The Holy Mysteries and the Eternal Struggle between Fellowship, Magic and Grace.
For the Sunday:
For the Fathers:
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost; the Memory of the Fathers at the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
The Holy Martyrs Carpus, Popilus & Agathonica.
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3:20 PM 10/13/2013 — The first of the two Gospels read today shouldn’t require much of an explanation, especially since our Lord explains the parable for us. The sower is Himself, the seed he sows is the word of God, and the earth into which the seed falls is us; the message of the parable being that the word of God will only take root and bare fruit in us if we are prepared to receive it with a generous and well disposed heart. And our Lord even enumerates some of the things that can prevent that from happening: greed, lust, preoccupation with worldly things, and so forth.
A lot of us, sometimes, tend to view the Holy Mysteries of our Church as some kind of magic, forgetting that grace needs a fertile soil in which to grow—even the grace of the Holy Mysteries. Take, baptism, for example. We all know someone who was turned away by a priest when they went to have a baby baptized because the parents were not practicing their faith. And what is it we always say when we hear of that? We say, “Why punish the baby for the sins of the parents?” And why do we think the baby is being punished when the priest refuses to do the baptism? Because we think the sacraments are magic: that when you go to heaven you’ve got a tattoo or something on your head that says you’re baptized so they let you in. As powerful as they are in their ability to give grace, the Holy Mysteries are powerless where there is no faith. That’s why it is the duty of the priest to baptize only those who give evidence of either living the faith or being raised in it. To baptize someone who doesn’t believe, or someone who will not be taught to believe, does nothing. There is no grace, because grace can only live in faith. A sacrament given to someone without faith is like a seed which is given no water or sunlight. It doesn’t grow just because you put it in the dirt; without these other necessary conditions, it just sits there and rots.
The same is true of the Blessed Eucharist. You can drag someone into church on Sunday and make them march up to receive Communion, but if they don’t believe, they receive no grace. The Eucharist is real, certainly; but the grace the Eucharist promises us does not activate, because there is no faith to feed it. The same is true for someone who is not in the state of grace, or free from serious sin;—someone who is in an invalid marriage for example, or some other situation which excludes them from the sacraments—these people are not being excluded from the sacraments because they’re being punished for something, but because the state of their souls makes it impossible for the grace contained in those sacraments to have any effect. And such people will often go to a church where they’re not known to receive Communion, because they think the Eucharist is a magic charm which will do something for them, or because they are focused simply on the social aspect of “fellowship” to which they have reduced the Eucharist in their minds. The condition of their souls makes the transmission of grace from the Eucharist impossible. Communion then becomes a purely symbolic act with nothing but theraputic effects, not really a sacrament at all. The only thing that can bring such a person closer to God is to resolve the state of his soul, so that the grace of the sacraments can become active again.
Every day the Lord sows His seed in our lives. When we come to church, He sows the seed of his grace in His word and in the Holy Mystery of his Body and Blood. Whether that grace does us any good depends entirely on what kind of soil we have provided in our hearts and in our lives.
But what is true regarding our relationship to the Holy Mysteries of the Church—the Sacraments—is also true regarding our relationship to God in prayer. Back when I was working as a hospital chaplain, there was this excitable nun who had gone to a workshop and decided that she was an expert in what she called “spirituality.” And she announced one day to everyone that spirituality has nothing to do with religion; that even secular hospitals were now realizing the need to care for the “spiritual” needs of the patient. And, of course, what she meant by “spiritual” has nothing to do with faith. And, unfortunately, this idea is becoming alarmingly popular: there are more and more people who don’t even believe in God who are claiming that they are “spiritual”. Well, excuse me, but I have no need for a spirituality that has nothing to do with faith, and neither should you. We are not here, after all, to contemplate our navels and get in touch with our inner child; we are here to worship God. And we worship God not because it satisfies us or heals us emotionally to do so, but because it is our duty to do so: because God deserves our worship whether we feel like it or not.
As popular as this secular notion of spirituality is today (and I don’t pretend to know a lot about it), the fact is that spirituality without religion is not spirituality at all. Spirituality without religion is nothing more than mysticism; and mysticism is just one step shy of circus side show magic. True spirituality has less to do with mysticism and more to do with asceticism. Asceticism does not deal with things like meditation, breathing techniques, getting in touch with our inner child, inventorying our emotions, or anything like that; it has to do with morality: how we live our lives, how we purge from our lives all the things that can and do distract us from God, how we nourish our relationship with God through authentic forms of prayer and frequent recourse to the sacraments of the Church.
And this is exactly what our Lord is talking about in the parable. The seed is good. The soil is us. And the seed, in order to grow, not only has to fall into good soil, but must then be watered and cultivated with care every day. Growing in our relationship with God is a daily effort. The seed must be watered with prayer and grace, and the plant that grows must be frequently pruned and trimmed with sacrifice so that it will grow strong and tall.