I got an interesting question from a reader about the sacraments. Here is my response:
You highlight an important point as regards the sacraments. Yes, they communicate grace in themselves, but this grace is received according to our internal dispositions. And yes, our internal dispositions are a response to God’s grace already active in us. Here we encounter the great mystery of God’s freedom and our own freedom. I would not say that the faithful are simpletons as regards the Eucharist. In fact, the biggest struggle I have with the sacraments comes when I think that having neat ideas about the sacraments can be a substitute for seeking to use them as aid to giving my life more deeply to Christ. Having the right ideas about the sacraments is important, but is not sufficient to benefit from receiving them. It seems to me that the inner disposition is far more important.
There are two different attitudinal extremes for Catholics as they approach the sacraments. The first extreme is as follows: I come to the sacraments to get something for myself. I am a good person and am doing God, or the Church at least, a favor by taking time out of my busy schedule to worship. If I don’t feel like I get something for myself, it is a waste of my time. The Mass should have the music I like. The homily should have a point and be easy to follow. Discussions of sin should not make me feel judged. I should be able to have a meaningful spiritual experience with little effort on my part. If I don’t like what’s going in the parish, I will give less to the parish or leave the parish and go to another or volunteer less. In a word, I approach the Church with a self-seeking consumerist mentality.
Of course, God’s grace is powerful, but He will not force Himself on us. He will keep on knocking, but will never kick down the door to our hearts.
The second goes something like this: I come to the sacraments as privileged moments of conversion. I know that I desperately need to change because I am way too caught up in myself to be a good servant to others. If I find that I dislike the music at Mass or the homily, I don’t complain. I take it to prayer and ask myself, “how does this show that I am not fully converted to Christ?” When I see the sinfulness and humanity of a priest or others in the parish, I will pray for them and offer sacrifices for them. I will only share my complaints when they can help matters and are offered in sincere charity. I tithe not because it is a reward for good customer service but because it is what I owe to God’s Church in justice. I volunteer in the parish in order to be a servant and desire to put my gifts and talents at the service of others. Obviously, each one of us moves back and forth on this continuum.
What of those who attend Mass out of a sense of fulfilling their “Sunday obligation” and not committing a mortal sin? Where on this continuum would they fall?
One of the sad things is our contemporary society is that doing one’s duty for duty’s sake is seen as insufficient motivation for an action. When duty is the sole motivation for fullfilling an obligation, we are encouraged, and often choose to shirk our duty in favor of what we feel like doing. Duty or obligation can be an effective motivator for doing the necessary thing that one would rather not do in moments of weakness. When duty becomes the principal motivator for upright conduct, not just in moments of difficulty, but most of the time, we are dealing with another case altogether. Hanging on by one’s fingertips is preferable to falling off a cliff, but it is not a posture that can be maintained indefinitely. Nor would it be desirable to do so if it were possible.
Spiritual writers distinguish between two kinds of fear of God, servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear of God remains rooted in the self, “if I disobey God, He will punish me. I do not want to be punished. Therefore, I will obey God.” This type of fear is of course preferable to none at all, but cannot be anything like the foundation of a relationship with the Trinity of Divine Persons, who is a communion of love. There are a wide variety of reasons why one might be living in servile fear of God. What interests us are not the subjective reasons, but the objective inadequacy of the image of God of one who is in this state.
In speaking of filial fear, we are dealing with something entirely different. I suspect most people today would not recognize filial fear of God as fear at all. In this state of relationship with God one is aware of living in friendship with God and desires to avoid sin not because of “the pains of hell” but because one desires to remain close to God, “who is all good and the source of all love.” Someone who has a filial fear of God has likely learned to experience fulfillment of one’s obligations as spiritual joy. By way of analogy, many people begin to exercise in order to get in shape and find it intolerable at first. Those who continue to exercise for a long period of time with any degree of fidelity generally find that exercise is actually, in addition to being good for one’s health, an enjoyable activity.
It would seem then that one who attends Mass consistently to fulfill one’s Sunday obligation is much closer to practicing religion in a self-seeking way than to seeking to take advantage of the sacraments as an opportunity for conversion. Now that I think about it, the times in my life when I am most rooted in obligation and duty, are precisely the times that I grumble the most about fulfilling them and am the most quick to find fault with other Christians. This state of mind is the state of mind of a self-absorbed person.
Obviously, each one of us moves back and forth on this continuum between self-centeredness and other-centeredness in the ups and downs of our spiritual journey. We should always fulfill our obligations, but the most important obligation of all is to learn to love God, which is impossible without the help of divine grace. We cannot make progress in the Christian life without the desire to change. Perhaps this is what we find so difficult about Monsignor Pope’s observation that most Catholics expect more to happen to them when they take a Tylenol than when they receive the Eucharist. It infuriates us because we know it to be true of ourselves at least sometimes and that wounds our pride. And wounded pride is as good a place as any to let God pick us up off our faces and help us to start walking in His ways again.