Archive for February, 2015


Lent, Days 9 and 10, Grace cont’d

As it turns out the section specifically on grace in the catechism ran out on Thursday.  I meant to post yesterday, but failed to do so, so I’m doubling up today.  I’ll be looking at a couple of other Catholic sources on grace in the coming weeks, but will be doing something of a sidestep today.  Even missing a day or two, it is important to keep up one’s practice.

So today’s source will be from one of my email missives from the Enneagram Institute.  One can go to the site — just Google Enneagram Institute and you’ll see how you can sign up — and  you can get daily postings (affirmations) specific to your Enneagram type.  My type is 6 — a figure who is both loyal, but also skeptical.  It ends up being very confusing at times.  I am eager to find a group to belong to, or with which I can identify, but, at the same time, there is profound doubt which causes me to test or question any such group or relationship.  As I’m familiar with the type and this predilection within myself, I can usually accommodate it and compensate for it.

This was the posting from yesterday:

Holy Faith gives us an unshakable confidence in the inherent goodness of life and of the universe, not as something we profess to believe, but from our own direct experience of it. (Understanding the Enneagram, 54)

The counter to doubt is faith, and so faith is a cardinal virtue for my type.  Strangely enough, deep down, I think I do believe in the “inherent goodness of life and of the universe.”  When I’m feeling down, I generally don’t feel surrounded or put upon by the world at large, and a realization of the goodness of the world around me can help me get past my doubts to regaining faith and confidence in the world, and in myself.  As a kid, I found myself very much identifying with Charlie Brown and especially Charlie Brown the baseball player — his team never won, and they were misfits, not well suited to being a team, but after shrugging off the disappointment of failure, Charlie Brown always got up and had faith that, next time, he would do better.  Much of the rest of the team had no such belief, and Charlie Brown often seemed foolish for such a belief (after all, his team wasn’t that good, and didn’t have their hearts in it), but I found that belief glorious.

For me, a sense of the underlying goodness and beneficence, and even generosity of the world around — nothing personal, necessarily, as I don’t believe in a personal God — gives me a sense of optimism, no matter how bad things are, or how bad they get.  When I act and live from the basic idea, I find myself in a pool of grace, or a bubble of grace.  And I believe I can tap into that goodness and beneficence and generosity.  And when I do that, I find, more and more, a calm dedication settling in.  It’s a good feeling, and I may be deluding myself to get that good feeling, but with that feeling often comes a great deal of hard work, so I think that such an idea must have something more than the “pleasure principle” behind it.

So, I’m thinking that grace is the color purple, but also our noticing the color purple, and realizing that we have that color (and a whole spectrum of colors) within us.  There are those in the world who will question this and may try to tear down such a belief in us.  But keeping that sense helps me quite a bit, and helps me come closer to my best self.


Lent, Day 8, Grace cont’d

2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”

“Since it belongs to the supernatural order” — well, this is only true if we accept that there is something supernatural.  It is true that there is a lot in the natural order which we do know know in the way we might know the taste of burgundy or chocolate, or recognize the shapes of letters and understand the words they spell.  That said, I think that “grace” would not be something we experience in the same way as we experience physical pain, or sensory pleasure, which we can often pinpoint and replicate — dropping a weight on our foot will hurt, and if we do it again at some other time, it will hurt again in like manner and we can likely predict that feeling.  But grace surely belongs to categories like love, faith, hope or other emotional states.  We cannot put our fingers on grace, or sense it with eyes, or ears, but, if we believe that there is something like grace, just like we believe there is something called love, I think we can be aware of it, or feel it intuitively.

