CHAPTER XII — FRUITFUL SIGNS OF LIFE
A GOOD part of our everyday life is spent waiting for a traffic light to change, pursuing the arrows in a subway station, or scanning the announced destination of a bus. We see nothing to marvel at in such an expenditure of time; these are ordinary signs and signals and life is full of them. Some of them are comic, like those necessary to keep out the incorrigibly curious or to rescue men with a penchant for losing themselves; perhaps a new low was reached in this line when American railroads were forced to the conclusion that a man could not tell his back from his front, making it necessary to re-edit the sign “dining car forward” to “dining car in opposite direction.” Other signs are terrifying, such, for example, as “contagious disease,” or “explosives.” Still others, usually dedicated to frightening a man into buying what no one possibly needs, are downright silly.
The dignity and mystery of a sign: Its union of material and spiritual
Yet even such prosaic signs as a policeman’s exasperated wave at traffic or a small boy’s derisive sounds are wrapped in dignity and mystery simply because they are signs. In all the world, these are the only things that can penetrate the material side of man and make their way into his mind; the mystery and dignity of that penetration has been more than enough to occupy philosophers from the beginning of philosophy. Indeed, in a larger sense, whatever penetrates to our minds does so by way of a sign.
In this way, all of the universe which we come to know is a divine sign; it has a meaning, it carries a message. In so far as it is a sign, it is a mysterious wedding of the spiritual and the material, one of those apparently ill-matched affairs that still turn out so well. To change the figure, a sign is a hulking material figure which carries in its bulky pockets an elusive ray of the divine intellect. Of all the physical universe, man is the only creature capable of appreciating this strange mixture of the material and the spiritual; he is the only one to whom signs mean anything, and he alone can give that mysterious gift of meaning to dull, mute matter. There is, for instance, nothing about a red light that of itself commands us to stop, nothing until the mind of man has wedded its matter to his meaning; a mere painted “right” or “left” is serenely indifferent to our direction but, because there is a mind behind it and a mind in front of it, it steers the steps of a man.
Its harmony with human nature: An exclusive privilege, a constant reminder
There is something delightfully human about every sign. It is a perpetual reminder of the dignity and mystery of our own nature, for we, too, are the fruit of a union of spirit and matter, of soul and body; that intangible spiritual power and the clumsy limitations of matter find their way into all our work. We are like a happily married couple who, by the very fact of their own happiness, become incorrigible match-makers; we who are spirit and matter place the impress of matter and spirit on everything we touch. Indeed, now that Christ has come among men and died for them, a sign is a reminder of that greater dignity and mystery of the union of divine and human nature in the person of the Word, the Incarnation. Every smallest sign is an incarnation of the spiritual in matter; the star of Bethlehem was more than a guide, it was an image, a vague mirroring of that supreme union which springs, not from the minds of men, but from the heart of God.
All this is true of any sign; for every sign unites spirit and matter to carry a message through the senses of a man to his mind. It is within the capacity of the most illiterate of men to give material things this dignity and power simply because every man can understand and express understanding; every man has the power to give and to grasp meaning. This is man’s unique privilege in the physical world, a privilege which he has, not by reason of his state in life, his wealth, his fame, his education, but simply by reason of his humanity. Of course, when the power of God is behind them, signs exceed in mystery and dignity anything that man is able to produce in this life. The touch of the hand of Christ exceeded the gestures of any of His contemporaries; it did not stop at binding up a wound, it cleansed lepers. His word did not merely commiserate sinners, it forgave sins.
Divine supremacy of effective signs: Contrast of divine and human signs
In other words, the signs of men penetrate to the intellect of others, and this is a marvel in the physical world; but the signs of God penetrate to the will, to the very essence of the soul. They not only signify, they actually accomplish what they signify. We grasp something of this if we can imagine a mother’s counsel, “Now be good,” changing a malicious child into a little saint. It is only in this way that we shall see that Christ’s short sentence, “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee,” was not merely a statement of hope, not a vague promise, not a word of counsel, but an effective destruction of sin.
