Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 5: The Sacraments Aren’t Magic

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Welcome back to Lawn Chair Catechism, where we’re discussing Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. You can find more information, as well as links to all previous discussions on this blog, at this handy link. Please be sure to stop by CatholicMom.com, the brains behind this project, as well; you’ll find more posts on the topic there, as well as more discussions.

This week, we’re discussing Chapter 4: “Grace and the Great Quest.” In previous chapters, Sherry outlines the abysmal state of discipleship in the Catholic Church today: many people not only do not have a personal relationship with Jesus and don’t even understand that it’s possible. Sacraments are received much like checking off a list, without always carefully examining whether or not a person is actually prepared for the sacrament. This preparation ought to be more than a basic knowledge, but, as a person gets older, must also include real intent to receive the Sacrament and all the graces that come with it.

This chapter really got into this particular problem. Something I only recently learned is that the abundant graces of a sacrament cannot automatically influence a change in a person and his disposition to God. Yes, anyone can tap into these graces, but you must be disposed properly to do so. You must have the intent that you are taking this step – receiving this Sacrament – in order to be a better disciple of Christ. And this, sadly, is lacking in many (most?) Catholics who receive Sacraments after the Age of Reason.

I have personal experience with this, sadly. Many were the years that I received the Holy Eucharist unworthily. I was not properly disposed to even receive the blessings of matrimony (though I did not know it, which reduces my culpability in that case). While this chapter ends with great hope (and I skip to that now, because I spent a lot of time while reading this chapter thinking, “Oh, God! How can I obtain those graces I was supposed to receive?”), it’s important to really understand that we do no favors by thinking that the Sacrament will provide what’s needed for those graces to be imparted in someone’s life.

Sherry makes clear in this chapter that the Church does not call us to pass judgement on our neighbors (for we can never know what is happening in someone else’s heart), but at the same time, when someone is living as a disciple of the Lord, there is evidence of fruitfulness in his life. We ought to be able to see something that points out a person’s faith is growing.

Let’s take a look at the questions for discussion this week, shall we?

In your own faith:

  • It can be hard to settle our minds on the idea of “cooperating with grace”. How would you explain the Catholic doctrine on salvation to others?

In your parish:

  • How does your parish currently respond when there are serious doubts about the readiness of a candidate for the sacraments? How would a discipleship model of preparation fit into your current approach?

In situations where someone has asked me about salvation (whether by grace alone or faith alone or by works), I’ve had to learn a lot over the years. I never used to be able to explain that my faith is what saves me, but that without works, I cannot be saved, either. I have always known that no amount of good works will get me into Heaven, because the only thing that opened Heaven was Jesus’ death on the Cross. But at the same time, Jesus’ own words tell us that if we do not perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, we will not gain Heaven, either.

I used to really stumble about this a lot until I had to start explaining it to my children in their religion lessons. (Seriously, if you lack apologetics capabilities, I highly recommend trying to teach the faith to your kids. You get better rather quickly.) But I started out lacking the vocabulary to explain the teachings well. In many ways, I think I still lack those abilities, but I hope I’ve improved more than a bit. But it took intentional study of the Faith.

What I learned was that the Catholic view really makes more sense than anything else, and it’s the one view that is designed to keep you honest (and on the track to true discipleship)! While some denominations claim “once saved, always saved,” Catholicism asks us to both make a personal decision and then continually act upon that decision daily. By teaching that Jesus meant business by telling us that He’ll judge us by our works at Judgement, we are challenged to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead. (Of course there’s also the Spiritual Works of Mercy, as well, and we’re expected to perform these deeds, too.)

While performing these works are not what gets you to Heaven, I cannot think of how someone would explain to the Lord that he is really a disciple but just didn’t get to any of them at all. When we truly follow Christ, we desire to please Him. We want to do good for others because our joy overflows into these kinds of works.

Now, I know this next part isn’t really part of the discussion questions, but I’ve seen so much lately showing me how timely this entire enterprise is this Summer. I just finished reading a post by Rebecca Hamilton discussing the passivity that Catholics have about the Faith (and how it’s causing problems for us as a nation). In a statement that echoes the themes presented in Sherry Weddell’s book, Rebecca says:

Christians do not have the luxury of going along to get along. We must, on peril of our souls, stand for Christ. Hiding in our safe little bubbles of faith-filled people only encourages and strengthens those who attack our Lord.

This is the crux of the problem of not having intentional disciples for Christ: we have faded into the background of our culture, and the beautiful faith of the Church no longer holds sway in society in general. And this must change. We must find a way to help people come to the realization that God is real, and He is madly in love with us. He is the perfect Father Who loves us with a perfect Love. And yet, even though we constantly let Him down, He is quick to forgive us when we ask. He is the Father who searches the horizon for our outline as we journey home to Him.

Pentecost, by Anthony van Dyck

The Sacraments cannot be taken for granted any longer. We mustn’t bestow them upon children simply because “it’s time for that to happen.” Once someone has reached the age of reason, it’s important to make sure that each person receiving a Sacrament – whether it’s Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, or Holy Orders – has made a conscious decision that he’s ready to follow Christ. That there’s a faith behind that decision. That there’s intent to keep growing in the faith. It’s a tall order, but I have an idea that goes against the way we’re doing things for the most part.

I’m no expert, mind you, but I think this move to make Confirmation this “young adult” sacrament is a huge mistake. There are kids who are in tenth and eleventh grade who are just now preparing to be Confirmed – to receive that extra outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will enable them to be soldiers of Christ and ready them for spiritual battle.

