you doing it. This would then lead them to commit a serious sin against the First Commandment. Did you intend this? No! But, as Eleazar’s courageous death teaches us, even the appearance of giving way to paganism can lead another astray.

The story of Eleazar teaches us another important lesson about how a Christian should respond to another Christian who finds yoga or centering prayer or mindfulness to be scandalous. In our day, because these practices have become so fashionable, the typical response is usually not one that St. Paul would describe as being “in accord with love.” Instead, these Christians are assailed with offensive labels such as “backward,” “yogaphobe,” “extremist,” or “fear-mongerer.”

Besides being grossly intolerant of those who don’t share the same viewpoint, this reaction is also indicative of someone who either isn’t aware of – or doesn’t care about – the fact that there is far more precedent in Scripture for the opinion that adopting pagan practices can be harmful to the faith than for those who think it’s okay and even “harmless” to do so.

Yoga, mindfulness, centering prayer, Reiki, may be trendy, but we need to ask ourselves if we're really willing to risk so much just for the sake of being hip. And if we just can't bring ourselves to stop then we need to ask ourselves one more question - why not? Has this practice become more than just exercise or a stress-buster?

Even for those who believe these practices help them to pray better, as Father Joseph-Marie Verlinde warns, " . . . [T]echniques that arise from a natural mysticism—such as Eastern meditation techniques—can lead to very powerful experiences. But that has nothing to do with the supernatural peace of the Holy Spirit. There is a great risk of confusing the serenity born of some breathing exercises or certain postures with the real presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s a risk to take seriously for it can lead to a dead end and distance us from the goal of a personal encounter with the living God that reveals Jesus Christ to us."

Finally, we need to ask ourselves the most important question of all. As Christians, we’re all called to model the Savior, which is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. When it comes to the yoga debate, how well are we living up to this call?

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