Dodge: Perseverance and the Eucharist
I had a profound experience recently when I had the opportunity to complete the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises are designed to help anyone encounter God in a fuller, richer way.
The first week of the retreat is famous because it’s all about the love of God and the recognition of our sin. We first encounter a God who loves us with an extravagant, unfathomable love. This encounter with God’s love is literally overwhelming.
But the encounter with sin is even more jarring. I was forced to confront the reality of sin within me. It was dark, fractured, and ugly. I had never adequately repented of my eager involvement in systems of injustice, my past support of violence, and my, at times, almost nonchalant attitude toward the poor.
This is where the retreat became even more profound. I was the same conflicted person God loved. Of course, God didn’t love my sin – he loved me, his child, who bore his image. We simply cannot grasp the true love of God unless we first embrace a true view of ourselves.
This retreat altered my view of the spiritual life. I’ve come to see the spiritual life much more as a pilgrimage. We’re poor beggars with little to offer God. He’s given us comfort, love, and grace. We often respond with unfaithfulness and ungratefulness. I’m amazed at God’s patience.
If the spiritual life truly is a pilgrimage, this means we really have free will to undertake it or not. And, if we really have free will, God’s grace is resistible. Some claim that God’s grace overwhelms our wills, but this makes it hard to explain why God went to such lengths to protect our free will in the first place. Could not God have prevented sin entirely by overriding Adam and Eve’s wills at the fall?
To me, this is one reason why the Eucharist is so central. It’s the grace imparted in the Eucharist which helps us to persevere in our faith. Throughout the Bible, those who preserve to the end within a covenant community are promised eternal life. As Jesus puts it, “I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6.51).
The Reformers insisted the right administration of the sacraments was an essential mark of the Church. Thus, to ignore or denigrate the Sacraments is to encumber the work of saving and sanctifying sinners.
From the beginning, Christians believed the Eucharist to be not just a memorial of Christ’s death, but a participation in his flesh and blood. There appears to be little disagreement about this among the earliest Christians.
Thus, perseverance in the faith comes, in part, through participation in Christ’s body and blood. It also provides the surest indication that our salvation is a gift and not something we earn. As poor pilgrims, we humbly present ourselves at the altar. Christ does the rest.