Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Circle Of Grace: A Sunday Rumination

These probably won't be as regular as they were at Eternity Road, but...well, if you like them, fine. If you don't, there are plenty of other places on the Web where you can spend your time.

One of the minor practices of the Church that's gone by the wayside -- happily so, in my opinion -- is the old one, which I think dates from pre-Renaissance times, of attaching "values" to various prayers and practices. If that's not clear, or if you're a non-Catholic or a newer one who's never seen this done, many prayers and other pious acts were once associated with a "value" for one's soul in the afterlife. For example, after some prayer in a missal or prayer compendium, one might see something like this:

(30 years indulgence)

The idea was that saying the aforementioned prayer, whether once or repeatedly over some prescribed interval, would relieve your soul of thirty years in Purgatory, where it would otherwise have been required to undergo purification from venial sins (i.e., those not serious enough to merit consignment to Hell) before you could be admitted to Heaven. In other words, whatever time you might have previously been fated to spend in Purgatory would be thirty years less than otherwise.

Does everyone else see how perfectly ludicrous this is? If not, stay after the session and clean the erasers, and I'll do my best to explain it to you.

I can't be sure, but my guess is that the notion was a vestige of the simony-related practices of centuries gone by. For those unfamiliar with that particularly embarrassing practice, Christian prelates once sold forgiveness from sin, at least to the wealthier penitents, for various sums and / or donations of worldly goods. At that time, the Church possessed great yet unhallowed temporal power; thus, local bishops were often able to threaten some accused sinner with death, unless he should fork over a big wad of cash. The penitent who could afford it was usually disposed to pay the ransom and go on living...even though for some, it amounted to being reduced to the most abject poverty.

The extirpation of simony and associated corruptions took the Church a long time to complete...and an even longer time to live down. The Protestant Revolt was in large measure powered by revulsion over simony and "absolution for sale;" it's unclear whether it would have occurred otherwise. But religious organizations of all sorts have a hard time admitting to fault. It often strikes a prelate as easier to transform or disguise the fault than to humbly admit to it and eradicate it. The business of assigning afterlife values to various prayers and practices appears connected to that painfully prolonged process.

However, an associated idea is taking longer still to die: the notion of the quantifiability of grace.

Time was, grace, one of Christianity's most important yet least well understood concepts, was regarded as something with a quantity: a spiritual asset of which one could possess more or less. Do this, and your stock of grace would increase by some amount; do that, and it would diminish by some other amount. The amassing of grace was, naturally, tied to various practices the Church sought to encourage its communicants to undertake.

This treatment of grace as akin to a balance in a heavenly checking account is almost as ridiculous as the indulgence specifications attached to prayers. Though there is no doubt that some prayers and practices are good for us, and ought to be encouraged, the suggestion that grace can be quantified (and totted up by some heavenly bookkeeper) implies a conclusion so absurd that the notion ought to have been laughed away upon first being raised: that some of us stand higher in God's esteem than others.

This is not the case.
It has never been the case.
Indeed, it cannot be the case.
A soul is either in a state of grace, or it isn't.

Grace is God's love and mercy, which He offers uniformly to all that live and think. To enter (and remain within) that circle requires only what Jesus prescribed and proscribed to the "rich young man:"

    And behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
    And He said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none that is good but one, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
    He saith unto Him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother, and Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]

Thus, grace is not a quantifiable asset, one's store of which can increase or decrease, but a border one can cross -- in either direction -- by an act of will.

There's no question that some practices will help a Christian to remain within the circle of grace, while others will thrust him beyond its border. Yet that has nothing to do with "how much grace" one happens to "possess." Grace cannot be possessed; it can only be experienced. Practices of the helpful sort are merely reinforcements for a particular act of will, while others constitute a denial or rejection of it.

The critical act of will is the acceptance that God exists, and that what He requires from Man is clear from human nature.

