This morning I had the opportunity to meet with one of several small adult faith formation groups that gather weekly at our parish. This year they are focusing on the sacraments and asked me to visit for prayer and discussion.
Two interesting questions brought forward were, “If receiving communion at the Sunday liturgy forgives one’s sins, why is there a need for confession?” and a related question, “If one neeeds to be in a state of grace in order to receive communion worthily, why are so many people receiving communion each week who seemingly have not been to the sacrament of reconciliation?”
The teacher in me tends to often answer questions with more questions and this was one of those moments. Since we are speaking about the issue of one’s spiritual health, it might help to talk about physical health first. “If you are sick or in poor health and want to improve your situation, what are some things you might do to get better?”, I asked the group. Many answers surfaced including to take medicine, rest, exercise, eat healthier food and visit a doctor. All of these remedies for poor physical health have parallels in the realm of spiritual health.
When we are spiritually sick or even simply weak in the areas of faith there are ways to build up our strength. We could visit someone who knows how to heal souls that are sick–meeting the priest in the sacrament of reconciliation is exactly this. The priest is there to help us to discover ways of leading a healthier Christian life. We even receive medicine in the form of a penance. A good confessor can give a prescription of prayer and action that will help heal those things that are broken in one’s life. We can also choose to improve our eating habits by receiving the Eucharist regularly and by feeding ourselves with the Word of God in the Scriptures. It is not just what we feed ourselves physically that is important, but spiritually as well. As the popular saying states, “you are what you eat!” Taking a regular day of rest can be good for both body and soul and can provide time for the exercise of prayer. So it isn’t really a matter of choosing one sacrament or another as much as it is receiving all the gifts God has provided in order to grow steadily into the person He has intended us to be.
As I looked at the questions again though the underlying theme also struck me. Both questions tend to focus on a legalistic way of looking at sin and grace. In other words, “what do I have to do in order for God to forgive my sins?” Catholics often fall into this way of thinking and I personally feel we need to work harder at recognizing that the Christian life is a process of transformation. It is not simply following a set of rules or marking off a checklist of things meant to fulfill a contract with God so that we will have a guaranteed entry into heaven. There is no quick fix for improving one’s overall physical health and there is certainly no magic wand that will automatically cure us of spiritual sickness.
We can begin the process of improving our spiritual health by looking first and foremost to God’s grace that is always availabe to us. We can receive that grace through the sacraments, through the love and care of other Christians, through personal prayer and works of charity and above all by trusting that God continues to bring forth His Kingdom each day by leading us closer to its fulfillment. It is a lifelong process of allowing God to work in us and to show us the way to holiness.