Expression of divine thoughtfulness: Stooping to man
If the divine signs had stopped short at mere meaning, at the articles of faith, for example, that alone would not have been sufficient to melt the hearts of men. It would have been a great kindness: a great Master’s careful choice of words ample enough for a child to grasp. We are material as well as spiritual, while God is pure spirit; it would be generously thoughtful of Him to stoop to our level, using a medium accommodated to our lowest of intelligences, softening the bright glare of pure intellect for our weak eyes, by beginning His great actions in the field of the sensible.
But God does not stop at the merely kind; He constantly goes on to the surpassingly generous. He does not stop at mere meaning with His signs, He pushes them on to a really divine causality. He takes our familiar, tangible, homely things — like bread, water, and oil — both to signify and to accomplish the divine things that must be done to our soul if we are to live the life of God. It was as though God bowed to the mechanic in all of us, respecting our childish insistence on taking things apart and seeing how they work, even when the things are supernatural mysteries. We clamor for a sight of the causes whose effects flow into our lives; while it is impossible to do away with the mystery of divine workmanship, God at least shows us the implements of His mysterious craft. He hands over His kit of divine tools for us to examine, to fondle, to marvel at.
Continuing the life of Christ
Indeed, there is an even greater divine thoughtfulness in these effective divine signs we call the sacraments. We have seen something of the loneliness and helplessness of the apostles in the loss of their Master. Seeing that, we have some little indication of the loneliness and helplessness of age after age of sinners, some hint of what it would mean to weak men and women, or even strong men and women, to be faced with the hard things of Christ without the comfort of the Master’s presence. Christ came to destroy sin, to give grace, to assure salvation, to win us a share in divine life; through the divine power and the instrumentality of His humanity, He ministered to the desperate needs of the men of His age. What a tragedy if His work were finished at His death, if only a memory of Him remained! There would always be sin, sorrow, and difficulty; there would always be the high level of divine life to be reached, a level much too high for mere men or mere women. If we had only His words of wise counsel and the gradually dimming light of His history, still weak, still sinning, still in need of help and courage as we are, we would indeed be lonely and helpless. This life of the God-man had to be continued through all the ages in which men would need Him; the fruits of that life had to be applied. With a generosity second only to that of the Incarnation, the divine power, again through the instrumentality of the material, worked to this incredible end of giving us Christ always. The disciples of Christ in the twentieth century are not lonely, as they were not lonely in any other century; the life of Christ goes on among them through the medium of the sacraments.
The essence of effective divine signs — the sacraments:
Metaphysical essence: signs of sanctity
Generically, the sacraments are signs. As such, they link arms with the newsboy’s whistle, the railroad man’s signal, and the lover’s kiss; much as the president of a nation, in his humanity, links arms with bootblacks and senators, derelicts and saints. In their primary signification, the sacraments have an order to things sacred. They are not sanctity but rather signs of it. And it is precisely in their relation to sanctity that they part company with all other signs, as the lover’s kiss parts company with the railroad man’s signal by the relation it has, not to stopping trains, but to stopping hearts with the sublime message of love. A sacrament is a sign of a sacred thing. As a sign, it is meant for man who is the only one who needs signs, and the only one who can we and appreciate them. Since the only thing pertaining to man that is intrinsically sacred is sanctity itself, a sacrament refers specifically to the sanctity of men. It is a sensible sign of sanctity or sanctification.
Perhaps we can make this a little more concrete by recalling that the sanctity of men is an internal thing produced by sanctifying grace. The sacraments, then, are signs of sanctifying grace; not past grace, or future grace, but the present grace by which men are made holy. To stop there is to consider only one signification of the sacramental sign; for seen in its entirety, it is a souvenir and a prophecy as well as a sign of sanctifying grace, signifying all that enters intimately into our sanctification. Surely, it signifies the passion of Christ which is the efficient cause of our sanctity; just as surely it signifies the eternal life which is the goal or final cause of our sanctity.
St. Augustine wisely remarked, and history bears him out, that men cannot be gathered together for any length of time in the name of any religion, true or false, without some visible sign to unite them, that is, without some sacrament. It could not be otherwise, men being what they are. We come to the knowledge of the intangible, intellectual, spiritual things only through the world of things that we can perceive by our senses. Of what use would be a sign that men could not see, hear, or touch; of what help would be a treasure of spiritual goods of which men would forever remain ignorant? If the sacraments are to signify things to men, they must be open to the senses. And that necessarily sensible character of the sacraments is one of the homely, human things that brings us so close to God in so comforting a way — our own way. It s the bridge over the infinite abyss which separates the divine from the human as our human signs are the bridge over which we pass from the material to the spiritual.
