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. http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/02/i-think-therefore-i-am-godly-and-human/
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.
Grace? Sacrament? Love? God?