Climbing out of the pit

Today I had lunch with Audrey, and she offered some very helpful and reassuring answers to my questions about Purgatory. And Kristen gave me some very rich and valuable comments to my previous post about it. So tonight I have ample food for thought.

In a pitEven before I began this journey to Catholicism, I had been having vague, inchoate doubts about the Protestant conceptions of grace and salvation. As an evangelical, I always believed that all that was necessary for the forgiveness of sins was to confess them to God and repent. I struggled with the repentance part, but told myself that “everybody struggles; you’re human and carnal; Christ understands that and will forgive you.” I stopped feeling so wracked with guilt; I felt I was forgiven. I prayed and prayed for Him to set me free from my sins; to clean me and change me and help me stop doing what I was doing. But I was never getting any better. I seemed to be trapped; unable to rise above my fault. And I was miserable — not from guilt, but from the very temporal, practical wages of my sin. Something clearly was very flawed in what I was doing.

I think it was out of my longing for true repentance, even if that longing wasn’t fully realized, that brought me to attend my first Ash Wednesday Mass the Lent before last. It was the first time I’d been in a Catholic Church in five years (I had visited once with a friend out of curiosity, and to churches in Rome as a tourist) — the first time ever with an inquiring mind. I knew no one, had very little idea what was going on (I was taken aback by all the kneeling and genuflecting), and did my best to be inconspicuous. When I went forward to receive the ashes, the lay worker blessed me with the formula, “Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” For some reason — which I now realize to be the finger of the Holy Spirit — those words struck a very deep chord with me: I was shaken for several weeks. Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. You mean I can turn from sin? You mean I can be faithful? More than what I’m doing now?

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, the penitent receives a cross of ashes on his or her forehead, to symbolize the repentance of Lent.

My second Ash Wednesday, after I’d been attending Mass regularly here for about a month, had an even deeper impact. Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. It wasn’t so much the experience of the ritual that struck me this time — it was what happened afterward; what I can only understand as God speaking to me. I remembered the words of the year before — and suddenly something clicked into place. Christ died for my sins. So I have an obligation to stand against them and to live for him. And I started taking that stand. Father Joe had said in his homily that for the Lenten fast, we should give up the thing that was most standing between us and God. And I did just that: I gave up my complacency in my sin. And Lent this year was a greater time of victory than I had ever before known.

Before, I wasn’t really “struggling”; I was rolling over and letting sin have me, since I believed it was my nature. All those years, I prayed and prayed, “Lord, I’m dying here. I can’t get out of this pit; I’m trapped; won’t you pull me out?” And I felt so frustrated and despondent that he never seemed to help me; that no matter what I did, I couldn’t get out. It was only recently that it occurred to me: all that time, he was saying to me, “I’m offering you a rope for you to climb out; why won’t you take it?”

ClimbingI’m not a theologian; so it’s only out of my practical, personal experience that I say that the Protestant conception of salvation by faith alone got me nowhere. I had faith in Christ, in his divinity and Resurrection; I had faith that he had saved me from my sins; and yet that faith was doing nothing to set me free. Maybe if I had died, I would have gone to Heaven (or at least to Purgatory); but more pressing, my daily struggle with sin was making my life a living hell. In that moment on Ash Wednesday, it hit me that having faith wasn’t enough; I had to do something. When Protestants pick at the Catholic position of salvation by faith and works, it’s usually presented as if Catholics believe, in a Pharisaical sense, that their “good works,” their observance of rituals, is going to get them into heaven. But that’s not it at all. The “works” just means that I had to do something; that I had to cooperate with Christ in my own salvation; that I had to work at it; that he wasn’t going to just zap me and make me a saint. Instead of just begging him to pull me out of the pit, I had to take the rope.

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