In fact, the sacraments are a two-way bridge. In the use of the sacraments, our worship goes to God while our sanctification comes from Him. If the sacraments were a one-way bridge, we might very well pick and choose for there is no impertinence in our determination of the path our own feet will walk; but there is decided impertinence in attempting to lay out the path of the feet of God. The determination of the precise matter of the sacraments, the material of the sign, is not ours but God’s, for determination means limitation to one thing and the limitation of God’s power to this or that means is God’s work, not ours.
In a word, we do not make our own sacraments; that belongs to God. But they must be made. They must be determined, fixed things because they are signs; indetermined signs, shifting signs with constantly variable meanings, are not signs at all for they have no meaning that can be grasped. The sacraments, as divine signs, are perfect; there can be no doubt whatever as to their meaning. To guarantee this perfection, each sacrament s made up not only of a material, sensible thing, but also of a consecrated form of words adding to the material thing the ultimate refinement of exact expression.
Physical essence: matter and words
There must be no mistake in the meaning of the sacraments. Imaginative expression has its place, but not here; the goal of words in the sacrament is a sharp, clear-cut, altogether unmistakable conception. In fact, the union of words and matter in the sacraments is more than a perfect medium of signification. Christ, the Author of the sacraments, was the Word of God united to the sensible flesh of human nature and the sacraments are a perpetual memorial of that union. Moreover, man, who is sanctified by the sacraments, is himself a creature of body and spirit; so, also, the sacraments are the fruit of a union of the word with matter.
Not just any words will do, you understand; these must be determined words, more determined, indeed, than the matter of the sacraments. For the words are the form giving the specific and detailed signification to the matter, beyond all shadow of obscurity. The minister of the sacraments may stumble over the Latin, for the years can do strange things to one’s Latin; his missing teeth may produce odd effects in his articulation; but as long as the proper sense of the words remains intact, so does the sacrament. On the contrary, if a minister, torn by a passion for originality, decides to concoct his own form, deliberately inducing substantial changes, there is no sacrament at all. He must intend to do what the Church intends and use the very words that leave his intention cleanly exposed for all to see.
Necessity of the sacraments: In general
An odd paradox of our age insists that men limit their knowledge to that of the senses, whether those senses be nude or clothed in scientific apparel; and, at the same time, scorns the idea of beginning with the senses for a knowledge of the spiritual and the divine. Both ends of the paradox involve a pitiful ignorance of nature: the first part, implying a denial of the validity of man’s intellect; the second, a denial of man’s position beneath the angels and above the material, dependent on the material though capable of the divine. In each case, there is more than a little of that stubborn pride which so often leads to absurdities and refuses to admit even evident absurdities precisely because it is pride. If, by reason of that pride, men cannot see the psychological need for the sacraments, it is too much to hope that the moral need of them will be understood; that men will see, that is, that human nature, subjecting itself to corporal things by its sin, has lost much of its appetite for things of the spirit and must recover that appetite through the medium of a mixed diet. Human nature, in its present condition, cannot stand the rich food of the spiritual; just as man cannot live by bread alone, so neither can he digest pure spiritual food. The remedy for his condition must come into a man’s life by the same road as the disease; for by that disease all other roads are closed.
Indeed, in our state of fallen nature, our affections are so rooted in corporal things that we have extreme difficulty in pulling ourselves away from them. It is a testimony to the wisdom and power of God, a wisdom that might well be imitated by reformers, that He does not try to tear those affections out by the roots; rather, He turns them to the high ends of His divine plan, using such sensible works as anointing with oil and whispering in the complete privacy of the confessional box as the means by which our affections are purified and turned to Him.
The perfection given to a man by the sacraments, the fervor they awaken in his soul, the help they bring are enough to impress the mind of a man profoundly. Many theologians were so deeply struck by these things that they were of the opinion that even in the state of innocence enjoyed by Adam there would have been sacraments. Thomas is in flat disagreement. His conclusions are not the result of a lesser respect, affection, or enthusiasm for the sacraments; but they are the result of solid reason. In the clear light of reason, there is simply no room for sacraments in the state of innocence. Thomas goes further. He insists that in that original condition of men, sacraments would have been useless, even disorderly things. If there were sacraments then, it would have meant that the soul of a man was perfected by some corporal thing; whereas the very essence of that state was the complete domination of the inferior by the superior: the soul by God, the body by the soul, the world by man.
