Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tools of Grace

Jen has another great blog post with an analogy for how she came to be convinced of the truth of Christianity, and specifically Catholicism. She says she doesn't think the analogy is all that great herself, lol, but I think it's quite accurate. In fact, I remember long ago when I was talking to my husband online about religion long before we were married, I asked him why Catholics had all this extra stuff. After all, why not just stick to the Bible and the Bible alone? His answer was that all this "extra stuff" accompanied and complemented the Bible, all the "extra things" were tools that helped people to put the words on the page into action, to live a Christian life. Of course, that didn't convince me at the time, I still believed he was adding to the Bible and in error. But, those words stuck with me, and now I see clearly what he meant, and I'm so glad to have all those tools available to me. They are a gift from God, and they are what make living an authentically Christian life possible.

I remember once standing in the foyer at my childhood church, probably not too long after I'd been baptized, so I was likely in my early teens. I don't know why the thought occurred to me at just that instant, but I was thinking about all the sins I had committed, and how easy it was to commit little sins all the time. (And since I believed that all sin was, essentially, mortal sin, this was a scary thought indeed.) I also remember thinking of the verse that says God hates lukewarmness and will spew lukewarm people out. I, I don't seem to be trying very hard to stop all these sins, because obviously I keep doing them over and over. The thought of battling these sins, of trying to remain free from them for the entire rest of my life suddenly felt like a massive weight on my shoulders and gave me an utter sense of hopelessness, because I knew instinctively that I couldn't do it, although I'd been taught I should be able to. It always sounded so easy, "Just choose not to sin. Don't sin. Just say no to sin." as if the choice alone would somehow come to fruition on its own, or by sheer force of will.

In practice, though, I'd found those "simple" words much more difficult. And honestly, because the kind of statements I heard so often, ("Just choose not to sin") I wondered if I was so bad that it did come easily for others but not for me...and if so, why? What was I doing wrong? (Obviously, if I'd just read St. Paul's words that "I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I do not the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want," along with St. Matthew's famous words, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," I would have seen I was most certainly not alone. Even the apostles struggled with avoiding sin!)

I share this story because it provides the backdrop for an example of one of these amazing tools I found in Catholicism, and how I first saw it working so well where my own tools had not. The specific tool I'm speaking of is confession.

There was a particular sin I struggled with growing up. I tried so many times on my own to stop. After I broke promise after promise to myself and God that I would stop, I started to try and find physical ways to manifest my resolve, thinking that would help me keep it. I made contracts to myself, I even once had a mini-ceremony all alone declaring I would stop and never do this sin again, complete with a candle. (Looking back I see how instinctive the need for a physical manifestations of spiritual things is in human nature, I craved sacraments before I knew what they were!)

Needless to say, although I often did better for a while after these promises, and often went longer than before without committing this sin, inevitably I'd fall back. In hindsight, I do believe God was giving me the grace to avoid the sin during those times, my problem was I thought it was supposed to be a one time thing, so when I fell back, I would basically be pushed to despair that I had failed, yet again, and become hopeless at the prospect of ever conquering this sin completely.

Enter Catholicism and her many tools.

Once I became Catholic I started going to confession for this sin. What I noticed is that each time I went to confession for it, the time until I started feeling tempted to it got longer and longer. First it was weeks, then it was months, and I'd eventually, unfortunately, fall again...but I'd head to confession after I fell. And the next time I would last even longer before giving in. One day, I realized it had been a while since we'd gone to confession, and thought we ought to go. And at the same time I realized, I hadn't committed the sin! That was my first confession without having to confess that sin. It felt wonderful...and since that confession, I've not had to confess it again (though, obviously, I have plenty others to confess!). It has been several years and it is hardly ever a temptation at all anymore, thanks be to God.

What is the difference? It's not resolve has not gotten any stronger than it was when I was a teen trying to write myself contracts and have ceremonies. The spirit was always willing, but the flesh was invariably weak. So what changed that?

The difference, I believe, is grace. The grace we receive through the sacraments is a powerful thing. It is not some nebulous pardon of sins or a get out of jail free card. It is efficacious, it is ontic, it is real. I can truly say about this conquering of a certain sin, It is not I, but Christ who lives in me.

To go back to the tools analogy...I believe that all the tools God gives us through His Church work so well for one reason. What they all have in common is that they bring us grace. I'm certainly not saying non-Catholic Christians don't receive grace because they don't have all the tools. God cannot be put in a box, He is not tied to the sacraments, He can give grace where He sees fit. But, the sacraments and other tools are God's clear gift and promise to us, they are an assurance that when we need grace to overcome sin, He is there waiting in the sacraments to give it to us.

I didn't have all those tools (though I had some) growing up, just as I didn't realize the problem was that I kept counting on myself to stop sinning. I know now that I was right so many years ago, feeling hopeless about the thought of relying on myself to stop sinning, because that is simply impossible. Now, though, I have the remedy to the hopelessness I felt in the realization that I simply can't do it without God's grace, but our gracious God is there ready and willing to dispense the very grace we need to conquer sin through the wonderful tools He has entrusted to His Church.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I enjoyed reading her post too . . . for me, what instantly came to mind was some of the other "things" that come with Catholocism, like rosaries, and devotion to the sacred heart, and praying the morning offering - things that don't HAVE to be used to be Christian and Catholic, but things that can enjance your faith if you are drawn to them.

I hadn't even thought of confession, to be honest, but I agree with your point. Makes me realize that I've been avoiding that booth unconsciously! :)


PS - I tagged you for a MEME on my blog. I don't normally do them myself, but I liked this one and think you might as well. . .