Saturday, November 19, 2016

Bearing the Full Weight of Reality: My Battle Through Alcohol to Freedom


I was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school when I got drunk for the first time. You might think that vomiting repeatedly, blacking out, and spending the next day nursing a hangover (without even knowing what a hangover was) would have been enough to deter me from binge drinking again. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Instead, that night started me down a dark road of pain, confusion, and sin, which severely hindered and delayed my ability to develop into a complete person capable of authentic and loving relationships. I traveled down that road for about 6 years, and it wasn’t until June of last year that I finally allowed God to deliver me out of my slavery to alcohol and into the freedom of sobriety. My intention in telling the story of my liberation and in reflecting on the dangers of alcohol is not to demonize alcohol, nor to condemn anyone who chooses to partake of it. Rather, I simply want to share with others the story of how God has worked a miracle in my life by doing for me what I never could have done for myself. It is gratitude and sincere concern that compel me, not guilt or a desire to judge others. That being said, if you or anyone you know struggles with alcohol or other substance abuse, please be open to what God may be asking you to do. He desires only your ultimate good, happiness, and freedom.

False Power and Freedom

For many people, alcohol is treated more as a tool than a beverage. Specifically, it is used as a catalyst in social situations to produce an environment with less tension, awkwardness, and inhibitions. This is why alcohol is affectionately referred to by some as “liquid courage”. Because alcohol is a depressant, it is indeed very effective at creating a relaxed and care-free atmosphere, one that is more conducive to fun, pleasure, and ease of interaction between people, especially strangers. This feature of alcohol makes it particularly attractive to young people, who are burdened with the two-fold task of understanding their own identity and learning how to successfully relate to others. I was personally enthralled when I discovered the “super powers” alcohol seemed to grant me. Being an introverted and overly self-conscious guy, I found the opportunity to transform into a confident, charismatic, and spontaneous person at will to be both exhilarating and addicting.
            Within a couple of months of my first taste of this new found glory, I was hooked. From that point on, my primary social concern was obtaining alcohol and consuming it with my friends. At first, we encountered the problem of having no place to drink, since none of our parents were okay with the idea of teenage boys binge drinking (oppressive, I know). Our solution to this problem was to exercise our other newly acquired freedom: driving. Apparently, the statistics we were told in driver’s education class and stories from motivational speakers about how they had barely survived drunk driving accidents had not been enough to convince our teenage minds that we were anything less than invincible. We would drink and drive around on back country roads with a 30 pack of beer in the trunk and our music blaring, stopping frequently to retrieve more cans and to “water” the ditch alongside the road. Eventually though, we were able to upgrade to drinking at an older friend’s college apartment or at the house of a friend whose parents were away. I would let nothing stand in the way of me having a good time with my friends. I would lie to my parents about where I was and who I was with; I would steal bottles of liquor from stores; my friends and I went so far as to sneak cases of beer into the movie theater. Alcohol had to be part of the equation whenever possible, and we found social events without it to be painfully boring. Ironically, it was really ourselves that we were bored with.
            So what exactly was it about this shallow, unhealthy, and reckless lifestyle that attracted me and the majority of my high school classmates? What did we at least perceive to be good and worthwhile in drinking alcohol, especially in light of the potential legal consequences and obvious risks involved? Certainly the care-free and light-hearted atmosphere that intoxication produces attracted us, as I mentioned before. However, my ongoing reflection on this puzzling question has led me to suspect that the appeal of alcohol stems from much deeper issues in human beings. Most of these issues are distortions of perfectly legitimate and even noble desires that we all share, such as our desire for intimacy with others, both the intimacy of friendship and romantic intimacy. Other issues arise in response to struggles such as existential frustration and anxiety about our lives and identity.