It was a different story after man had sinned. From the first moment of his sin. man lost that complete domination of spirit over matter; from then on he had need, desperate need of sacraments. In every age since then, there have been sacraments. Before the establishment of the Old Testament, there were such sacraments of the natural law as a kind of baptism through the prayers and faith of the parents for the child, sacrifice, tithes, certainly a kind of penance. Before the coming of Christ, the Old Law operated by anticipation of Christ’s redemption through such sacraments as circumcision, the Paschal Lamb, the loaves of proposition, the purification of women, the consecration of priests, and so on. With the coming of Christ, our own sacraments were instituted by Him.
These three stages of sacramental life mark a gradual advance to perfection; the matter of the sacraments becomes more determined, men are given surer guarantees of the paths to God, until, with the sacraments of the New Testament, complete determination and clarity put men’s minds serenely at ease. As we shall see later on in this chapter, the great difference between the sacraments of nature, of the Old Testament and of the New Testament, was that only the latter contain and effect the things they signify; the others are limited to mere signification, exciting the heart of man by what they signify to the necessary acts of faith, hope, and love. To say this briefly the scholastics explained that the sacraments of the New Testament workex opere operato; the others, ex opere operantis. We can sec this difference in an historical setting if we remember that Luther never got beyond the natural and Old Testament conception of the sacraments. He never arrived at the point of accepting literally the saving words of Christ: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”
There is a point worth making here by way of forestalling many an objection. The variety in the sacraments in these three stages of man’s history is not an indication of a puzzled divinity gradually discovering better and better means of saving men in the hard school of experience. It is not because of a wavering, indecisive mind that a father orders his children to wear one kind of clothes in summer time and changes his orders when winter comes. The sacraments are fitted to the times of men. Before the Old Law and before the Incarnation, the sacraments were essentially prefigures of that central event in history which is the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ; after the story of redemption had been told, the sacraments no longer looked to the future but rather dealt with the present and effective salvation of men.
It is a little unfair to leave Luther all alone with an erroneous conception of the nature of the sacraments; his error was, in fact, common to all the reformers and their various successors in our modern sects. The error traces its ancestry to that stubborn attempt to fit all things into the human mould, to an essential pride which cannot see beyond the fact that we are wonderful creatures. Of course we are, and we are ever ready to admit it. How, then, can a drop of water on the head of an infant wash away sin from the infant’s soul? We cannot see it done. It certainly is not an inherent quality of any water we know. We ourselves cannot give water that property. So it cannot be done. It is just a sign calculated to awaken us to a recognition of our need for forgiveness, for cleansing, and for the faith by which this will take place.
Their effects: Principal effect — grace:
In sacraments of the New Testament
Nevertheless, that bit of water does wash away sin. It is a doctrine of faith that the sacraments are sensible signs instituted by Christ to give grace, not merely to signify it. Every Catholic must believe that the sacraments cause grace independently and of their very nature, not dependently on the disposition of the minister or the fervor of the subject; that they contain the grace they cause and effect that grace by way of an instrumental cause. Theologians may dispute as long and subtly as they like about the circumstances or modes connected with the sacraments; but the essential truth of their independent and effective causality must be held without question.
The sacraments are a means instituted by God to incorporate man into the Mystical Body of Christ, to elevate him to the supernatural plane, to allow him to participate in the life of God, knowing and loving God as God knows and loves Himself. That participation in the divine life is, radically, habitual or sanctifying grace which inheres in the essence of the soul and does for a man supernaturally what conception and birth do for him naturally. It gives him life. No one imagines that the water of baptism seeps down through the head of a child to his soul like a cleaning fluid aimed at the unsightly spot of sin on the soul. No one pretends that mere water, as such, hides within itself the life of God. It is God Himself Who is the principal cause of grace in a man’s soul; it is He Who possesses divine life essentially and from Him it must be shared. The words and matter of the sacrament are the instruments of the divine Workman, specially selected by Him for effects that only He can produce.
