The seven Sacraments form the backdrop of Catholic life. Most Catholics can name all seven Sacraments. Most have basic knowledge of what the Sacraments are. But as with other parts of our faith, the Sacraments are an unfathomable mystery. That means that there is always more to understand. It also means there is always more to live. Because a mystery of the Faith isn’t a puzzle to be solved. It’s a limitless reality to be lived. And that makes the Mysteries of Faith, including the Sacraments are a deep, deep treasure trove. And our task in this webcast is to uncover that treasure. As disciples of Jesus we aren’t satisfied with one or two trinkets that represent maybe our basic 7th grade knowledge of the Sacraments. We want more and more of the bountiful treasure our Lord offers us. So let’s take a deeper dive into the Sacraments and discover how they can help us rebuild the Chapel of our Inner Abbey.
The Baltimore Catechism defines a Sacrament as “a sacred sign instituted by Christ that gives grace.” That’s a great place to start. Let’s take this definition apart and see what new depths we can discover. But I want to start with the second part of the definition first. What is grace and why are the Sacraments considered the main source of grace?
The Fountains of Grace
Grace literally means “a gift freely given.” In other words, the very word “grace” indicates that grace is given to us before we can even earn it. This is why the earliest Church began the tradition of infant baptism. Infants are incapable of earning anything, yet they have access to grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church verifies this understanding of grace in article 1996:
Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
But if our understanding of grace ends at the literal meaning of the word, we miss out on the full meaning of God’s gift to us. If grace is “a gift freely given,” the natural question (that too few ask) is “what is the gift”? The Catechism of the Catholic Church continues describing grace in article 1997:
Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.
So the gift of grace is the gift of God. Not just the gift from God, but God’s gift of Himself. The Holy Trinity takes up residence in our souls, and invites us to take up residence in the very life of God. So through grace, God lives in us and we live in God. In other words, grace is God’s presence that invites us into a deep, intimate relationship with Him.
In his book The Seven Fountains of Grace, Father Herbert Burke describes the Sacraments this way:
The seven fountains of grace are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders. They are like a rainbow of grace, with seven different colors or ways that God gives us His life, love and grace. They are seven fountains of God’s life and love which flow to our souls through sacred words and sacred substances: holy water, holy oil, living bread, living wine, contrition, commitment and the laying on of hands. All seven Sacraments flow from the cross, from the work of Christ.
Of course, this brings to mind the next question, what does it mean to have a relationship with God? Today we hear a lot about having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” This phrase comes from a modern Protestant view of Christianity, making some Catholics immediately skeptical of it. In my course “Building Your Spiritual Life with the Early Church Fathers,” I explain what having a “personal relationship” with God means for Catholics, and what it cannot mean, based on the earliest teaching of the Church handed down from the Apostles. One thing you learn in that course is that the Early Church Fathers saw our relationship with God as an ever-deepening Mystery of Divine Intimacy that is more analogous to marriage than it is to friendship. Entry into this Mystery has its start in the Seven Sacraments, the “founts of grace,” and is deepened as we respond to grace and participate in the relationship. And that’s exactly what we want to talk about here. How do we respond to that grace and participate in the Mystery of Divine Intimacy?
So that’s the “grace” part of our definition of a Sacrament: a sacred sign instituted by Christ that gives grace. Next we’ll discuss the first part of the definition, what it means that a Sacrament is a “sacred sign.” We’ll do that after this short break.
We’re working through the definition of a Sacrament as a “Sacred sign instituted by Christ that gives grace.” We just explored Sacraments as the fountains of grace. Now let’s explore what we mean when we call a Sacrament a “sacred sign.” You might be thinking, “Come on, now, isn’t it obvious?” A sign is something that represents something else. We all know that the water of Baptism represents the washing away of Original Sin. To which I say, “yep, that’s a good place to start.” But once again, we can’t stop there. We’re exploring an inexhaustible Mystery. Our understanding can always go deeper.
So here’s step one. As a “sacred sign,” a Sacrament is a physical sign of a specific action of grace. Jesus created the Sacraments in a way that respects who we are a human beings – an integration of body and spirit. In His wisdom, Jesus presents the spiritual action of grace to us through physical signs and words.