Hacking Intimacy

All human beings desire intimacy. This desire, as with any other natural desire, is expressed in a variety of ways, depending on the person and the relationship or situation. There is the obvious yet profound example of intimacy between a man and a woman in love. But other examples of intimacy abound; there is intimacy between parents and their children, between close friends, between counselors and their patients, between spiritual directors and their directees, and even between teachers and their students. All of these can be healthy expressions of human intimacy. As Christians, we believe that our need and desire for intimacy comes from our being created imago Dei (in the image of God), Who is a Trinity of persons sharing perfect intimacy through an eternal exchange of love. As human beings, however, our finite and fallen nature creates obstacles to intimacy, such as pride, lust, and envy. That is why when Adam and Eve first sinned, their intimate relationship with God was broken and they hid from God, which prompted God to ask, "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9). God was not asking for Adam's physical whereabouts (He already knew that); God was asking Adam where he was in relation to Himself. When we encounter obstacles to intimacy in our own lives, we are forced to either work to overcome them and experience the intimacy we need and desire, or else give up on this enterprise and resign ourselves to a lonely existence devoid of interpersonal depth. 
            However, there is a third option, and that is to try to “hack” intimacy by bypassing the obstacles to it. This is the method that so often enlists the help of alcohol. When we choose to become intoxicated with others as a means of achieving intimacy with them, several things inevitably happen as a result. First, alcohol does not only thin your blood, it also thins your personality. Alcohol is not a selective depressant, it depresses (and as a result, suppresses) everything about your personality that makes you unique. This includes negative features, such as awkwardness, uptightness, anxiety, fear, hesitation, and excessive self-consciousness. It also suppresses positive features, such as prudence, self-control, vigilance, emotional depth, clarity of thought, and self-awareness. By diluting these features, alcohol mitigates the characteristics of human beings that can often make interaction, conversation, and relationships intimidating and challenging. The downside of this is that it also ensures that your interactions, conversations, and relationships will be shallower. By minimizing the uniqueness and individuality of each human person, alcohol often prevents us from presenting our true selves to the other, and from learning to see and appreciate what is intrinsically lovable in the other. In a sense, it eliminates some of the messiness involved when different personalities come together in favor of a kind of “lowest common denominator”, in which each person’s "edges" are rounded off. It levels the playing field by bringing everyone down to a mediocre level.
            When people become incapable of relating to others and enjoying their company, unless alcohol is part of the equation, what does that reveal about them? Implicitly, the person who has reached this point is saying by their actions, “If people knew me, the real me, they would either not understand me, not accept me, or not really love me. Therefore, I need to subdue my real self in order to become acceptable to others.” An inability or unwillingness to relate to others without alcohol may also reveal that the person does not see others, in their deepest selves, as worth getting to actually know. If experiencing the full reality of a person inspires our interest, appreciation, and love, then alcohol cannot enhance this experience. In fact, it can only diminish it, because it conceals the fullness of human personality. When alcohol is introduced into human interactions and relationships, it produces a false sense of intimacy and mutual understanding. This is why “drinking buddies” are rarely close friends who really know each other in an authentic way. It is also why some one seeking to use another person for selfish pleasure, as in the case of a "one-night stand", is far more likely to buy that person a drink than to enter into a personal and meaningful conversation. That action effectively says, "I'm not interested in you. I'm interested in getting you out of the way so that I can have access to your body." This is the basic mentality underlying the hook-up culture today, and frankly, it is pathetic. Animals are supposed to "hook up"; men and women are supposed to love each other.

Diversion

"The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction." –– Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Alcohol can also contribute to the epidemic of diversion that plagues our world today. When I speak of diversion, I’m referring to the tendency of people to occupy themselves with endless stimuli, entertainment, and distractions in an effort, conscious or unconscious, to avoid facing questions of ultimate meaning and responsibility. In hindsight, I realize that this sort of diversion was an essential feature of my problem with alcohol. When fundamental questions about the meaning of my life arose, especially the question of whether or not there even was a meaning, I was too afraid to grapple with them, and so I simply tried to ignore them. Of course, one cannot avoid facing reality forever. Therefore, since I couldn’t resolve my own uncertainties, nor could I ignore them indefinitely, I chose to disengage from reality in various ways––music, movies, video games, and alcohol being among my most trusted methods. I was like a child who, upon realizing he is no good at a game, simply refuses to play it. I thought that I was no good at life––with growing up, making friends, and handling social situations––and so I refused to participate. How sadly ironic it is when people refer to their constant need to escape reality as “living life to the full,” when more often than not, such people are living a life of mediocrity and dissatisfaction. How reassuring then is Christ’s response to this delusion: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