They are, however, real causes; they are not mere signs, mere hopes, mere declarations of faith. They cause grace as truly as a hammer in the hand of a carpenter drives a nail or as an axe wielded by a woodsman fells a tree. The sacraments contain grace as an instrumental cause contains the effect it produces by the power of the principal cause. In other words, grace is in the sacraments as In an instrumental, passing power which belongs not so much to the instrument as to Him Who uses it.
Seen in the concrete, this truth s really not difficult. If the infant to be baptized has been brought through a freight-yard on the way to church, it may have some soot on its head; in the course of the baptism, the soot will be washed off, streakily perhaps, by the water of baptism. This effect is a proper and natural effect of water; water has this power completely and naturally, so that, relative to this effect, water is the principal, not the instrumental, cause. Over and above the effect of soot-removal, there is the effect of sin-removal which is the real reason why the infant was brought to the church at all. This sin-removal is not a proper and natural effect of water; this capacity is not had completely and naturally by water, but passingly in so far as it is used as an instrument; as a hammer has power to drive nails only when it is used by a carpenter. That sacramental power, causative of grace, is nothing less than a passing movement of God, elevating and applying the instrument He has chosen. The difference between God’s use of the sacrament and the woodsman’s use of his axe is that the latter only applies the instrument, while God not only applies His instrument but also gives the instrument the power to flow into this extraordinary effect.
If we go back to the carpenter and his nail-driving, we have a rough parallel which tells the whole story of the causality of the sacraments. The carpenter is the principal cause of the nail being driven. His hand is an instrument, but a conjoined instrument, one immediately united to the principal cause, indeed, an integral part of the carpenter. The hammer is also an instrument, not conjoined but separated, put to work through the medium of the conjoined instrument, the carpenter’s hand. In the sacraments, the principal cause is God. The humanity of Christ, substantially united to the Word of God, is the conjoined instrument, finite, created. The sacraments themselves, matter and words, are separated instruments wielded by the principal cause only through the medium of the conjoined instrument, the humanity of Christ, for it is by the passion of Christ that grace has been given to us and the sacraments are an application, a continuation of the work of the God-man, Christ.
In sacraments of the Old Testament
None of this was true of the sacraments of the Old Law. They were in no sense principal causes of grace, for they were not God. Nor were they continuations of the life and work of Christ Who did not as yet exist. They did not cause grace. They signified the justification of men which was to be had by faith in the coming of the Messias. They were signs and no more than signs.
There is another point, often neglected, to be mentioned before leaving the subject of the grace caused by the sacraments. The reason for the variety of the sacraments of the New Law is precisely because of the variety of the work to be done by them. Each sacrament ministers to a different need of men. Yet, the habitual or sanctifying grace of all the sacraments is exactly the same; the difference, then, lies not in the sanctifying grace, but in the individual effect proper to each sacrament, an effect which we know by the name of sacramental grace. This is, at least, the habitual grace with a definite title or right to special graces necessary for the work this particular sacrament fits a man to do. The sacrament of matrimony, for example, will produce sacramental grace or titles to all the special graces necessary for the whole long length of married life, the grace to walk the baby patiently at night, to bite one’s tongue in the midst of a family quarrel, or to deal with the other party in marriage with a charity that far surpasses the demands of justice. Confirmation will give the sacramental grace which is a right to the graces necessary to play our parts as spiritual adults; and so on, with each of the sacraments.
Secondary effect — character
A few of the sacraments have still another effect, over and above this rich deposit of grace; the sacramental character. It is a mysterious thing called mark or character only metaphorically, for it is thoroughly spiritual. It is a badge of our membership in Christ, a participation of His eternal priesthood by which we are dedicated to the sacred things of divine worship; above all, it is a dedication to that perfection of divine worship within ourselves which is our own spiritual life.
Stripped of its metaphorical language, the sacramental character is an instrumental power of the soul by which we are rendered capable of receiving or conferring spiritual things, according as that power is an active or a passive one. Thus the character of Baptism, a passive power, gives us title to the reception of the other sacraments; that of Holy Orders, an entirely active power, gives a man the capacity of conferring the sacraments on others; while that of Confirmation, partly passive and partly active, both admits us to the sufferings to be undergone by the followers of Christ and fits us for the stern, positive action that spiritual manhood demands.
