Shared Hopes for Perfection, if Differences in Praxis
This month, Catholics around the world experienced the most poignant and pivotal weeks in the entire liturgical year: Holy Week and Easter Week. At the height of our Lenten season of penance, we finally shift our attention from our own acknowledgement of the deep need for continued conversion and sanctification, in the vast array of shapes that takes in countless souls, to something else.
The Church leads us, in her liturgy, to turn our gaze from that inward examination to our Lord’s own Passion. We fix our eyes and ears on the four Gospel accounts of these final moments of Christ’s life on earth. We study the triumphal entry and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. We watch his bitter agony in the garden, his experiences standing before myriad accusers, his carrying of the cross, and the horror of those hours of the crucifixion, so that even the very earth trembles. We see his body laid in the tomb, and then, gloriously, we witness through the Scriptures his rising again, and the appearances he makes to his disciples.
Because Lent has given us focused time to prepare our own hearts and to study our own brokenness, when this close look at our Lord’s Passion comes, we are ready to enter in. We not only see Christ’s love poured out anew on that cross for us, but we are newly prepared to make a return on that Love, uniting our own suffering with Christ’s in order to mystically become more one with him. We want to live for him in renewed holiness, out of love for the one who laid down his life to save us. This is part of the great mystery of the perfection of Christian charity that I think Dr. Sarah Lancaster is referring to in her lovely posting on what it means to follow Jesus as a Wesleyan Methodist.
In traditional Catholicism, this idea of striving for Christian perfection is so prevalent, I had forgotten until reading Dr. Lancaster’s post that this is contentious for some Protestants. For Catholics this perfection (which is union with God) is the point of the Christian life! It seems that Weslyan Methodists and Catholics are on the same page here. As far as I can tell as a layperson, Dr. Lancaster’s explanation is in line with Catholic teaching. She writes: “Sanctification consists of growing in holiness–understood as perfect love, namely “love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.9). As we follow Jesus and imitate Jesus’ love, we learn again to love as God loves, thereby becoming more who God created us to be. We are really changed by following Jesus.” I can only nod along. I can also affirm the admixture of God’s grace and our own human efforts as being required for this to happen.
The expectation, as John Wesley seems to share, that God through His grace desires to perfect us as we live out our days here on earth is fundamental for Catholics. Every hardship, every joy, every opportunity to love a neighbor that is either taken up or passed by comes from God as part of his sanctifying work in us. As we learn to unite all of these things to him habitually, we become one with God. We become little Christs, or true members of his mystical body. We live in the tension (mirrored in the Mass) of receiving everything from God, and then offering it back to him, in union with him. This is what we must learn here, both in times of plenty and in the vale of tears.
I admire what Dr. Lancaster says about Wesley’s understanding of holiness. She writes: “John Wesley’s understanding of holiness can only be understood against the background of his understanding of human nature. For Wesley, Adam was created in the moral image of God, with love filling his soul and directing his actions. Adam had full liberty to remain in this state or to lose it. While he remained in the state God intended, he was happy. Adam’s state changed, though, and with the fall, the nature God had given to Adam was marred, opening him to be ruled by other affections besides love (for instance fear and anger), and crippling the love he was made for.” Catholics can affirm this statement, even if we might articulate it slightly differently. We might speak of the post-Fall reality creating our need to ‘order our passions rightly,’ so that bit by bit our bodies, wills, and intellects come under the headship of Christ, again uniting us to God in a mystical way. This right ordering requires God’s grace as well as our efforts to be open and cooperative with that grace. It sounds to me that Wesleyans and Catholics can agree here.
What I do wonder about is how Wesleyan Methodists (as well as other non-liturgical Protestants) manage this pursuit of holiness without the aid of the liturgical year and the fullness of all the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. For Catholics, the holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. This actual food offered to us, the very body and blood of Christ, makes every part of sanctification possible. It is how we cooperate with God’s grace, and in receiving our Lord we see the template of our union with him. But not only the Eucharist! The form of the liturgical year leads us in and out of the necessary seasons for a soul to grow. The preparation for Christmas, and that glorious celebration of the incarnation, and the Lenten time of penance to prepare for embracing a life characterized by resurrection is more than just theatrics. We enter into these cycles body and soul, with fasting and contemplation. This discipline of minds and bodies as we conform to the liturgical year sets us up to grow when the great feasts are done.
While it may be a kind of weakness on my part, I just don’t think I could manufacture the same ‘movement of soul’ without the Mass anymore. I have come to rely on the rhythms Holy Mother Church offers in her liturgy as the primary way to cooperate with what God desires to do in my soul. I wouldn’t know how to sustain a fervent prayer life without these forms anymore. I wonder if this draws a bit on what Dr. Lancaster explains about what John Wesley suggests: “We grow in God’s love as we open ourselves to one another. Following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” It is certainly Catholics around the whole world that experience this growth in holiness communally as the seasons of the liturgical year unfold. Is this at all a part of what Wesley envisioned?
Dr. Lancaster also mentions, in relation to John Wesley’s view of holiness, that “The ‘one thing needful’ for human beings is for Christ to renew our fallen nature, to restore us to wholeness so that we may again love God above all else and love everything else as God loves it. This renewal in holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made.” I can wholeheartedly agree with this, and the perfection of our charity is precisely what draws us toward this union, this restoration, this wholeness that Dr. Lancaster describes. For Catholics, the how is not based in the small societies Wesley helped to form and foster, but rather in the universal church as she receives the Eucharist and experiences the pilgrimage of the liturgical year. There are small groups like Wesley’s in the mix as well for many Catholics. We belong to a marriage group dedicated to a rule of life called Domus Christiani, for example. But the real vehicle for the sanctification that Wesley craves for the people of God comes through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
There is so much I can relate to and affirm about Dr. Lancaster’s posting about Wesleyan Methodists and their desire for holiness. Perhaps it is our praxis that differs more than our principles? Either way, I think there is a lovely overlap between Catholicism and Wesleyan theology when it comes to ideas around sanctification, and the perfection God wants to bring us to, even in this life, if we can give ourselves fully to him. I leave you with a middle bit of the beautiful Exsultet, the great prayer of the Easter Vigil. It is sung out after the Paschal candle is blessed and lit on the Saturday evening of Holy Week. To be in the dark church, watching the light of this candle passed out, person by person, to all of those in the congregation, mirroring the light of the resurrected Christ spreading out into the world, is a sight to behold. This prayer captures the Christian longing for holiness and justice, and roots it in a moment in the year we cycle back to again and again. I hope it captures just a little of the joy this Easter eve brings! I wish that all Christians could experience it together. Let us pray it will be so someday!
O happy fault
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
Thank you, Dr. Sarah Lancaster, for your posting!
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