In this regard, a statement by a dear friend -- albeit one I have yet to meet in the flesh -- is especially compelling. After a long and varied life as an atheist, he came to view those earlier years as having been spent at least partially "in the dark." And however it might have happened, he came to accept the transtemporal reality of God, with all that acceptance implies. His statement was, as best I recall, "I think I'll have God, if God will have me."

Gentle Reader, I can't adequately express the joy I felt upon reading those words. They weren't addressed to me -- far from it -- nor, as far as I'm aware, to any other individual. He was speaking for himself, and perhaps to himself...and in doing so, petitioning God for entry into His circle of grace.

Such petitions are always granted. Conversely, he who demands to be "let out" -- the murderer; the thief; the adulterer; the perjurer or slanderer; he who spurns his duties toward his parents; he who seeks to use others as means to his own ends rather than treat them as having ends of their own -- is granted his "request" upon the instant.

I don't know if my friend prays, or attends any sort of Christian service, whether regularly or irregularly. Whatever the case, as long as he will "have God," and will conform to the simple, clear commandments Jesus laid down in speaking to the "rich young man," God will most certainly have him. He will abide within the circle of grace -- and no other man's will or action can dislodge him from it.

Christian theocosmogony -- basically, the premise that there is a God; that He is benevolently disposed toward Man; and that He will grant eternal bliss to all who abide by His simple rules as Jesus enunciated them -- is the least demanding of all religious conceptions. More, it is perfectly in harmony both with our natures as human beings and with the conditions societies require to survive and flourish. Yet despite the simplicity and lightness of the yoke, the payoff for accepting it is infinite: upon release from the veil of Time, infinite bliss in God's nearness forever and ever. Nor will any other price purchase all that it offers.

The great irony of the contemporary phenomenon of the "militant atheist" -- the sort of atheist who doesn't merely reject the notion of God but derides and defames those who believe -- is that even an atheist can enter the circle of grace, merely by adhering to the commandments Jesus gave to the "rich young man." He need not even accept God to do so! Appropriate charity toward us who believe is usually all he lacks. But charity of that sort demands the most difficult of all forms of humility: intellectual humility, the willingness to accept one's own fallibility and the limits of one's ability to know. In the usual case, this is conspicuously absent from the militant's psyche.

There are still other rewards to Christianity, of course. It comes with several purely temporal blessings: a sense of meaning to one's life and to human life generally; acceptance into the community of belief; rituals rich with the sense of communion; and confidence that regardless of how things run in this life, justice will surely be served in the next one.

Never in all of history has so much been offered to Man at so small a price.

May God bless and keep you all.


Anonymous said...

Francis -

Well put. Being "in grace" is to hae all the promises of a loving Father (re: the Prodigal/all of us).

You friend's choosing to have God as his Father, is God the Spirit in action to bring that about.

Luther captures it perfectly in his explanation to the 3rd article of the Creed.

Pax tecum . . . jb

Pleistarchos said...

To be clear, indulgences - even in the grossest cases of abuses, were never for the forgiveness of sins. They were only for the temporal punishments "you will not be released until you have paid the last penny..." The claim that the actions of the Archbishop of Mainz and Tetzel were presented as forgiveness of sins is only contemporary Protestant propaganda that seems to have more staying power than Marxist thought.

Weetabix said...

Firstly, I, for one, enjoy the Ruminations.

With regard to indulgences, didn't Jesus say, "whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"? So if an indulgence is a release from payment, isn't that a power Christ gave to the Church? For myself, I figure if I make it to Purgatory, I'm willing to do my time since I did the crime. But your point that encouraging actions that tend to keep us on the right side of the grace line is a good one, and again, I think a good reason not to judge indulgences harshly. The Church's (and our) primary job is the salvation of souls. If this tool in the Church's bag saves some souls, let it be.

The other thing I've always wondered: in Purgatory, aren't you beyond the veil of time? How does "30 years" mean anything there?

KG said...

I wish there was some way of expressing just how much the Ruminations mean to me. And I'm surely not alone in that.

Longboarder said...

Thanks FWP. I needed that.