Only these three sacraments imprint this indelible mark upon the soul. The character of all three is an eternally enduring thing, for all three are a participation in the incorruptible priesthood of Christ and are subject in the incorruptible soul of man. Only these three confer character because these alone are directly ordered to action, to reception or bestowal in reference to our spiritual perfection, and to the worship of God. Because it is a question of action, these characters are imprinted on our faculties, not on the essence of the soul; to be more precise, they are imprinted in the faculty which is the immediate source of action in man, the practical intellect. The practical intellect, then, by this character is constantly protesting its faith, its submission to the authority of God; even a heretic in hell is thus eternally giving witness to faith in God by the character imprinted upon his practical intellect.
Their efficient cause: Principal cause
Since these effects are produced in territory that is open to no one but God — the soul of man — they are obviously God’s works. A priest, absolving the penitent sinner, never thinks to puff out his chest in pride at the great load of sin he has done away with. He knows this is God’s work, that he is only the minister, the instrument in the hands of God. Even without further consideration of the nature of the sacraments, it would be clear from this alone that no priest, no bishop, no pope can institute a sacrament; all these men are instruments for the use of the sacraments, not authors of sacraments.
The sacraments are in strict truth the determined channels down which the power of God flows into the souls of men. Who is to plot out the course divine power will follow? Indeed, who would have dared suspect such subjection of divinity to the human will had not God Himself commanded it? It is no exaggeration to say that the sacraments have subjected divine power to our wills, for by them the flow of grace is put as completely at our command as water is by a faucet or music by a radio set. There is nothing to it; just receive the sacraments, and there you are with grace. Nothing to the participation of the life of God! We walk through a wonder-word idly, not at all abashed, hardly impressed, at home. Of course, things at home are to be taken for granted!
Ministerial cause: The ministers themselves
Christ Himself could not make men the first, or principal, cause of the sacramental action. Yet, by reason of His own supreme excellence, He could have given His ministers a greater participation of His powers relative to the sacraments. Indeed, He could have gone so far as to allow them to produce the effect of the sacrament, grace, without the sacrament itself; or even, as secondary causes, to institute new sacraments. The fact is that He did no such thing.
Nor was this a matter of jealousy on the part of Christ. He was not hoarding His power but rather guarding the faithful from the ever-present danger of placing their hopes in men rather than in God. It does not take much imagination to see what a tremendous multiplication of sacraments, true and false, there might have been otherwise; nor what hopeless bewilderment and ultimate discouragement would have invaded the hearts of the simple faithful. These human ministers were to feed the sheep of Christ; but the Master reserved the preparation of the food to Himself. The sacraments were not designed as frail helps depending utterly on a holy priesthood; they are solid supports depending directly on God. They may be administered by men who lack faith, hope, and charity, who are positively steeped in sin; but their effect on the faithful is in no way diminished, though, in these cases, they are poison to the ministers.
Conditions required in the minister
The one thing demanded of the human minister in all the sacraments is the intention of doing what the Church does. He is an instrument, it is true, but a living instrument; he is not only moved, he moves himself, and that self-movement is essential. The water he pours might be poured in just this way for a dozen other purposes; it is tied down to this one sacramental purpose by his intention. An atheistic doctor, baptizing a baby to reassure the mother, may think the whole thing is pure mummery; but if he intends to confer the sacrament, the sacrament is conferred. These are sacred things. They are not to be conferred, as Luther alleged, by drunks, idiots, or jokers with no sense of humor; but by men actively participating, for that instant at least, in the priesthood of Christ.
That priesthood is a sacred office of eternal consequence reserved by God for men; for it is man who is thoroughly conformed to the High Priest in His human life and human sufferings. Angels could administer sacraments if God so willed it. Indeed, angels have distributed Holy Communion, as was the case with Blessed Imelda; but it has happened much more frequently that angels have summoned a priest to administer the last sacraments to a man or woman dying alone. Obviously, then, since the ministration of the sacraments depends on the will of God, all diabolical participation in this matter is absolutely precluded. It would be as easy to imagine God allowing the devil to sing the infant Christ asleep in his arms as to conceive of God permitting diabolical administration of the sacraments.
