The Sacramental Life: Keeping Our Eyes on God

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigIn recent weeks we considered several names for the spiritual life as it relates to various persons of the Trinity, and then we considered St. Louis de Montfort’s four different names for the spiritual life as it relates to Mary. Today we begin a series that will consider how the sacraments can serve as names for the spiritual life. All of these things name the same basic reality: our incorporation in Christ, our sharing in the life of God.

But they highlight it in different ways. This is important because in fact it is easy for us to lose track of what the spiritual life is really about.

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The two basic poles of the spiritual life are God as our destination and God as our means of reaching that destination. “Charity,” or divine love, is the theological name for loving God as the ultimate good toward which everything is aimed. Grace is the theological word for the transformation of the person by contact with God: the work God does in us.

Our constant temptation is to sink into ourselves. We replace charity with love of self when we focus on experience, as if the real point of the spiritual life was to have visions, or warm fuzzy feelings – or no feelings: spiritual dryness can be idolized too. In fact, I fear that there’s a certain kind of pseudo-mysticism about where people feel like if they space out, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that emptying of the mind is the presence of God. Liberal Catholics call this “centering prayer,” and conservative Catholics know it must be bad. But I think a lot of conservative, or quasi-orthodox Catholics, also think silence itself is prayer: a dangerous incursion of Buddhism, a loss of the fire of charity.

But so too can be the fad of journaling. Now, Mother Teresa herself, a real model of divine charity, seems to have liked both silence and journaling. But what are we journaling about? Are we gazing at ourselves in the mirror? Or are we creating a God in our own image, describing the God we love in our own terms, rather than his?

To love truly, we have to keep our eyes on God. Scripture can be a helpful way to do that, which is why the tradition is so in love with the Psalms and various kinds of lectio divina. But in any case, the point is, Catholicism urges us to look beyond ourselves. The true Christian spiritual life maintains charity by thinking about the various names for the spiritual life we have been considering.

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The same is true of grace. The constant temptation is to think either that we do it all by our own power (or by the human power of our community) or that we cannot do it – despair is just another angle on trusting in our own powers. When we lose a clear sense that the spiritual life is the work of the divine Trinity, or of the Lord, incarnate in Mary’s womb, true spirituality is replaced.

On the one hand, we focus on our own strength, and begin to exalt in what we do for ourselves instead of what God does for us. But on the other hand, since our own strength can’t get us very far, we begin to set our sights too low, as if the things we can do on our own are the only possibilities of the spiritual life. The spiritual life without an intense emphasis on divine grace becomes hardly any spiritual life at all.

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In the next several weeks we will go through the seven sacraments, considering the richness of naming the spiritual life by reference to Baptism, or Confirmation, or the Eucharist (either sacrifice or communion), or Penance, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the Priesthood, or Marriage. In fact, each of these sacraments provides an excellent description of the spiritual life as a whole.

But first, briefly, what is a sacrament? Sacraments are signs that give what they signify. Baptism is a symbol of spiritual washing – and it does in fact spiritually wash us.

Sacraments provides an intense focus on grace. Just as touching the hem of Jesus’s robe made clear that grace came from him, not from our own power, so too with the sacraments. The sacramental life means trusting in his power.

And the sacraments make vivid that the spiritual life means coming out of ourselves in pursuit of the Good God. They are profound signs of the spiritual reality of Christianity.

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How do you find nourishment through the sacraments?

eric.m.johnston

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