“Reflection on God’s blessings in our  life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us…”  As I’ve noted before, I have a great fondness for the passage in The Color Purple in which one character explains how God is always trying to please us, and that it pisses God off if we pass by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.  And this passage seems to suggest something like that.  If we adopt an “attitude of gratitude,” if I can borrow a phrase from the more positive bible thumpers, we heighten our overall awareness of the blessings around us.  That awareness and gratitude make us even more aware of such blessings.  In a sense, our belief helps us see the world in a positive way, and acting on that, help to enact the very positive world we imagine.  And I think we can reflect on blessings in our world and our lives, even if we don’t believe in God, and I think we can reflect on saints, or heroes, and try to see the lessons in the lives of those extraordinary people, or characters, which lessons and examples we can imitate.

The quotation attributed to Joan of Arc, is one which I find beautiful, though I don’t believe in God.  It is a statement of one who has faith in that Interdependent Web (Joan of Arc would have said God) and her place in it.  If she strayed from her true path, the universe (God) would call her back.  That response was to a questioner who hoped to trap her — the inquisitor was expecting her to say Yes, and then would pounce on her for presuming to know God’s will, which she, as a poor farm girl, could  not know.  Her response given covered all bases, not claiming absolutely any state of grace, but hoping for it, or for God (the universe) to direct her to it.


Lent, Day 7, Grace, cont’d

2004 Among the special graces ought to be mentioned the graces of state that accompany the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and of the ministries within the Church:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Of the passages encountered in the Catholic catechism, this is the one that has the strongest resonance from my youth, and still resonates today.  In fact, this strikes me as one that would be especially dear to Unitarians and many people of faith — it’s what The Epistle of James is all about — “Faith, without works, is dead.”  There was a song we sang in Mass when I was a kid — “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  That song, too, seemed to imply that the love was manifested in deeds.  So, it is not enough to think right, but to live right by acting right.  

And the list of jobs one might fill are provided as examples and are not an exhaustive list.  The last three items, though, add something to the mix.  For it says the teacher manifests grace in teaching — nothing surprising here.  But it suggests that in contributions, be liberal — so don’t just give, but give generously;  and if you help someone, do it zealously, with enthusiasm;  and if you are kind to someone, do it cheerfully.  That last element has always hit home — often in giving help to another, we see it as something of a potential quid pro quo — we help Joe out now, and Joe owes us.  But this clearly says that you do kindnesses cheerfully, which implies that doing a kindness is or should be its own reward — it’s not some mercantile interchange, but a free gift.

It can be suggested that if we give freely and build up a community of wealth and good feelings, that will redound upon us, and, when we need that community, it will be there for us.  But there is something liberating about generosity.  Oftentimes, I find myself second guessing, but when we give freely of ourselves, that very act itself is an affirmation of positive intent to the world of which we are a part, and a statement that our gift, however small, has some value, and that we as the givers, have value.  For those who believe in a beneficent God, one could see that, in so acting, we are imitating God and making that divine blessing live in the world.


Lent, Day 6, Grace cont’d

2003    Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning “favor,” “gratuitous gift,” “benefit.  Whatever their character—sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues—charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.

On this, I’m a bit puzzled.  The main point seems to be that there are particular gifts of the Spirit that would also be called graces, but which are distinct, I guess, from the sanctifying grace.  Though I have a certain fondness for the sacraments, and especially for the sacrament of confession and extreme unction, which seem to be opportunities for a person to reconcile him or herself following sins (failures to love) or prior to the final checkout.  But I don’t see the sacraments in and of themselves conveying or conferring grace.  That to me seems silly.  The pouring of water on an infant’s head doesn’t do more than confuse or frighten the infant.  For the parents and the others who witness that ceremony, there is meaning and significance.  Communion, which I see as largely symbolic, does not seem, by itself to convey anything.  In a sense, if the communion wafer is not the true body of Christ in some real or mystical way, the ceremony seems, to a non-Catholic as silly.  And those Protestant Churches that have communion, on occasion, don’t seem to put as much value in the ceremony.  Certainly, Ralph Waldo Emerson used the disagreement over the importance of the “Lord’s Supper” at 2nd Church in Boston to resign from the ministry of that church.  I think that looking to that magical moment of communion can have an effect on a person.  As a kid and a young adult, communion prompted me to make a good confession and try to right myself as best I could — that self-reflection was beneficial, and the fact that everyone in the church (just about everyone) received communion also gave me a sense of solidarity with the community.  But I don’t see that the act of receiving a wafer confers any grace — I don’t see that Al Capone or other Italian or Irish gangsters who may have received communion saw it make any positive change in their outlook or their behavior.  Chief Justice Robert Taney, the author of the Dred Scott case, and a practicing Catholic and slaveholder, was not moved by communion to change his ways or beliefs.

