Grace? Sacrament? Love? God?

Grace? Sacrament? Love? God?
“I am talking about the struggle to make sense of what grace is; what sacrament is; what ministry is; what love is; who God is; what prayer is.”  Seamus Ahearne, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ (Godly and Human)  Feb 5th, 2017.
Thank God someone else is asking my own questions. If I was asked to name one key proof of Irish Catholic crisis today that would be the almost complete clerical silence on the once-pervasive subject of ‘grace’.
If priests cannot speak with conviction about grace, how can they argue for the sacraments as ‘channels’ of grace?  And If they cannot speak for the sacraments how can they make a case for their own calling, or recommend it to teenagers?
Seamus Ahearne has put his finger on the burning core of Ireland’s Catholic and Christian crisis.
Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s how could I question the necessity of divine grace to win ‘eternal life’ – in spite of (pre-eminently) sexual temptation and weakness? Those multi-bench Saturday night ‘confession’ queues confirmed both the social power of the church, and the necessity of the priestly role. The Catholic priesthood seemed to me, the teenager, to be Ireland’s most essential health service.
Six decades later I shake my head at the flimsiness of that edifice, depending too heavily as it did on the notion of grace as a cure for sexuality.  ‘Physician, heal thyself’ was to become Ireland’s sarcastic verdict on all of that – but who could foresee this when (for example) the Church of the Annunciation was opened for a congregation of up to 3,000 in Finglas West, Dublin in 1967?
Now we desperately need a revised understanding of grace, to free ourselves from the deeply dangerous notion of a God who, having made us sexual, spurns us for the same reason.
I believe I find that better understanding by remembering the origins of the word ‘gracious’, and by reflecting on the very particular gifts of graciousness that I have either witnessed or personally received.
The gracious person is one who freely offers respect, care and compassion to another in need of these, without questioning the merit of that other person. (These days the least gracious persons are coming to be known as ‘trolls’.)
In spite of that mistaken 1950s ‘take’ on grace as an antidote to sexuality, at no time in my over seven decades did I ever completely lose hope of encountering a God who was gracious in the sense of freely and constantly loving. And, thankfully, I have had such encounters, through individuals whose particular services now appear miraculous because they saved me, at times of crisis, from despair.  Some, but not all, were priests. And in some cases those priestly services were specifically related to the priestly ‘calling’ (i.e. the calling to be a professing bridge to the source of all gifts).
So ‘grace’ for me now is whatever is experienced as undeserved gift, and therefore as reassurance of my own value, in spite of my fear that I have none. None of us is without need of it, or, in other circumstances, without the power to mediate it. In acknowledging that we cannot ourselves ‘manufacture’ it we bear witness to the original maker, the mysterious source of all gifts.
Even the very worst of human behaviour is traceable to the insecurity of our self-esteem, the chronic fear that our life may have no value or meaning.  We live always poised precariously on a tightrope stretched between honour and shame, and need one another to rescue us from the latter at the most challenging times.  The priest is, ideally and often actually,  the strongest bridge to this knowledge and this grace.  In affirming the power of prayer to rescue us – even in the loneliest valley of the shadow of death – he points beyond himself, to a horizon way beyond mere sexuality.  He does what Jesus does: he takes us to the Father.

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I look forward to your insights Sean; they reassure me that there is a logic that exists within a generation that many blame for the plethora of problems our world encounters daily.
    I think one of the biggest fears people face today, perhaps less inclined to vocalise it, is that even when we are united under a common goal with a caring heart and the intention of good works in mind, it may not make a difference in the modern world we’ve come to know.
    The world that existed where this unity could overcome all sin, does it still exist? How would one know if he/she has been called to perform good works ‘gratia gratis data’?

  2. Barry Blackburn says:

    Bravo for this! Sean O’Conaill presents a real picture and solution–being taken by Jesus to the Father. As a child I always pictured grace as falling snow. As an adult I picture grace as the divine presence–God him/herself. In Jesus and the sacraments we enter in to God through our Faith. As for being healed…Thomas Merton advised that we look to the East for techniques of healing ie meditation because as he said in his famous last speech–“they have gone in to this so much deeper than we have”.

  3. Kevin Walters says:

    “Now we desperately need a revised understanding of grace, to free ourselves from the deeply dangerous notion of a God who, having made us sexual, spurns us for the same reason”.—————————————————————
    Does God spurn us because of our sexuality?
    Or are we taught the right use of our own sexuality In Humanae Vitae, does the priesthood point us beyond themselves and ourselves to a horizon way beyond mere sexuality in serving the Truth, Jesus Christ, who’s teachings with the guidance of the Holy Spirit lifts (Leads) our consciousness to bear witness to our original makers gift of life given by God through the action of our parents, refusing to fully partake in His creation by deliberately denying another the opportunity of life, is sinful and this is known innately by mankind.
    I wonder if anyone who reads this has the honesty and courage to bear witness to the Truth by acknowledging that at some time in their life they have felt the natural inclination of a tinge of sadness or been aware that they have participated in the possible loss of a new life through an act of using a method of contraception, if you have and still use contraception (For some) you will be aware that this sadness/knowledge will be now buried under a self-justifying conscience as right judgement and spiritual growth (Grace) that leads to eternal life will now be stifled. The Sacrament of Marriage an outward sign of Inward grace is manifest by reciprocal love given by those who love Him in their unhindered participation with Him in the creation of new life.
    As G. K Chesterton put it the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. Mary Vallely says:

    Thank you, Sean, for giving me pause for thought. As a small child I learned to recite the Hail Mary without having a notion of what grace was and because Mary, in my child’s head, seemed always to be hovering over a blue sea I had an image of “grace” as bags of dulse or seaweed. How many times have I recited Hail Marys since in a mantra like fashion without really understanding?
    Grace is such a wonderful gift, more delightful when unexpected. I think of young Ian Paisley’s tribute to Martin McGuinness as a grace- filled moment. To call someone gracious – and do we ever use that beautiful adjective now- is indeed a compliment.
    Like Sean I too have a better understanding of grace whenever I reflect on what I have personally witnessed or received. It is good to stop and reflect on those innumerable gifts of grace which connect us to the One who is the source of all grace. Love in action, isn’t it? It is only when we look back that we see how often we were bestowed with gifts of grace. Reflecting on that is a great exercise in uplifting a downcast spirit so thank you, Sean and to Seamus Ahearne for inspiring us so often.

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