Sanctifying Grace … “on Tap”

Once when I lived in Ireland, I knew a priest devoted to the traditional Latin Mass, who moved me deeply on occasion. And another thing that moved me in Catholic Ireland were the Catholic newspapers there.

Now the two came together once, when one of these journals featured an interview with this traditional priest.

The priest criticised the view of some so-called progressive clerics, who claimed that regular confession was not important. That is, instead of a situation where Catholics had once gone very regularly to confession, now once or twice a year was thought to be sufficient.

The good father objected. The point he said, was not whether people were in grave sin or not. The point involved what they received from by the Sacrament following confession.

Actively promoting less frequent confession, he claimed was tantamount to: “stifling an increase in Sanctifying Grace in the individual”.

I remain very moved by this. What moves me is that the effects of the Sacrament are taken absolutely seriously in this case. There is not some vague notion here of “confession being good for the soul”, with a meagre faith in the presence of Christ.

Rather there is vital concern for what really happens when people receive Christ’s presence, via the absolution given by the Catholic priest.

What really happens, according to this priest – in alignment with centuries of tradition and experience – is that Sanctifying Grace makes its presence felt in the soul. And this is certainly my own humble experience as well …

What really happens … I have emphasised these words, because I think there is a crying need to take all the Sacraments seriously. Yes I concur with the traditional Irish priest I knew, that being encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Confession less often stifles the flow of Grace.

Yet as important as Confession is, it is but one of seven channels of this Sanctifying Grace. All are profoundly important to receive and acknowledge, if we are Catholic and if we care not only for the sake of our own souls, but for the sake of the soul of the world.

The Sanctifying Grace of Christ is the Grace of Divine Humanity. Is this not crucial in a society that seems in so many ways to become ever less human?

All of this also puts me in mind of three simple, bizarre words to describe the Sacraments. Three simple words, which came to me once years ago, which are so mundane as to perhaps actually profane the Mystery:

“Grace on tap” … three words for a very mundane image of a Sacred reality.

May I be forgiven for profaning the Mystery, if I indeed I do? I would like to report the context in which these three bizarre words first came to my mind. I report them because this apparently ridiculous formula had a peculiar value in helping me to see what was really going on in the heart of the Church.

They came to me years ago, as I first journeyed into Catholicism. As I realised why the ‘source and summit’ of the Catholic faith was something so very different to what I had always imagined a church to be.

That is to say, I had grown up an Anglo-American, grown-up in fact, in both America and England – English-speaking countries with a now secularised Protestant heritage, as are all Anglophone countries, save Ireland … Catholic Ireland.

And I came to see that this Anglo heritage had given me no idea as to what a Sacrament was. No idea of that which lies at heart of what perhaps nearly 70 per cent of global Christianity is. The near 70 per cent that is to say, that is encompassed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but which of course lie principally outside the Protestant-secular heritage I absorbed from my culture.

No, in the Anglophone contexts I grew up in, the prevalent image of Christianity was not that of the Sacramental Church. Thus the idea I absorbed unconsciously was that a church was a place where people went primarily to listen to a sermon and sing some songs, perhaps, praising God …

And how many other Anglophones have formed the same erroneous impressions as to the nature of the Church …? How many unconsciously assume that “Christianity is Christianity”, that there is little difference between its ‘denominations’ and that probably their local Protestant variety is much like any other?

Yes I believe we who are born into an English-speaking heritage often tend to be burdened indeed by our culturally inherited concepts of the Church. This involves an area I want to explore further at this website, although a certain beginning can already be found here.

In any event, these bizarre three words helped me somehow to see that the Church was something very different to the ideas I had absorbed.

The words are ridiculously mundane, as I say. They use the terms of a mechanical process, turning a metal tap to trigger a release … and the Sacramental Mystery has nothing mechanical to it!

At the same time, these bizarre words do at least suggest sheer gratuitousness. Everywhere in the so-called first world at least, we know the experience of going to a tap, and freely receiving that which sustains life. As children from a early age, we learn that we can go to this tap to receive what we need.

Every analogy has its limits! I pray again mine is not too profane. Because somehow it helped me to see … to see the gratuitousness of the Catholic Church. I who had been a New Ager often paying expensive sums to participate in New Age spirituality, I now saw with a sense of wonder what was being offered freely in countless, countless churches across the entirety of the planet.

And I now saw other things as well. For example, I saw more clearly how it was possible that, until the 1960’s, the Catholic Mass was celebrated in an incomprehensible language. Because if the primary purpose of the Church is to give forth Sanctifying Grace, the mental concepts communicated in language are not as important as they are in a Protestant service.

And I now saw why perhaps hundreds of thousands of Catholic priests across the planet still celebrate the Mass every day, after two millennia, even if not another soul is present beside the priest …

All this I realised then, as I saw that what lay at the heart of the Catholic Church, was an understanding that we could go to receive Grace, a guaranteed flow of enlivening, strengthening, cleansing Grace, if we could just make a simple effort, like turning on the tap, turning on the tap by sincerely opening ourselves to receive the Mystery at the Sacred Heart of the Sacraments.

To receive the Mystery! And how we receive … we who as Catholics participate in these Sacraments, sincerely willing to say ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’, for the pain we inevitably inflict every day of our lives, ‘through what we have done, and what we have failed to do’ . How we receive, how deeply do we receive …

From Amazon USA:

Most of these can be also be found in our Amazon UK store here – (though sadly not the beautiful French film Bernadette which does so much more to evoke the epoch than the Hollywood version).

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  1. Edwin Shendelman
    Posted 17 July 2009 at 22:33 | Permalink

    Your remarks about the irony of endless New Age workshops and seminars of dubious value costing so much money versus the \venue\ of the Sacraments being \free\ but of inestimable value is spot on and something I’ve noticed time and again if sometimes differently…Most of my most valuable spiritual experiences came free of charge, they were, as you put it, \Grace on Tap.\ From receiving a \baptism of the Spirit\ at a Hasidic Jewish gathering, to \accidentally\ receiving Holy Communion in an Anglican Church, to being a part of gatherings of Dervishes, to praying the Rosary at a Charismatic Catholic group…all awesome and life-changing and all…free of charge.

  2. roger
    Posted 20 July 2009 at 10:00 | Permalink

    Edwin, thank you warmly for sharing these “life-changing” experiences. Something I suspect is more needed in Catholic circles is such sharing of experience. The Latin Mass priest mentioned above spoke of the Grace of the Sacrament of Confession being stifled. If I were to have asked him his basis for this, I suspect he would have given me an admirable foundation in doctrine.

    As crucial as this is, I wonder if in the world situation today we need to also speak from our experience as you do. I want to say more. For now I will just venture a little sharing myself: the Sacraments are the joy of my life. And how many times I have felt their cleansing, warming power in my soul. Particularly when I have received the double Grace of Confession followed by the Mass. After this, sometimes the effect is palpable for hours, even till the next morning, or so it seems to me.

    It is such experience of the Grace of the Sacraments that has led me to feel increasingly the tragedy of a cultural inheritance where “Anglo-Saxons” frequently have no idea what a Sacrament is … as I did not, until I went consciously for the first time to a Catholic Mass, age 33. I did not receive the Eucharist, but the priest blessed me “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and the effect was again, most palpable. I felt different indeed for the rest of the day.

    “Life-changing” as you say, dear Unknown Friend. Thank you, again. I very much appreciate your comments …

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