I’ll be interested in hearing more about charisms.  I don’t believe in miracles in the sense of a suspension of science in the world.  I think that a speech, or some gesture, can have some profound effect on an audience and that such speech, such gestures, can be miraculous in some way.  And I think there are miracles in our daily life, in the sense of things that make us go “wow.”  And speaking in tongues — that has always left me feeling cold and not impressed.  I’ve seen people in more emotional churches get caught up in the service and the singing, and see that as a form of the gift of the spirit.  But how is that different from getting caught up in Royals Fever the way we did in the fall?  Or the way Red Sox fans get all choked up by what happens in and around Fenway Park.


Lent, Day 5, Grace cont’d

Sorry that I missed Saturday, which would have been Day 4, and Sundays are special days in Lent (they don’t count to the 40) so I take those off.

2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:”

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.

In the interest of getting back on track, I’ve included two passages for discussion today.

First, 2001: This continues the idea of Grace as something coming from God, something that is around us and in us which “formats” us towards a better life in union with God.  That humans can receive grace is itself an act of grace.  For me, again assuming for the sake of argument no personal deity, this would be something along the lines of believing that humans are formatted or outfitted to respond to the world around them in a positive way.  I think this is the case.  I think that fear and greed (which seems a form of fear, a fear of scarcity) leads one not to trust the universe, and to hedge one’s bets and prepare oneself for disaster.  This, I think, leads to a sense that the universe is a distinctly unfriendly place — dog eat dog — and so, not being able to trust in the world, one makes it to suit one’s own tastes.

Part of that trust, I would argue, is having some confidence in oneself to weather the harsh and dark events in our lives, and to offer some solace to others in a tough spot.  This fits with the idea of the interdependent web — just as there is a fabric beyond us of which we are a part, and which we should carefully tender and not rend, that fabric also supports us in our trouble.  We do well when we are receptive to the world around us, and responsive to it, and take responsibility for it.

Acknowledging that greater web of which we are a part can remind us to restrain our destructive impulses (we are not only hurting ourselves but the world around us, which supports and nourishes us);  acknowledging that we are an important part of that web can help us rise to the challenges of life and see its promises.  I think the Catholic Catechism, by focusing on God here, and on humans, would probably suggest that it is God and our acceptance of God that elevates us from nature, but the elevation thing troubles me.  We are part of nature, and it seems that nature is full of grace too.  It is in nature and in our fellow creatures that we can see some greater whole, and where we can find grace too.

2002 God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. The promises of “eternal life” respond, beyond all hope, to this desire:

If at the end of your very good works . . ., you rested on the seventh day, it was to foretell by the voice of your book that at the end of our works, which are indeed “very good” since you have given them to us, we shall also rest in you on the sabbath of eternal life.