A Freely Chosen Slavery

A final negative consequence of alcohol abuse is its effects on the will, both immediate and long term. The immediate effect of alcohol on the will is well known and obvious. Alcohol directly impairs the human faculty of free will, which is a gift from God that separates us from animals, allowing us to make moral judgments, and making it possible for us to love. That is why choosing to become intoxicated or otherwise impairing your free will is a serious sin. Drunkenness makes us highly susceptible to other sins, distorts our identity as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and destroys our freedom as His children. Unfortunately, many people enjoy drinking for the very reason that it weakens their will. This is usually done in an effort to absolve themselves of their moral responsibility. However, the excuse, “I was drunk” is invalid if you deliberately got drunk in order to overcome the resistance of your conscience. In Catholic moral theology, full consent of the will is required for an action to be mortally (i.e., seriously) sinful. However, while a person may not have full consent of the will while intoxicated, their freely made decision to surrender their freedom is itself a serious sin. That is why Saint Paul wrote that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10). Sometimes we minimize passages such as this to justify our behavior, but you couldn’t ask for a more straightforward teaching.
            The long term effect of alcohol on the human will is a direct consequence of the immediate or short-term effect. This is the weakening of the will against temptation and sin. Over time, the repeated decision to forfeit one’s free will begins to numb the conscience. The more often you choose to temporarily dispense with morality for the sake of pleasure, the more morality itself will begin to seem dispensable. If you decide to make exceptions to your moral duties and obligations––say, on Friday and Saturday nights for example––then you will soon find yourself treating morality as relative or merely provisional. You will start seeing morality as elective, something that is chosen, instead of something objective and foundational to reality. This is a deadly trap, one that our current pope, following the teaching of his last two predecessors, has warned against with profound seriousness. To avoid this trap of moral laxity and indifference, let’s heed the advice of our first pope, Saint Peter, who wrote: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour" (1 Pet 5:8).

Completely Under the Mercy

By the time I entered seminary nearly three years ago now, I believed my alcohol consumption to be totally under control, and my problems with it to be a thing of the past. At the beginning of summer last year, I discovered that I was presumptuous and mistaken. During my first couple of weeks living at a parish rectory, I found myself somewhat depressed and avoiding most social situations, opting instead to spend my nights reading or watching movies and drinking alcohol by myself at the rectory. To my surprise, I found myself incapable of stopping at just one or two drinks, and I drank far too much on multiple occasions, even after telling myself I would dial back the amount I drank. I was greatly disappointed in myself, but wasn’t fully aware of the gravity of my situation until I received what I am convinced was a powerful grace from God, which gave me insight into my weakness and my desperate need for Him in this matter. I was in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and was praying as sincerely as I’ve ever prayed. I asked God to show me what I needed to do to be free from what had by that time clearly become a serious problem. Suddenly, I had a moment of extreme clarity, during which I saw myself as having only two options: 1) to live the rest of my life struggling with alcohol and trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate and compromise with this destructive force in my life, or 2) to abandon alcohol completely. God was not offering me a third way. Until that moment, I had been clinging to alcohol as a vestige of my former self, something other than God that I could occasionally return to as a momentary escape and take refuge in if I felt the need. However, I finally realized that in trying to escape my problems using alcohol, I had really been avoiding God and His invitation to trust Him with everything, even this thing, this shameful and embarrassing part of my life. After hovering between the two choices for a moment in hesitation, I finally surrendered myself, and in doing so received a peace that I had never known, a “peace which passes all understanding” (Php 4:7).
            In that moment, I became perfectly content to finally let go of my past life, to “put off the old nature with its practices” and “put on the new nature” (Col 3:9-10). Since that day, June 7th, 2015, I have by the grace of God remained completely sober. What’s most astonishing to me is that I have never even experienced a serious temptation to drink again, despite my past attempts to temporarily quit drinking being short-lived and full of strong temptations. I now live with a new and profound sense of freedom, knowing that I don’t have to constantly worry about alcohol and the damage it could have inflicted, not only on myself, but also on all the people around me, including those whom I will (God willing) serve someday in the future as a priest. Instead of trying to manipulate or dilute my personality in order to meet what I perceive to be the expectations of others, I am now content to let God form me into the man He created me to be, which far exceeds anything I could ever imagine or aspire to on my own. I am committed to placing myself, my whole self, under the mercy of God, because therein lies my only hope.

