Okay, But What Does God Really Want from Us
After five years of teaching, I can predict the questions I'm going to hear when I explain a new assignment to my classes. Among the kids' favorites are, "Does spelling count?" and "How long does it have to be?" They also like to describe to me every mistake they can imagine making and ask how many points I would take off for each.
Answering questions comes with the job of course, but these questions are frustrating because they show that my students' focus is in the wrong place: on grades, not the quality of their work or what they will learn.
I wonder if God ever feels that frustration when we wonder things like, "If I get to Mass during the offertory, does it still count?" or "How many minutes do I have to pray every day?" I have asked questions like that and still do. They reveal the kind of anxious, "outcome-based" state of mind that my students have about their schoolwork. But what God really wants from us is similar to what I really want from my students: a dedication to growth and a desire to learn all we can (in our case with God, to learn all we can about what He wants to teach us, which is no less than how to love the way He loves).
A danger area for "points"-based thinking among Catholics is the practice of indulgences. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the living and the dead, and Mother Church provides ways for us to help souls, including our own, reach heaven. What a source of joy these indulgences can be: for ourselves, for the souls so often forgotten in purgatory, and for Jesus Who longs to be united with us as soon as possible. We must be careful, however, to avoid the kind of thinking that turns indulgences into tally marks calculating what God "owes" our dead or what He will "owe" us when we leave this life.
We may be especially tempted to think this way now during Lent, as many churches on Fridays pray the Stations of the Cross, which carries a plenary indulgence. Indulgences, we must remember, are gifts — like every instance of mercy from the God.
Saint Faustina's Diary describes a striking example of God's mercy to deceased souls. One evening, St. Faustina saw a vision of a sister who had recently died. The sister was "in a terrible condition, all in flames with her face painfully distorted" (Diary, 58). Saint Faustina redoubled her prayers for the sister and asked the rest of the congregation to do the same, but the sister appeared to her again in a worse condition than before.
When St. Faustina expressed surprise that her prayers had not helped, the sister replied "that nothing would help her" (Diary, 58). Saint Faustina continued to pray, and when the sister next visited her, she had completely changed.
"There were no longer any flames, as there had been before," St. Faustina writes, "and her face was radiant, her eyes beaming with joy. She told me that I had a true love for my neighbor and that many other souls had profited from my prayers. She urged me not to cease praying for the souls in purgatory, and she added that she herself would not be there much longer. How astounding are the decrees of God!" (Diary, 58).
Love for neighbor and the decrees of God: in these we find the real power of indulgences. God offers us ways to work with Him in bringing souls to paradise so that we can practice His compassion ourselves. We are invited to think about the suffering of a person we can no longer see, perhaps a person we never even knew. The nature and place of the suffering are beyond what we are capable of imagining. Yet the Church teaches that our charity can help that person because of "the communion of saints," in which "the holiness of one profits others" (Catechism, 1475).
The prayers we offer, however, even with the purest love, can do nothing without the mercy of God. Even St. Faustina's initial prayers were powerless to relieve her dead sister's suffering, and the sister herself believed her situation to be hopeless. What caused the change, then, between the second vision and the third could only have been Divine Mercy. God used St. Faustina's prayers because they were full of genuine charity, but He did so because He is perfect love Himself. His mercy freed the sister from purgatory, and His mercy allowed St. Faustina to help.
Even if we gain indulgences for ourselves, we show love if we seek them out of a desire to be with God. No desire of ours could please Him more than that one. We should accept indulgences, whether for ourselves or for others, in the same way we should receive Communion: with the knowledge that we are receiving the overflow of God's bottomless mercy, something that, no matter which prayers we say or how many or at what times, we can never really earn.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.
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