Here, the Catechism brings up the matter of free will.  This is key to the Catholic system, in that it helps to address what might be seen as the failure of an all beneficent and interventionist God.  Though God invites us to love God, we must have the choice to refuse that love.  Such refusal is folly as it cuts us off from good in this world, and in the promise of a happy afterlife. I have to say that I like the idea of free will, even if I think it doesn’t go far enough to explain the idea of “evil” in the world, a world created by an all-loving and all-powerful deity.  True relations must be reciprocal, and if coercion is applied, we don’t have a true relationship.  What we have is a master-slave relationship, in which the slave has no real choice as s/he is compelled to do what the master wants.  Of course, here an emphasis on “eternal life” is placed.  If by “eternal life” we mean some heightened and aware existence, when we find ourselves in a flow state, in the groove, and experience something beyond, I find myself agreeing with this passage.  If we are talking about “life everlasting,” which the passage does not name, though the part about resting after our labors suggest a nod to the afterlife, I have more trouble.  Not only do I not believe in some existence after death (even if there is such an existence, I don’t see much value in letting it determine my life here, especially in the context of fear of eternal damnation), but I reject the idea of doing anything for that reward “in the sky.”

I do find something in this passage that speaks to me of relations.  When one is in a friendship or a romantic relation, one responds to clues to the other, but sometimes one responds to our misperceptions of those clues — we see in the other something that is not quite there.  At some point, one becomes deaf or blind to the proffers of connection from the other, and, if that continues, the relationship will eventually fail.  In that sense, from a Catholic perspective, continued ignoring of God’s offered hand (grace) will result in some barrier, and that barrier will make any benefit from the relationship null and void, and will eventually damage the relationship.


Lent, Day 3, Grace Discussion, continued

2000 Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.

When I hear of “sanctifying grace,” I think of a friend I once knew in Syracuse, NY, who once asked a waitress at a Syracuse bar in the Irish part of town, if he could have some “sanctifying grace” in his beer. The waitress apparently didn’t know what he was talking about and simply said, “I don’t think we have that.”  Well, my friend was being irreverent, and the waitress was right that “sanctifying grace” was not an additive they could pour into beer.  When Catholics are talking about grace, they are generally thinking of “sanctifying grace,” the essential grace needed for the soul to “live with God.”  I sort of like the idea of sanctifying grace, but also have problems with the concept.  As I understand it in Catholic thinking (and I may have it wrong), our souls are not ready for the divine life or for any sort of communion with God, but sanctifying grace “cures” our souls so that we are ready.  There is a sense that, left to our own devices, we’d just wallow in sin and in an existence without God.  I see no need to jump to the conclusion that we’re all broken and need external salvation.  I prefer to see grace in terms of a relation between us and the world beyond (the interdependent web, if not God or some deity).  In The Color Purple sense, this would be an open invitation from the world at large (God in TCP) to us, one we can accept, or at least notice.  I think that the world beyond, other people, nature can get under our skins, for good, or for bad.  I think that the invitation is often there for a closer union, for some greater relation.  We have to notice that invitation, and we have to say yes to it, for the magic to happen.  If we are distracted, or angry, or unreceptive, we’ll miss the invitation, or shut it down.  The idea of sanctifying grace preparing us for a divine life seems to put all the focus on the God beyond, and makes me wonder — if God is always exuding this grace, why is it that it doesn’t have its salutary effect, no matter what?  And if this is God exerting influence on the world, where am I in the equation?  And how can I be an agent of this grace (be the color purple, as well as notice it)?

Habitual grace does seem to make sense — it’s behind ritual and any sort of regular and normal behavior.  To do something well, or get the benefits of something, you keep at it, Participating in regular ritual helps train body and mind.  So if we do yoga every day or every other day, or tai chi, or go to Mass, the regularity of the practice helps build a habit and the benefits of the activity build.

