Remedies, not rewards

It is a beautiful thing to hear your son singing the hymns at his Confirmation. And though Austin will be embarrassed by my saying so, it's even more beautiful to know that he does not consider the sacrament he received last Sunday any sort of "graduation" from church. Quoting Winston Churchill before Mass began, Austin got it right. "This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end; it is perhaps," he said with a wry smile and a bit of British accent, "the end of the beginning." Bravo!

Still, the end of the beginning is worth noting--as is the fact that God takes a great deal of initiative with us long before we even begin to respond to him. Of course, the way we go about conferring the sacraments is meant to encourage a response to God's love. Whether it is a meeting with parents and godparents before Baptism, first Reconciliation and first Eucharist classes, a two-year Confirmation program, RCIA, marriage prep, or seminary, all these things too many of us consider "hoops" or obstacles are actually invitations to participate more fully in the life God offers us.

I've been editing children's books full-time now for three years. But when my work was focused on parish faith formation and sacramental preparation, it was hard to resist becoming discouraged by the cavalier attitudes many Catholics hold toward the sacraments and the Church. In fact, there were times it was downright tempting to conclude that someone just wasn't prepared to receive whatever sacrament they were supposed to be preparing for.

But in those very tempting instances, I was invariably reminded of words contained in Quam singulari, the 1910 Church decree which encouraged reception of the sacraments--especially Holy Communion--at an early age. Pope Saint Pius X's argument was both simple and eloquent: the sacraments are remedies, not rewards.

How very easy it is to forget that grace is gratis, that is, grace is unearned and unearnable. The sacraments we prepare to receive are, in themselves, the best preparation for receiving them. None of us is worthy of God's grace, but God gives his grace to us precisely because it is how he intends to make us worthy. The sacraments are a dialogue between God's free gift and our free will. And in this conversation, which at best leads us to conversion, the first words are always spoken by him.

I don't know about anyone else, but I need remedies more than I need rewards. I just wish I wanted them as much. I need God's powerful and transforming presence to change me, especially when I least think I need changing. I need grace to overcome the obstacles in my life, knowing that the ones most difficult to leap are not the hurdles in front of me, but those within me.

And when I manage to remember just how poor I am, I am grateful to God for his gracious self-gift in baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, in reconciliation, marriage, holy orders, and in the anointing of the sick. I thank God that though he is able to judge me unprepared, unworthy, and even ungrateful, he prefers to be merciful. For our God does not give a diagnosis without its accompanying cure. And there is no weakness, no illness, no condition, and no sin that is beyond his reach or the power of his redemptive love.

If we could only approach our family, friends, and neighbors the way God approaches us, our churches would be filled, not just with people, but with the tangible love that is God himself. If we could offer Jesus Christ as a remedy for the needy, rather than as a reward for those who need nothing, we would live the fulness off the sacraments we receive. We would be sacraments of Christ's presence in the world he created and loves.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.