But there’s another dimension of grace that Sacraments open up for us. God always invites us to actively participate in our relationship with Him. Therefore Jesus has chosen to act through the very act that represents His action. In other words, the water of baptism doesn’t just represent the defeat of Original Sin, it makes it happen. Jesus works through the water and the words so that He and we are actually working together to bring about the grace of the Sacrament.
We see this taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in articles 1127 and 1128:
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
But there’s yet another step we can take to understand the sacred sign of a Sacrament yet more deeply. A Sacramental sign isn’t just something present in the ritual of the Sacrament. The grace of the Sacrament is an ongoing reality in our souls that empowers us to live the Sacramental sign for the rest of our lives. One way to look at it, is that the Sacramental Sign is actually something that should be lived as we respond to the ongoing grace in our lives. In the last segment of today’s webcast, we’ll explore exactly how we do that. This is perhaps the most important understanding of the Sacraments to apply to our personal spiritual lives. We can deepen our spiritual lives immensely by figuring out how to live out the Sacramental Signs in our daily lives.
The Sacramental Oath
I think it’s safe to say that most Catholics understand the Sacraments as something that happens to them. God gives grace, and we receive it. This is certainly true. It’s the point of our Sacramental rituals. It’s also the first movement of any Sacrament – grace always comes first. God always takes the first step in our relationship.
But the Latin word that the early Church chose for the fountains of grace tells us that receiving grace is not the entire story. The word Sacramentum described the oath sworn between a Roman soldier and his lord. The lord promised food, shelter, payment, and a share of the bounty won in war. The soldier in turn swore his fealty and offered to give his very life in service of the lord.
So what was the early Church trying to tell us by calling these sacred rites “Sacraments”? Like the sacramental oath sworn between a solider and his lord, a Sacrament is a 2-way oath. It is sworn between us – the soldiers of Christ – and our blessed Lord. He promises us the grace we need to participate in the divine life and to grow in divine intimacy. In turn we swear an oath to respond to that grace by participating in our relationship with God. Even more, the Church wanted to call our minds to soldiers because the Sacraments call us to fight against ignorance and sin in our lives. Finally, the Sacraments are oaths in which we dedicate our entire lives to Jesus. We promise through the Sacraments to dedicate every dimension of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus.
Every Sacrament calls us to live out this general oath in our daily lives. But each individual Sacrament also calls us to live out the specific Sacramental Sign.
If we are actively pursuing a deeper relationship with God, God meets our efforts with even more grace. Traditionally, this is called “meriting” grace. But this was often misunderstood as earning grace. The better way to look at it is that through grace God offers us a relationship. When we respond to His invitation and try to deepen our relationship with Him, He in turn responds to us and deepens His relationship with us. That’s the way relationships work!
How often do we think about actively living the Sacraments? Every day we could be drawing on the Sacramental graces of Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, our vocational Sacrament (Holy Orders or Holy Matrimony), and the Holy Eucharist by living out the sacramental promises we make in each of them and living out their Sacramental Signs. This how we enter more deeply into the Mystery of Divine Intimacy and live a more complete relationship with our Triune God.
OK, so here’s your spiritual project for this month. First, consider the Sacramental Sign and the Sacramental Promises for each Sacrament you have participated in, and develop a plan for living them more completely. If you become a Postulant member of From the Abbey – that’s our free membership level – you’ll find a project guide and a checklist in the show notes for this episode at myinnerabbey.com that will help you do this. Even if you do not choose to become a member, the show note at myinnerabbey.com has some great resources to help you in your spiritual project. Second, pray for the Holy Spirit to stir up the graces that Jesus gives you in each Sacrament and help you implement your plan. Finally, choose the first steps that you think you can actually implement this month and start rebuilding the Chapel of your Inner Abbey! I hope you’ll join me on our Facebook page at facebook.com/fromtheabbey to ask questions, offer feedback, and to support each other in this month’s spiritual project.
Also published on Medium.