Choose Freedom, Choose God

Let us all choose the freedom that belongs to us as children of God, and in doing so, embrace the full weight of reality that He wants us to experience, as a means of growing closer to others, and above all, closer to Himself. What this choice of freedom entails will be different for each person. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone needs to avoid alcohol altogether simply because I discovered this to be necessary for me. However, I am suggesting that all of us be honest enough with ourselves and with God to identify whatever obstacles stand in the way of our freedom. If one of those obstacles is alcohol or another drug, then of course, we need to take courage and bring that before the Lord, preferably beginning with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God wants all of us to experience true intimacy with others, and ultimately, with Himself. Why should we delay the pursuit of this any longer?
. . . you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13:11-14).
Thank you for reading this rather long post! May God bless you and guide you into a greater freedom, and as a result, into a deeper intimacy with others and Himself.

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Encountering God's Existence: The Uncaused Cause

Anyone who has spent time around young children is aware of their tendency to ask the question, "Why?" Often times, this tendency can shift from comical to slightly irritating, especially when every answer you provide is immediately followed by yet another, "But why?" This curiosity, while it may seem silly at times to us older humans, is actually an innocent and productive example of the human desire to know. As soon as we become aware of cause and effect relationships, we develop a strong desire to know the cause behind every given effect. Unlike other animals, we do not simply react to our environment, but seek to understand it. We are not content with knowing that something happens in nature, we want to know why it happens. This desire to know the causes of things is the basis for all scientific and philosophical inquiry, and in fact, all rational inquiry. Moreover, the predictive ability of scientific theories, which is a key element in assessing their validity, takes for granted that an effect proper to a cause will happen necessarily. As human beings, our desire to know things on a deeper, metaphysical level (e.g., the causes behind events) is what separates us from other, non-rational, animals. Consider that when an animal has all of its biological needs met, it almost invariably goes into an inactive state or sleeps. By contrast, when a human being has all of its biological needs met, it begins to ask questions, questions whose answers do not pertain to any strictly biological need, such as:  Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the purpose of my life? What is the purpose of life altogether? And, the most sublime question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I Demand an Explanation!

Whether in the simple events of our daily lives or in the most complex experiments in the laboratory, our experience of the natural world tells us that reality is completely intelligible, that is, that every coherent question about reality has an answer. Stated more simply, for every effect, there is a cause. Given adequate observation, we see (and indeed, even predict) that every observable phenomenon has a sufficient explanation for its occurrence. Reality is not absurd. Even when the cause of something is extremely difficult to assess, we never give up and assume that the event in question is simply a brute fact of nature that we must accept, something that "just happens". No, even if conclude that we may never know how or why a particular event occurs, we consign this to our human or technological limitations, because we know that there must be a cause, an explanation. This demand that every event have a sufficient explanation, that every effect have a cause, is an unavoidable fact of rational thought. In philosophy, it is known as the principle of sufficient reason. Rather than simply guiding our search for answers to our practical and scientific questions, we can quite easily apply this principle to questions of metaphysics (i.e., the study of fundamental reality beyond mere matter). "Does God exist?" is one such question, and it is to this that we now turn.

Someone Should Have Bought a Kindle...

The following is a simple thought experiment about the nature of cause and effect relationships. Suppose that you want to check out a book from your local library. Excited, you go there to do so, but you soon learn from the librarian that they don't have the book in stock, and will have to borrow it from another library through an inter-library loan. "Okay," you say to the librarian, "so I assume the book will be here in a few days then?" "Actually no," he responds, "because the library we're ordering the book from has to order it from another library first." Slightly disappointed, you ask, "Oh, so it will be more like a week or so before it arrives?" Checking the computer again with a confused glance, he apologizes, "I'm sorry but no, the book won't be here in a week either because apparently that second library has to first order it from another library." At this point, you're starting to get annoyed and to doubt that you will ever see the book that you're anxious to read. Then the librarian tells you something very strange, in fact, it's so strange that it makes no sense to you at all and you assume that he must be playing a prank on you. He says, "I'm so sorry, but it turns out that the number of libraries that need to first borrow the book before lending it to us is actually infinite." If we excuse for now the impossibility of a literally infinite number of libraries existing on the planet for the sake of our thought experiment, what can we still say about the possibility of you ever receiving your (apparently extremely rare) book? It's not a trick question. The answer is: zero, zilch, none.

