Oh Lord, purify me, make me a chalice in which you dwell, offer your sacrifice in me and spread your love through me. Let me shine like gold, adorn me with the jewels of virtue that I may always be open to you. Fill me. Overflow me. Let me be like that most perfect vessel, the Singular Vessel of Devotion, She to whom I cry for protection against the Evil One. I ask this for your glory, for the vessel is nothing without the sustenance inside, the cup nothing unless it is filled. Oh Lord, purify me.

Give me a word, Abba

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Briefest of Discussions on Guilt, Justice and Mercy


The other day a misunderstanding of the term “negative theology” in my studio brought up a conversation about how some people assert that you must do or not do certain things solely with the incentive of fear of punishment directed forcefully from a wrathful God . The discussion didn’t last long because all of us (a handful of Catholics and an atheist) immediately agreed that it’s quite a bit silly to guilt someone into something with the motivation of fear, most especially when the desired end is the heavenly reward. I opened my mouth to remark that people who take such approaches are fixated on God as an angry judge but before a word could leave my mouth I shook my head and said, “No, it’s not even a matter of considering God as only a judge. This type of thought doesn’t leave room for mercy let alone justice”. If God is a judge He is a just one and justice never leaves room for unreasonable and unfair decisions. He must judge with both the firmness of unhappy consequences and the mercy of love. Yes, it is true that if you disregard the commandments you will pay a severe and heavy price, yet we are not supposed to be driven to heaven by fear and shameful guilt. We’re called first and foremost to love God and love leaves no room for fear. As my atheist friend followed up, the misguided approach doesn’t require you to even do good for the sake of doing good but rather for the more selfish motive of assuring first and foremost you are spared from the pains of eternal damnation.

"Christ in Majesty". A mosaic from the National Shrine in D.C. that I am well acquainted with but is oft criticized for "too much sternness". Bah. Doesn't anyone care about portraying justice anymore?

Now all of this reminds me that there is a lot of misunderstanding with the term “Catholic guilt” that gets thrown around and creeps its way into culture and the occasional conversation. For example, Death Cab for Cutie’s hit “I Will Follow You into the Dark” states: “In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule/I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black/And I held my tongue as she told me "Son, fear is the heart of love.”/So I never went back”. First of all, this is simply an untrue statement misconstruing anything about the teaching of the Church. Now would be a good time to mention that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is Fear of the Lord but it is only the fear which doesn't cause us to fear the goodness of God but the evil of sin. It is the sort of "fear" that is caused by immense respect for someone and since there is no one greater than God we should have no greater respect for Him and thus fear no one more than Himself. Yet we Catholics have the inexpressibly wonderful sacrament of confession where God Himself working through the priest alleviates us of our guilt and we are merely given infinitesimal penances after confessing. How could God be so willing to punish us if He allows second chances and third chances and fourth chances, etc. to forgive us and offer us His grace through the sacraments? It comes down to a choice of free will whether or not we want to accept His overpowering love or shy away from it completely. Either way it is guaranteed that He expresses true justice and that the surest way to secure salvation is through love and not by way of the provocation of fear. 


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