But take a look at our culture today. We have schools teaching about homosexuality in Kindergarten and first grade. We have the Culture of Death on display everywhere from magazine racks to billboards to Disney Channel Shows. We have kids who don’t even have half a chance at dressing with dignity because the majority of clothing sold looks like it was shrunk in the wash somehow (or that it’s lingerie).

When I was confirmed, it was in the sixth grade. We were still rather innocent back then, and I was rather well-disposed for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I loved God, I went to weekly Confession of my own accord, I had taken up as my Lenten sacrifice to go to Wednesday morning Mass before school around this time. When Sherry talked about being prepared for Sacraments by pushing yourself to grow spiritually – much like an athlete training for a marathon will push himself to gain physical strength – I could easily see that I had done this in the years before my Confirmation. (I was the only 8-year-old who cried on her First Communion day. Best birthday present I ever received, and I’ve always felt that way.)

But as the years went on, and I stopped going to CCD classes, I fell away from that kind of fervent faith. I stopped going to Confession on a regular basis, I stopped living as a disciple of Christ, and I fell into serious sin. From the outside, I looked like a really good girl, but slowly and surely, I slipped farther and farther from God and His Church. Not that it ever stopped me from going to Communion, even if I was only sporadically attending Mass. (No, I didn’t know it was a mortal sin to do so.)

But because I had received Confirmation worthily, the graces that originally came upon me (the ones I seldom tried to access) waited for me. And the graces that were left tied when I was married in the Church at 23 waited for me, too. I never once considered leaving the Church, but I eventually realized that I didn’t know much about my own faith. If asked to explain anything, I couldn’t. I started studying and learning more. When I started homeschooling my children, their religion books were astounding to me. They learned things in the first grade that I was never told in my life! I saw these things and hungered for more. I started working to be a better disciple, a better Catholic, and those graces began to become untied for me.

And this was the part of the chapter that gave me hope: Sherry finishes by telling us that the Church teaches that just because we weren’t spiritually ready, we aren’t denied those graces. We must make the decision to ask for them, though.

And that’s where my radical idea comes in. Why are we waiting for our children to be formed by the world to this kind of extent – waiting until they are almost ready to fly the nest – before we give them the gift of Confirmation? Why aren’t we striking while the iron is hot? Why not Confirm them at a younger age? Even if their faith is immature in fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, it has had less time to be tainted by the world. There is still a wonder about and love for the Church while our children are young. Why not ask the Holy Spirit to pour out His graces upon them at that time, when they are hungry for it? Such graces might be tapped into, even immaturely, at that age when they might not be tapped into when a child has had 3-5 more years of worldliness bombarding them.

And that grace might be what keeps them close to the Church, even if they go through a phase, like me, where they wander away from Holy Mother Church. It might be that store of grace – and the memory of what it felt like to tap into it – that brings them home again with fervor. Even better! If we learn ourselves how to be better disciples, it might be that early outpouring of grace that keeps them firmly within the Church.

What do you have to say? How do you explain the Catholic Church’s teachings of salvation? Do you see ways to help people tap into the graces that might be bound up in their lives? Leave your comments below and at CatholicMom.com

5 thoughts on “Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 5: The Sacraments Aren’t Magic

  1. ” Why are we waiting for our children to be formed by the world to this kind of extent – waiting until they are almost ready to fly the nest – before we give them the gift of Confirmation?…Why not ask the Holy Spirit to pour out His graces upon them at that time, when they are hungry for it? Such graces might be tapped into, even immaturely, at that age when they might not be tapped into when a child has had 3-5 more years of worldliness bombarding them.”
    I agree, Christine. Middle school is the ideal time, IMO, for children to receive Confirmation. Maybe in more innocent times it was okay to wait ’til high school. But actually, when you think about it, it was in more innocent times when the Church was confirming young Catholics around age 13/14 instead of 16 or 17. And there very well might be a connection there…

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  2. In the Orthodox Church (at least some ethnicities) children receive Confirmation BEFORE First Eucharist.
    I was in early 7th grade for Confirmation. My Big Kids were 8th graders (and I imagine so will Little Brother be.) Around here, the push is to keep it in middle school. The fad for confirming sophomores/juniors in high school seems to have been an ’80s thing. My own (cynical) opinion of why it went away is that it required a lot more adult engagement, catechesis, time and effort to keep the kids engaged for those extra 2 or 3 years.

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  3. This is a really good discussion of the topic of cooperation with grace. I enjoyed reading it. I think that the age of the person to be confirmed and even their degree of book preparation isn’t as important as whether or not they consent to it.

    I also think that teens suffer from the “code of silence” in religion as much as adults do, and it’s essential that they hear the story of Christ and subjective salvation in addition to hearing all about objective salvation. We, as Catholics, tend to dwell on objective salvation and forget subjective salvation. People get lost in the shuffle.

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  4. I used to view salvation as being solely about getting to heaven and avoiding hell. And my ticket to get there (after being baptized) was more about the right checklist of things I mentally assented to and bad behavior I managed to avoid. Somewhere along the way though I came to understand that my salvation is about much more than just the destination, although that is still important (do want to go to heaven, don’t want to go to hell!). It’s about union with God. About being a follower of Jesus Christ. About not only believing there is a God but believing God and experiencing His great love for me and sharing that love with others.
    One image that is helpful for me (and prevalent in Scripture) is marriage. When 2 people are married, they not only share a wedding license and a house, they share a life together. They care for one another. Their love is expressed in their words, thoughts, actions, habits, etc. And, if both are healthy, there is fruit (a child) from their physical union together. There is an effect not only on the 2 persons in that union but also on everyone in their lives. THAT is a marriage. And for me, that is how I understand my salvation – not a one-time event that happened years ago but a continuing union that continues to shape & form who I am and what I do.

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