11/15/2007

Spiritual Economy

I am gathering a sense of this doctrine, especially in readings from the heroically virtuous, such as St.Alphonsus de Ligouri:

In this manner too, we should receive whatever crosses God sends us. "But," you reply, "these sufferings are really punishments." The answer to that remark is: Are not the punishments God sends us in this life also graces and benefits? Our offenses to God must be atoned for somehow, either in this life or the next.

Here our Protestant brethren may contest that such atonement came once and for all. But I hold that we still are called to join Christ in our own Calvary, whatever it may be, and follow there just as dutifully.

Hence we should all make St.Augustine's prayer our own: "Lord here cut, here burn and spare me not; but spare in eternity!" Let us say with Job: "Let this be my comfort, that afflicting me with sorrow, he spare me not." Having merited Hell for our sins, we should be consoled that God chastises us in this life, and animate ourselves to look on such treatment as a pledge that God wishes to spare us in the next. When God sends us punishments, let us say with the high-priest Heli: "It is the Lord, let him do what is good in his sight."

This is part of the Ligourian's tract on Uniformity with God's Will, in which he exhorts the reader to welcome pain and suffering as coming from God. This is a paradigm shift for most Christians, especially American youth raised in the Post-Vatican II days of a rainbow happy Jesus or the enthusiasts of a 'prosperity Gospel' such as Joel Osteen preaches.

That we can turn to God in our sorrow perhaps seems right. But that we should praise God for sending us affliction seems to contradict what we've been taught about God. God is not judge and ruler; she is kind and gentle mother. But even a mother must cause her children pain if she wishes them to grow. Ligouri and Vianney and other great spiritual directors echo the teachings of saints before them: God does not will sin, but he may allow our suffering in order to instruct us. And our giving thanks for pain, illness, persecution, loss of property, economic status, etc., demonstrates our Love of Jesus and our trust in Divine Providence.

The spiritual economy doctrine begins here. Some may be visited by torments, spiritual aridity (such as Mother Teresa experienced), and bodily infirmity on behalf of the rest of us in the Body of Christ. They that embrace this Passion do so to counterbalance the many sins that befall those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

I don't think Protestants will disagree on the concept so much as the wording. Does anyone have good resources to share in finding a common language between Catholics and those who reject the Church's infallibility in these matters?

I think this gets into bigger, wider seas, though. So much Catholic doctrine hangs on this understanding of the nature of our relationship to God. Confession, for example, results from the need to atone for one's own sins. But I know that atonement is disputed fiercely among Protestants themselves. And the matter of indulgences, which so few of my contemporaries actually believe (mistakenly thinking that Trent dissolved this doctrine), enters in to this ocean as a tributary teaching (I'm stretching my previous analogy).

I, though I grew up without indulgences as part of my praxis, do not discredit the Church still observing this doctrine, because I know I was poorly catechised. It was somewhat remarkable to me, when my family visited Rome during Easter of the Jubilee Year, that pilgrims to St.Peter's could receive a plenary indulgence if they visited x number of basilicae and made a good confession. Likewise, my finding odd the notion that one could visit the graves of deceased relatives and pray for their souls during the week following All Souls Day. Suddenly so many cultural references in Shakespeare and Poe have a context!

I don't regard these practices as superstitious, but they are truly foreign. Yet I acquiesce freely that the Church would not teach anything that might lead her disciples astray. So...to answer the comment from one of my readers (a good friend), the Church does still grant indulgences, though not with any monetary associations that irked Luther so profoundly. One cannot purchase with money remission from sins. But one can certainly pursue the indulgence on behalf of souls in Purgatory.

It's a topic I need to learn more about myself. It's not part of my vocabulary, yet I reiterate, that has much to do with what I was taught growing up. That one hasn't received the fullness of truth does not make it any less true. And in this I stand right beside many of my confused Protestant friends.

So...what does the Church teach about indulgences, atonement, purgatory, and the spiritual economy? What insights might be gleaned from Protestant objections? What has always and everywhere been the consistent teaching since the Apostles? Why did these beliefs get moved to the backburner following Vatican II?

More to come.

1 comment:

Mark John said...

I'd recommend the Enchiridion of Indulgences: it lists current indulgences that are offered through the ministry of the Church, and is also a treasury of Catholic prayers and devotions. I especially love the renewal of baptismal promises at the end of the supplement

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