Job Opening: Cause of All Reality

This might seem intuitively obvious, but let's examine this answer a little closer. Why would you never receive the book? The answer is, because an infinite number of libraries that all need to borrow a book before being able to lend can never provide the book. So, what do books and libraries have to do with God's existence? Well, in our scenario above, what would be required in order for you to check out the book? Of course, there would have to be a library that actually has the book in stock, one that doesn't have to borrow the book from another library. No matter how many libraries you add to the scenario, if they all have to borrow the book before lending it, then the book will never reach you. Now, switch gears and imagine that "existence" is the book in the scenario. What do we know about you? You exist (you have the book). Did you always exist? No, you were born number of years ago. Why do you exist then? Because your parents conceived you, gave birth to you, and cared for you. But why do they exist? Because their parents did the same for them. But why do their parents exist? Because their parents . . . You can probably guess where this is going. If we could keep going back far enough with our questions and answers, we would eventually reach the first human beings as the explanation for why you exist, and beyond them, whatever creatures might have preceded them, and beyond those creatures, whatever environmental causes were needed to bring about their existence, and beyond those causes, whatever causes were needed to bring the Earth into existence, and so on and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang (assuming for now that the Big Bang marks the beginning of the universe as most physicists and cosmologists believe). Well then, where does God fit into this (condensed) narrative of the history of physical reality? Remember what we said about the libraries––there must exist a library that actually has the book in order for you to receive it. But you do have the book, you exist right now. That means that something must exist in reality that caused you to exist (through an extremely long and complicated series of other causes), without needing to be caused itself. This means that there must exist an "uncaused cause" in reality.

Wait, This Sounds Familiar...

Okay, what's the big deal? So there has to be an uncaused cause, but that could be anything, right? It doesn't have to be something like God, does it? Actually, when we think about what it means for something to be "uncaused", some interesting implications quickly surface. For one thing, in order for something to be uncaused, it would have to be eternal, that is, outside of time. This is because something that is uncaused could not have begun to exist at some past point in time, since the beginning of its existence (i.e., its creation) would require a cause. Also, as the only uncaused cause, it would have to be the cause, explanation, or creator of everything else that exists (i.e., all the "caused causes). Finally, an uncaused cause would have to be immaterial (i.e., not made of matter), because things that are made of matter are composed in a certain form, which requires a cause, and subject to change (which is a measured by time). So, in order for you and your iPhone and your dog and the Statue of Liberty and penguins and black holes and everything and everyone else to exist, there must be an immaterial (a.k.a. spiritual), eternal, and uncaused cause. What (or Who) does that sound like? In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, "And this everyone calls God."

Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Faith That is Sacramental

One of the most significant theological differences between the Catholic Faith and most Protestant traditions lies in the amount of emphasis given to sacraments. In the Catholic Church we recognize seven sacraments, whereas most Protestant traditions today recognize only two. The two that are common to Catholics and Protestants alike are Baptism and the Eucharist or "communion." The seven sacraments that the Catholic Church acknowledges and celebrates are:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance (or Reconciliation), the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. In the Catholic Church, reception of the sacraments is central to living the fulness of the Christian faith. Considering how essential the role of the sacraments is, it is important for us to understand what a sacrament is, why the Christian faith is sacramental, and why the Catholic Church teaches the necessity of the sacraments for salvation and sanctification.

What is a Sacrament?

What is a sacrament? First of all the Catholic Church considers herself to be the sacrament of salvation: "The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men" (CCC 780). It is from this understanding of the Church as sacrament that the particular sacraments within the Church derive their meaning. There is no clearer definition of the sacraments than that found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions" (CCC 1131).
This definition contains a lot of important information, so let's unpack it a little. First, the sacraments are signs, which means that they represent and point to a reality beyond themselves. However, the sacraments are not merely signs because they are efficacious, meaning they actually bring about a real change in the person who receives them. This one word, efficacious, has immense theological implications, because the failure to acknowledge the efficacious nature of the sacraments produces radically different (and incorrect) understandings of them. A paradigm example of this is the sacrament of Baptism. In the Catholic Church, we believe in "baptismal regeneration," which means that Baptism is necessary for salvation because it actually cleanses our souls of Original Sin and dispenses sanctifying grace into our souls. This is not simply a symbolic or semantic way of describing an interior process of conversion, because it marks an objective change in reality independent of our mind or conviction. In the words of Saint Peter, "Baptism...now saves you...as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21).