Actual grace — the extra spurt of mojo we get to carry through on a particular task — that’s something I’m struggling with.  For someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Gandhi, their ability to endure seems as much about habitual grace as anything.  And I think that people who need an extra boost can often find it by channeling something within themselves or by acknowledging something without.  A parent might endure a particular hardship to help a child, partly because of something within (his/her image of him/herself as parent) and partly of something without (something in the child) and perhaps due to some overall sense of connection and reciprocity.  My problem with actual grace as I think of it — an extra shove or boost or support from God in a time of need — is that it implies an interventionist God which I find troubling.  For, if God intervened to give Dr. King and others strength in Selma, why didn’t God intervene to keep young thugs from killing Rev. Reeb?  or the four little girls killed in a church that was bombed?  I think that part of the explanation would be that actual grace can have a salutary effect on those who already have accepted God.  In the face of great evil, though, I have trouble with a deity who doesn’t stand up to great evil when such standing up is called for — if Bonhoeffer was brave enough to stand up to the Nazis, why not the church leadership?  why not some clear call from beyond?  For me, that failure, more than anything else, gets in the way of belief in an interventionist and personal God.  But the revelation, which might come in a flash, or over time, that we are all connected in some way, that we all have the spark of the divine, and that those two truths can propel us to loving action — that revelation is something I can believe in.


Lent, Day 2, and Grace Discussion, continued

1999    The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification:(1966)

Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.

Even for Christian UUs, the Catholic sense of Christ as savior and part 2, of the triune God, will be problematic.  And there is a lot of the Christ as God story that is problematic — 1) how is our salvation, whatever that might mean for us, dependent on the actions of a single person?  It removes our agency or lessens it, or seems to do so.  2) how is it that God sacrificed himself in some way for us?  If Jesus is God, he cannot die, and so the threat of death on the cross seems somewhat less, if Jesus is God.  3) if Jesus is not God (a Christian UU view, and a UU view generally), what does his death on the cross mean?  Certainly, for him personally, a mortal Jesus indicates that he risked all for his ideals. It, by itself, cannot save us, though it can serve as a model — he was willing to die for an ideal, and, we too can work and be ready to give all for what is important.

In the story of Jesus as son of God, though, we do have the idea that God was willing to suffer and sacrifice for creatures, which does support the idea of a gratuitous gift on the part of God for humanity.

As I read 1999 here, I get the sense that that gratuitous gift of God is then passed on to creatures through the Holy Spirit.  And the idea of the Holy Spirit as the glue adhering us of a divinity beyond does have some appeal.  But I still think that the key element in grace is our awareness of the beauty of the world, and the fragility of the world, and our saying yes to that fragile beauty and accepting our part in nourishing and tending it.

The idea that we receive this sanctifying or deifying grace in Baptism is something I cannot endorse.  It again externalizes grace, which I don’t see as something beyond humans, but part of the world, of which we are a part.  It is, then, as I see it, something within as well as without and we can recognize and tap into it.  If we assume that this comes from without through a ceremony, doesn’t that mean that those who are not baptized miss out on it. So Buddhists, and Jews, and atheists, and others do not have access to this.  That makes no sense.  I think that ceremonies and rituals help to symbolize truths that may not be scientifically measurable.  They use our senses and metaphors to open up a world beyond.  Baptism can symbolize our returning to a previous fluid existence within the womb and a rebirth in a new life, or it can symbolize washing off those elements which taint us (pollution of any sort), in a way that we take a daily bath or shower to refresh ourselves.  In the Catholic Church, baptism is often infant baptism, which has symbolic effect on the parents and grandparents and other older custodians of the child.  Other than the moment of discomfort when the cold water hits our baby foreheads, I’m not sure what effect the baptism has.  I don’t see any value in thinking magically here, that the baptism itself with chrism and water infuses the baby with grace or somehow formats the baby for life in the faith.  Surely it is the baby’s growing up in a loving community that prepares him or her for a satisfying life in grace.

Not that I’m suggesting that grace is all within.  I think there is grace in the world beyond (but as part of the interdependent web, nothing may be fully beyond or outside ourselves), and that focus only on what we can do to get grace does seem to smack of narcissism. And one of the aspects of the trinity, as I recall it (probably badly), is that the trinity shows reciprocity even among God as a single unit, which argues for reciprocity as a working model for all.  Though I reject the former, I do think reciprocity is the way to go, and is a key way to grace.