Their number: Actual number
We shall see each sacrament in detail in the following chapters. For the moment, let us take one quick glance over all of them that we might see them in their proper place, grasp their interrelation and proper evaluation, lest the abundance of detail later on obscure the beauty of the whole structure. It is of faith that there are seven sacraments; a definition directly against the reformers who picked and chose as they liked. That there should be just seven, no more and no less, Thomas shows in an article of surpassing beauty.
The sacraments were instituted for a double end: the worship of God through the spiritual perfection of man; and the remedying of sin and its defects. On each of these counts, there is solid reason for precisely seven sacraments.
Just as in his corporal life, a man’s perfection is both individual and social, so also in his spiritual life. In the field of the corporal, he is individually perfected by the acquisition of life through generation, its preservation and increase through growth and nourishment; while sickness and weakness, the great impediments to life, must, of course, be provided against. In his spiritual life, these things are given to a man by Baptism which gives him birth, Confirmation which gives him growth, the Eucharist which gives him nourishment; while Penance and Extreme Unction remove the impediments to spiritual life which are sin and its after-effects. Spiritually as well as corporally, man is taken care of in his community life by the establishment of public authority, with its right to rule and exercise public acts, and by natural propagation; both of these are provided for spiritually through Holy Orders and Matrimony.
The same number seven is arrived at if we examine the sacraments from the aspect of their supplying for the defects of sin. Baptism is directed against the death of the soul, giving life. Confirmation works against the infirmity of spiritual infancy, giving strength. The Eucharist is against the weakness of the soul for sin, giving nourishment; a spiritual food to offset the cravings of man’s appetite for carnal food. Penance is against actual sin; Extreme Unction against the vestiges of sin left on the soul. Holy Orders works against the deception and dissolution of the community; while Matrimony is ordered against concupiscence and the extinction of the community.
The same complete beauty of the sacramental hierarchy is seen even more clearly when the sacraments are referred to the virtues. Thus, Baptism, corresponding to faith, is against original sin; Extreme Unction, corresponding to hope, is against venial sin; the Eucharist, corresponding to charity, is against the malice of the will; Holy Orders, corresponding to prudence, is against ignorance; Penance, corresponding to justice, is against mortal sin; Matrimony, corresponding to temperance, is against concupiscence; and, finally, Confirmation, corresponding to fortitude, is against weakness and cowardice.
There just isn’t room for any more; there are no gaps to be filled. The sacraments greet man coming from the womb and usher him to his tomb. They take care of his infancy, his adolescence, his manhood. They guard his personal, domestic, and social life. Through all the wide field of the virtues against the defects of human nature, man advances confidently, a spiritual warrior fully equipped with supernatural weapons that will not be outmoded. There is not a moment of his life, no part of his being, no phase of his career which is neglected; he is saturated with the supernatural. He has become a member of the Mystical Body, raised to the divine plane to live the life of God; not at this time or that time in his life, but always.
It is to be noticed that in all the enumerations of the sacraments, except where they were aligned with the virtues, Holy Orders and Matrimony come respectively sixth and seventh. This is not coincidence. Man’s primary work is to save his own soul, as against the social service idea which has been recently substituted for the kingdom of God. The things that pertain to the perfection of the individual soul come first; then, and only then, the sacraments referring to the community. Holy Orders precedes Matrimony because the latter has not so full and exclusive a participation of the very essence of spiritual life. Of the sacraments dealing with the individual as such, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are always mentioned in that order. Again, there is no coincidence. These three should precede Penance and Extreme Unction for they are directly ordered to perfection, while the latter two are only accidentally so ordered, by reason, that is, of the deplorable calamity of sin. Of the first three, Baptism obviously is first, for it is spiritual birth; Confirmation is next, for it is growth to manhood; finally, there is the Eucharist as the fullness of perfection, directly ordered to the end of all man’s spiritual life, eternal union with God.