Born Again––the Bible Way

Many Christians will speak of the need for every person to be "born again," something that Catholics also believe. However, when we speak of being "born again," we're referring primarily to Baptism, as Christ himself did. When Nicodemus spoke to Jesus, marveling at the signs he was performing, Jesus said to him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). Hence the necessity of being born again. However, Jesus did not stop at these words. Nicodemus, perplexed at the idea of being "born again," proceeded to ask Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4)  Apart from the rather comical idea of taking this question literally lies the essential question: "How?" Nicodemus was surely thinking, "If this wise man from God tells me I must be born again, then knowing what I must do to achieve this rebirth is of utmost importance." Curiously, many Protestants, if asked what it means to be born again, will respond with something along the lines of, "You have to ask Jesus to come into your heart and accept him as your personal Lord and Savior" (this process is sometimes referred to as praying the "Sinner's Prayer"). I say this is curious not only because Protestants tend to be well-versed in Sacred Scripture, but primarily because Jesus himself told us exactly how to be born again, and he didn't mention praying any such prayer. Instead, he said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (v. 5, emphasis added). What did Jesus mean by "water and the Spirit"? Well, what did he just get done doing prior to this encounter? The synoptic gospels record it: "...when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him" (Mt 3:16). Here we see that water and the Spirit are joined together in the action of baptism.

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with asking Jesus to come into your heart and accepting him as your personal Lord and Savior; these are good and holy things that all Christians should do. However, when it comes to the question of being "born again," the sacrament of Baptism is the Biblical and historical way of doing that. This understanding of Baptism (and all the sacraments) as an action of God that brings about an objective change in the person who receives it is the basis for Catholics, along with several mainline Protestant denomination, practicing infant Baptism. The objection that one must be old enough to freely choose Baptism for oneself is rendered erroneous by the counterexample of offering Baptism to mentally handicapped persons who often lack the cognitive capacity to have any explicit understanding of the Gospel and to make such a decision for themselves. Consider also the many cases in which Jesus healed sick or possessed people at the request of others, such as the servant of the centurion (Mt 8:5-13). God may not impart grace to those who explicitly reject his will, but he certainly can and does to those who are at least open to him, with or without their explicit knowledge.

Matter Matters

      "Shower, O heavens, from above,
      and let the skies rain down righteousness; 
      let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, 
      and let it cause righteousness to spring up also; 
      I the LORD have created it" (Isa 45:8).

We have seen that the sacraments actually do something, and that they are not merely flashy outward signs or man-made formalities used to represent an interior conversion that has already taken place apart from the sacraments. Another important element of the sacraments is that most of them involve the use of material things: water in Baptism, and various oils in the other sacraments, for example. As in the sacrament of Baptism, the other sacraments use material following the example and command of Christ, who frequently used the physical things of the world when performing miracles and healing. For example, he used water to create wine at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2:1-11). Obviously, Jesus could have instead simply filled the jars with wine created out of nothing, but instead, he preferred to use already existing water. Likewise, in the case of the "man born blind" (Jn 9), Jesus could have simply said to the man, "See!" and he would have instantly been cured. Instead, Jesus mixed dirt with his spit and anointed the man with it, and then told him to wash in a pool of water (Jn 9:6-7). Why the use of dirt and water to accomplish this healing work? The reason is twofold. First, God created everything that exists and is glorified by his creation. In Genesis, we read that God "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:31). Since all matter is created good, God wills to make use of it, not only for accomplishing pragmatic purposes (like feeding us!), but even in his plan of salvation (the Cross began as an ordinary tree and became an instrument of salvation). He could have created us as purely spiritual beings without bodies (like the angels), but he didn't; he gave us physical bodies and a material world to inhabit. God is not a gnostic.

