Although community is a crucial aspect of any religious experience, it can be taken too seriously and put the personal relationship with the divine at risk. I can only speak of my own Roman Catholic experience in this matter and share with you two areas in which Catholics need to exercise caution in balancing community and the personal.
Indulgences & Merits
For most Roman Catholics the concepts of indulgences and merits seem historical and not necessarily relevant any longer. However, they are still a part of Catholic doctrine and present in the more conservative schools of Catholic theology and practice. According to the Catechism (the Catholic “play book”) (CCC 1471-79, 1498), an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven; a person who is disposed (reconciled through the Sacrament of Penance) gains the indulgence under proscribed conditions for himself or the departed which are granted through the ministry of the church (clergy). The Church is the dispenser of the grace of redemption, distributes the treasury of the merits of Christ and the Saints.
Basically this means the church, as the visible institution representing the invisible grace of God, can publicly recognize through a dispensation of an indulgence the private act of repentance and forgiveness between God and an individual, also made known to the church through the Sacrament of Penance. The church says, “Yes, you are repentant and you have been forgiven by God. We therefore can attest that you are gifted with the remission of a later punishment (Purgatory time, etc.) for this sin since you have completed the proscribed prayer or act that has been determined as appropriate for the sin. If you so wish, the church recognizes on behalf of God who has revealed this to us, you may request that your indulgence be “awarded” to another person who has died and it will be left to God to know if it was necessary.”
Whew. It should be a wonderful idea that we can share in the fruits of one another’s reconciliation. Indeed, it makes perfect sense for one person to want to do the work and offer the reward to a loved one — parents do this all of the time and we do it for our friends. We make sacrifices in our own resources so that there will be more for everyone. I like to think that I could shave off time in Purgatory for my grandparents through the reconciliation and penance for my own sins. However, now I am beginning to worry about their salvation. Isn’t my faith about hope and trust? Yes, there are always the effects of sin that affect other people but sin is a personal fault and we should focus on the quality of our repentance and penance rather than quantity. The doctrine on indulgences also assumes that the prayers so chosen to qualify as indulgenced are said with a correct and humble manner. If I see the word “indulgence” at the end of a printed prayer, am I more likely to say that one than another just because of it? Again, am I giving up quality and personal commitment for quantity?
The situation of merits is touchier. The church teaches that Christ’s life, suffering and death resulted in merits, like holiness points. Only we already believe that we are saved through his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection so what is left over? If he saves all people for all time, isn’t this enough merit? The merits of the saints are similar in idea – their holy thoughts, deeds and any suffering is represented in merits that can be shared among the church members. These holy points can be redeemed by believers against their time in Purgatory or other punishments on earth. Of course Purgatory is a whole other topic for another time but I am concerned with this concept of merits being somehow held apart from the world and allotted out by the saying of prescribed prayers and penitential acts – Crusades anyone? It seems that as Catholics we can already ask the saints to pray for us and isn’t this a recognition of their holiness and a request to help us?
In general, the danger of indulgences and merits is the weight placed on accessing the penance and holiness of the past rather than creating more for the present time. Our community is in the past but also in the present and future. How are we responsible for people who have died years before? How does this affect our sense of responsibility for ourselves?
Saints & Devotions
My Catholic world is replete with friends and family in a way that disposes of time constraints and geographic complexity. I am never bereft of a spiritual ally or confidante. My prayer to God is direct and personal but even if I know that nothing is hidden from God, I still might need to talk to someone else first because it helps me feel better. I know that Jesus as fully divine and fully human completely and perfectly understands my every emotion, anxiety and joy but sometimes I like to talk with somebody whose life actually looks like my own and is known to have made serious mistakes.
Whether a grandparent, cousin or saint I can always count on a plentiful prayer tree to call on when I have trouble or questions. I think of calling my parents or asking on Facebook for a prayer request the same thing as asking St. Monica to pray for me about a parenting issue or Saint Ignatius for spiritual discipline or Saint Brigid for wisdom. I like knowing that Judith has blood on her hands and Susanna knows what it is to be publicly humiliated, that Amos knows the call away from a quiet unassuming life and Paul the struggle for patience. It’s nice knowing that while I stand on my own in front of God, I have people to my left and right that have stood before me.
Sometimes my relationship with the saints and Mary are so profoundly meaningful and real that I develop a love a devotional prayer life with them so that I can be in frequent contact, both verbal and contemplative. Roman Catholicism is rich in devotional opportunities that allow me to nurture these relationships and to be supported in return. There are special prayers and prayer rituals (novenas) to particular saints and aspects of Mary’s life and experience. I can go to special places on special days as well in order to visit my holy friends through pilgrimage and feast days.
The danger is that I might become so comfortable with the humanity of the saints and Mary that I forget the miracle of the incarnation and of God’s amazing presence in creation from time immemorial. The lives of many saints can help you forget that they too needed the divine guidance and Holy Spirit in order to live their lives as they did. It’s easy to become afraid of the divine as well, growing a greater distance between what you see as yourself and what you believe about God. In a sense, you can get trapped in the community of saints and forget that all of your devotional efforts and activities do not satisfy the need to praise God directly in worship. Indeed, even devotions related directly to the Holy Spirit or Jesus (Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Divine Mercy, Wounds of Christ, etc.) can interfere with the understanding of the centrality of the Eucharistic liturgy and sacramental celebration.
Being a member of a community of believers is imperative in the life of a Roman Catholic and many doctrinal statements and devotional traditions help Catholics navigate community relationships as well as strengthen them. On the other hand, it’s important to be mindful that relationships with the community whether living or dead cannot take the place of a direct, personal relationship between the individual and God. It is this primary relationship that is made visible in community and not the other way around.
Read part 1 of this series, “The upside of spiritual community.”
Join us at 10 a.m., April 6 at Revel 77 Coffee for our next Coffee Talk where we'll discuss the concept of spiritual community.
Colleen McLean is a life long Roman Catholic with a few pagan adventures along the way. She has been active in lay ministry in two states and four dioceses.