Of all the sacraments, the Eucharist is supreme in dignity and excellence; for it is the body and blood, soul and divinity of God Who is the author and end of the sacraments. All the others are ordered to the Eucharist as to an immediate end, revolving around it like so many planets around the sun. Holy Orders, the sacrament of the priesthood, is obviously ordered to the Eucharist. By Baptism we are born that we might be united to Christ; by Confirmation, we are strengthened lest shame and human respect keep us away from the sacrament of His presence. Penance and Extreme Unction are ordered to a completely worthy reception of it; while Matrimony, in its essential significance of love’s complete union, is the consecrated sign of the union of Christ and the Church as well as the instrument by which is guaranteed the long line of the future children who will come to be received by Christ and to receive Him. In ordinary practice, the reception of the other sacraments is bound up with the reception of the Eucharist; this is even true of Baptism, if the baptized be an adult.
Relation to salvation
From the point of view of necessity, Baptism is the one absolutely necessary sacrament for salvation. Penance, of course, is no less necessary once mortal sin has been committed. And Holy Orders is completely essential for the community. All the others are necessary, not absolutely, but rather for the most fitting, the most perfect attainment of the goal. In the language of modern theologians, Baptism is neceessary by a necessity of means, that is, without it salvation is utterly impossible; the others are necessary by a necessity of precept, that is, although salvation is possible without them, they must be received because they have been commanded.
Conclusion: A world rejecting the sacraments: Angelism of pride
The beauty of the sacraments, which we have touched on in this chapter and will continue to examine in the following chapters, will to a great extent be lost on the world of the twentieth century. Ours is a world that is without sacraments because it has deliberately rejected them. That rejection began in a pride that sought to elevate men by denying half their nature, insisting that religion of the spirit alone was worthy of man. It was a kind of angelism that caricatured human nature by degrading its material side. In our own day, we have seen the same pride turn its energies to a championship of the material in man at the expense of the spiritual. Obviously this is no less a caricature and a degradation, for it denies man’s soul and man’s God, turning him lose as an animal, a slave to his sense appetites whether those be appetites of strength or of pleasure, of the bully or of the effeminate weakling. The sacraments, of course, insist upon both man’s spiritual and material nature.
Materialism of sense appetite
The first of these perversions of pride has not worked, nor will the second. The short span of years since the reformation has seen the degeneration of the wholly spiritual religion, more or less free of sacraments, into a subjectivism and ultimate indifferentism. Its decline can be traced step by step through the sickness and death of formal protestantism. That slow death was no more than an expression in fact of the truth that man cannot live on the spiritual alone, that he is no angel, and, above all, of the more profound truth that man cannot live on man-power alone. No more will the second last, powerful and energetic as it seems now; for it is no less true that man cannot live by bread alone, that he is not just another animal. It is no less true now than it has been from the beginning, that men and nations, whatever their strength, cannot live without God.
The indictment of experience: Errors against the sacraments
Perhaps the death sentence of a world that rejects sacraments is to be read in the one truth that man cannot live by lies; his diet must be truth. From the very beginning, errors against the sacraments or denials of them have been falsifications of absolutely fundamental truths. They have necessarily included errors on physical nature, explaining, for instance, that al1 material was evil; on divine nature, making God powerless or impersonal; and on human nature, making man an angel or a beast. Inevitably they have scorned the Church’s guardianship of truth and the faith which is the guarantee and the liberator of the minds of men. Man cannot attack truth without having the universe come tumbling down upon his head.
Lives without the sacraments
All these religions without sacraments, whether the object of their worship be political, humanistic, or even a kind of degraded divinity, are sad, hopeless things, as sad as the disciples in the upper room after the Ascension of Christ; for they are religions without Christ. Their acts of worship are a kind of gloomy memorial service through which a man walks embarrassed, self-conscious, hushed, on tip-toe lest he awaken the dead; or they reverberate with a loud, thundering fanaticism which is afraid of quiet, afraid of being alone, lest the rumble of despair destroy the last vestige of courage. Both are religions of death.
For them, the life of Christ is over, if it ever began. Certainly there is no continuation of that life, no perpetuation of the work that men need so badly. In direct contradiction to them is the living Church for whom Christ’s life goes on in the sacraments. There one can always find the joyous shouts of children, the rejoicing of the friends of the bridegroom; for here, Christ still dwells among men. This religion is necessarily open, sunny, human, even divine; for the life it perfects is completely human and gloriously divine. It is a life made free by truth; the truth of physical nature, of human nature, of divine nature; the truth of the Church and of the faith. It is a life made possible by the sensible signs instituted by Christ to give grace, the signs which are the seven sacraments.