Religious education has taught generations of Catholics that grace is a free gift of God’s favor. It is received through the sacraments and makes our salvation possible. Unfortunately, this popular conception of grace is sometimes misconstrued, presenting grace as a commodity rather than a reality experienced in our lives. From this view, “receiving grace” through the sacraments may be interpreted as getting more grace, as if sacraments were transactions imparting a quantifiable spiritual good.
These transactional descriptions of grace tend to portray sin and grace as competing entities on the spiritual side of our existence. The souls of holy persons are filled by grace, these depictions suggest, while the souls of unrepentant sinners are so stained by sin that grace can find no home.
For those of us caught somewhere in the middle, venial sins diminish and sacraments increase our souls’ stores of grace. Avoiding mortal sin is of paramount importance because such acts sap the soul’s supply of grace, thereby fracturing our relationship with God.
Father Thomas O’Meara describes this way of thinking as “grace as the electric company.” Sacraments give us grace (the lights come on), we sin and lose grace (the lights go out), and sacramental confession and absolution cleanse sin and restore grace (the lights come on again). This framework was particularly influential before Vatican II and continues to persist in the minds of many Catholics.
Father James Keenan, writing about the anxieties of his own Catholic childhood, reveals the limits of this transactional model. According to the electric company model of grace, if a person neglects to confess a significant sin, its stain remains and grace cannot refill the soul. If he or she then forgets the unconfessed sin, believing it absolved, the stain of that sin remains on the soul indefinitely, thereby making impossible a direct ascent to heaven after death. Luckily, it would seem, a postmortem layover in purgatory could eventually provide the necessary soul cleansing.
However, beyond the personal spiritual anxiety this transactional view can induce, it also problematically distorts the Catholic sacramental system. Sacraments, as it turns out, do not convey certain quantities of grace on the soul so much as they enliven us to the very conditions of our existence.
While grace is a free gift from God, Father Michael Himes reminds us, God has nothing other to give nor wants anything other to give than the gift of God’s self. This gift is most profoundly realized in Christ’s incarnation and is repeated and made new in every sacramental moment.
Because God is love, grace is a gift of love that invites us into relationship with God, the source of our existence. When we speak of loving more or less, we don’t refer to quantities but to the quality and strength of our relationships. Sacraments, then, are not transactions of a spiritual commodity but relational encounters in which the God who created us out of love, for love, and in order to love us offers us the divine gift of self-giving love: grace.
This article also appears in the March 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 3, page 49).
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