what we're about

Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lent Day 3: Grace and Sacraments

It was probably a differing understanding of sacraments that first began to nudge me away from being fully Anabaptist, and these days I find myself increasingly resonating with a fully Catholic understanding of sacraments (at least as far as I understand this understanding).  Yet another layer was added to that resonance when I began reading Love and Holiness, by Thomas Merton.  Merton  begins right in the introduction talking about grace:
"Grace, the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory."
- Thomas Merton, Love and Holiness
Just grace.  I've read this before in the work of authors such as Brennan Manning, and although I've never doubted it, there's always been something frustrating about the way that it's presented; there's a frighteningly ungraspable quality to it.  By contrast, as I read on, Merton feels practical, very practical for someone who's supposed to be a dangerous mystic.  The difference, I believe, comes down to Merton's inescapably Catholic understanding of our relationship with grace.

In the Mennonite church and its attendant subcultures where I grew up, I was given to understand (whether this was the intent of those teaching or no) that grace was this thing that was just out there, floating around.  It was available, of course; when you needed it you prayed for it.  And then you either assumed that it was there, and therefore you should be able to work harder at whatever your difficulty was, or you tried to summon up the feeling of it being there to help you along.  This is what I mean by "ungraspable".

When I read Merton, however, knowing the understanding of the relationship of sacraments and grace that lies behind his writing, the talk of grace - living by grace, drawing on grace, being changed, renewed, and made holy by grace - there's something for me to grasp at.  When I look through the Catholic lenses that I've been trying on, I can see the concrete ways that grace happens.  , Baptism, communion, marriage, even confession - I know where to go to find the grace that I need.  Not, of course, as though I'm pulling some heavenly lever for the distribution of my sugar water, but a concrete way for me to order myself to receive what is already there.  After all, as my RCIA leader told us, it's not God that needs the sacraments, it's us.  Physical actions, signs that enact what they signify.  If, as I'm told, I'm swimming in an ocean of God's grace, the sacraments give me a way to open my mouth and drink it in.  


  1. "I'm swimming in an ocean of God's grace, the sacraments give me a way to open my mouth and drink it in. "

    This is beautiful.

    Once again - you have challenged and inspired me. I am on a similar journey to feel that grace and make the sacred attach itself to every day moments, objects and people. Lent is such a beautiful and terrifying time for me - especially as a newcomer to the whole practice of it all.

  2. Absolutely right on! The functionality of the sacraments far exceeds the mere symbolism to which Anabaptist theology has relegated them.