Divine Infiltration

The sacramental nature of the Catholic-Christian faith does not make sense apart from the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. While God created the material universe as "good" and ordered it to serve the needs of human beings, matter itself has no inherent power to sanctify or communicate grace. (Otherwise, we would be seeing "spit and dirt therapy" advertisements instead of Lasik.) The natural world, being inseparably tied to the destiny of human beings as the apex of God's Creation, must likewise be "redeemed" in a sense before it can serve so noble a cause as the sanctification of the creatures created imago Dei (in the image of God). Saint Paul observed this:
...creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now (Rom 8:19-22).
Jesus Christ sanctified the natural world when he became a human being. The Incarnation pays a sort of "divine compliment" to Creation. Think again of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. As John the Baptist rightly objected, Jesus did not need to be baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14). Jesus' response tells us why he still willed to be baptized: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Notice that he says "to fulfill all righteousness." This point is crucial. We know that the whole purpose in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is to redeem all of us (Jn 3:16-17). We also know that Jesus himself was without sin and thus had no need of redemption (Heb 4:15). Therefore, his desire to be baptized in order to "fulfill all righteousness" must be for our sake, for our redemption. Jesus was not baptized to be sanctified by the waters of Baptism, but so that the waters of Baptism would be sanctified by him. He did not negate John's baptism or render it obsolete, but elevated it to the status of a sacrament. In fact, it could be said that everything Jesus did on earth was an elevation or sanctification of what came before. His last words in scripture testify to this: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21:5). Death itself was not immune to Christ's transformative power, since he changed it from a bitter finality of defeat and extinction of meaning into the very doorway by which we enter into eternal joy and fulfillment. As the words of an old oratorio (hymn) proclaim: "Thou hast made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the living God."

Seeing Sacramentally

The Catholic Church's focus on the sacramental nature of Christianity is justified not only by the goodness of the material world as created by God, but by her Savior's entrance into it, by which it has been sanctified and subordinated to God's plan of salvation. As Christians, we know that the Incarnation was not merely a past reality that a few thousand people were lucky enough to enjoy this side of heaven. Instead, it was the beginning of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that starts here and now:  "Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Lk 17:21). When Jesus said, "I am with you always, to the close of the age," (Mt 28:20) he surely didn't mean that in a merely sentimental or analogical sense––He is with us always, in all his incarnate and tangible glory. The way in which he is most concretely present to us is in the sacraments of his Church, his Bride. Jesus established the New Covenant in his Body and Blood, which he offered on the cross and commanded his apostles to make present again in the Eucharist: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19, 1 Co 11:24). Christian faith always calls us to see things differently, to see everything in the light of God and his love for us. In Christ we see God differently, we see each other differently, we see ourselves differently; we even see Creation differently. As C.S. Lewis wrote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." As Christians we also recognize that Creation is not some spiritually neutral medium of exchange in which we are "stuck" for now, awaiting a later time when we can escape from it. Rather, it is the product of God's love for us and an important means by which God wills to communicate his grace to us. Are the sacraments really necessary, considering they are temporal realities that take place in the finite material world? In the absolute sense, no. God can accomplish his plan of salvation by whatever means he chooses. Are they necessary for us? As necessary as the physical blood and water which gushed forth from the heart of Christ on Calvary two thousand years ago.
There flowed from his side water and blood. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death. Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life (From the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom, Office of Readings for Good Friday).
Signs of the Holy

The Catholic Church is often criticized as being excessively elaborate and showy in her liturgical celebrations. However, everything that goes into the Mass and other liturgies has a specific purpose, namely, to draw our minds deeper into the mysteries in which we are participating. We are each a unity of body and soul. Therefore, just as we do not experience and engage the world with our minds alone, but also with our bodies and all our sensory faculties, so too our worship of God is enriched when we incorporate more than just our minds. This is why the Catholic liturgy includes elements such as:  music, vestments, candles, incense, bells, and changes in posture. It is not empty show––it is all carefully thought out to elevate our experience and foster our active participation. We are not passive observers who attend Church only in order to be entertained or moved, to "watch" what is happening there. No. We are active participants who are called to worship God together in the way that he has called us to worship him. The sacraments of the Church impart God's grace to us, so that we can be initiated, healed, strengthened, and conformed to the will of God in our lives. If we want to become the people God calls us to be, then we ought to gratefully take advantage of the tools he has given us to accomplish that task. The sacraments are those tools: time-tested and saint-approved.

May God bless you and give you an intimate experience of his resurrection this Easter season!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

Catholic Church. The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite. Volume II, Lenten and Easter Season. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1976.