Joseph Matros – “The Sacraments and Personal Spirituality”

Posted on April 2, 2008. Filed under: Personal Spirituality |

This post examines the two main themes in Matros’ writings about The Sacraments and Personal Spirituality.

Theme One:

Do the sacramental rituals lead to the transformation that must take place within a true believers heart?  Specifically, are experiences such as baptism and confession representative of the necessary first steps toward a Godly walk of surrender and obedience?  Is their performance really an outward manifestation of a true conversion to Christ?

Theme Two:

Do transformations of the Christian’s heart occur first and therefore lead to a more meaningful understanding and adherence of the sacramental rituals.  In essence is this a prerequisite for the sacraments “becoming part of us” as Matros put it?

The purpose of this paper is to closely examine the seemingly paradoxical relationship between these two important and meaningful elements of a Christian’s life.  And make no mistake these are questions of eternal significance as presented in a book titled Jesus, Remember Me by Ron Corcoran.

In discussing the final judgment, Corcoran stated, “So the first message in the New Testament regarding judgment is a message with an invitation of repentance attached.  Our response to that invitation will disclose whether our profession to Jesus is the fruit of an honest and regenerated heart, or is only the mimicking of a hypocritical religion.  That truth will be utterly exposed on a day the New Testament calls Judgment Day or the judgment to come”  (Pg. 94, Jesus, Remember Me).

Corcoran’s observations are particularly poignant given Matros’ statement that if it, being the sacramental experience, is not also “in here” and is therefore not becoming a part of us and we of it, “then a sacrament signifies nothing that is real as far as we ourselves are concerned.”

Matros then makes reference to “dull repetition” relative to the sacramental exercise.  In particular he talks about being like children “who are sometimes content with what they have learned and are not interested in developing their skills,” resulting in a “lifeless, dull redoing” of the very symbols that are designed to inspire transformation and further the Christian walk.  Or more to the point, the sacraments are not “a celebration of the mystery that is becoming a real part of our life,” but are instead undertaken as an obligation because “the Church tells us to do them.”

And if we are in fact mechanical in our worship, performing these sacramental “duties” then becomes an act of cold and rigid piety versus being a visceral exercise of a truly repentant heart.  And like the Pharisees to whom Jesus referred to has being hypocrites, do these repetitious rituals become a stumbling block to a true Christian walk by providing us with a false sense of our own eternal security?  Does it lead to a feeling of self-righteous superiority that produces the judgmental attitudes that some feel is representative of a hostile and unforgiving church?

“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye shut up the kingdom of Heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13 KJV).

Matthew Henry’s commentary regarding this particular verse in scripture introduces the peril of placing a greater value on the “ceremonial law” which according to Henry was “now in the vanishing” as a means of “suppressing the prophecies, which were now in the accomplishing, and to beget and nourish up in the minds of the people prejudices against Christ and his doctrine.”

I am not suggesting that in and of themselves the sacraments parallel the practice of the ceremonial law, which, as Henry concluded hindered rather than “helped thousands to Heaven.”  Even the ceremonial laws were not inherently wrong or ungodly.  It was the Pharisees’ self-serving adherence to these “vanishing rituals”, and their subsequent “hostile unwillingness” to recognize that Christ “came to open the kingdom of Heaven, that is, to lay open for us a new and living way into it,” that their greatest sin is found.

Or as Henry later stated in the same commentary, “they made religion and the form of godliness a cloak and stalking horse to their covetous practices and desires” (Matthew 23:14 KJV).

The “cloaking” to which Henry referred was the pretence associated with the Pharisees practice of making long prayers.  While praying is the necessary and essential life blood of a victorious Christian walk, the Pharisees reduced this exercise to one of “vain repetitions, and (which was the end of them) they were for pretence; by them they got the reputation of pious devout men, that loved prayer, and were the favorites of Heaven.”

Compare this with Matros’ statement regarding the sacraments and his point that “dull repetition, however, is not the attitude of a learner, a student, a disciple.”  He goes on to say “in and through our sacraments (though of course these are not the only ways) we ought to be expressing the conversion of our inner spirit to that of Christ’s spirit.”

And herein lies the core elements behind the second theme, which asks the question, are the sacraments in their truest and purest form the results of an already transformed heart where a “conversion of our inner spirit” has taken place or at least begun?

Certainly Jesus’ chastising of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27 (KJV) emphasizes the importance of the inner transformation over the outward expression of piety when He states “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead (men’s) bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Referring once again to Corcoran’s book, he talks about genuine faith, which expresses itself in a “new and radical life-style, marked by a rejection of personal sin and made obvious by works of loving service for the glory of God.”

And if the sacraments are to truly be an example of the “works of loving service,” then it is only when the motives for their practice reside in a heart that is truly repented and transformed.  And only God has the ability to see into the hearts of men (and women) as demonstrated by Corcoran’s reference to 1 Corinthians 4:5b when Paul wrote “God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts.  At that time each will receive their praise from God.”

This then leads one to ask the question, if the intent of the heart is the most important demonstration of a transformed life, if said transformation has not taken place do the sacraments still have meaning either on an individual or collective basis.  The distinction between individual and collective is of great importance.  While our individual choices directly impact our own eternal relationship with God, we are part of a greater body, which is the body of Christ.  Or what Simone Weil made reference to, which was later reiterated in the book Simone Weil, On Politics, Religion and Society (“Women of ideas” series, Sage publications, London, 1998), as a “unified totality,” is the recognition that each need to a degree enables, enriches and participates with all other needs.”

It is worth noting that Simone Weil, who was of Jewish ancestry, grew up in an agnostic home.  It was not until she experienced a “religious ecstasy” at the age of 28 in the church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, that her Christian walk began.  While not has dramatic from a scriptural and event perspective, it is nonetheless reminiscent of Saul’s conversion from being a zealous prosecutor of Christians to a devout champion of the Christian faith (Acts 26:12-16, KJV).

These as well as other examples such as Dismas’ (who is often referred to as the “good thief”) dying acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior while hanging on the Cross- are representative of internal transformations that were both instantaneous and powerful.  They were not preceded by the sacramental rituals to which Matros referred to as “symbols of what we are, when we are indeed converted to Christ in a Catholic way,” or “symbols of what we ought to be, when in fact we are not yet converted or not yet as fully converted as we want to be.”

And what impact do sudden transformations such as these have on the majority of Christians whose conversion occurs over a longer period of time.  Especially in the case of Dismas, whose entire life up until his last few hours on earth was the epitome of ungodliness?  The theme of Ezekiel 33:12–20 (KJV), and in particular verse 17 which states, “Yet the children of your people say, ‘the way of the Lord is not fair.’  But it is their way which is not fair,” may indeed represent a possible reaction to what many would consider to be an “unearned” transformational blessing.  The likelihood of such a reaction is even greater in those instances where the sacramental exercises have not been a reflection of a true inner conversion but instead a religious imperative in which the ritual rather than its meaning is the dominant factor behind its practice.

However, regardless of whether the transformation is immediate or over an extended period of time, any journey of discovery and enlightenment must begin with repentance and the acknowledgement of our “lostness.”  Or as Corcoran indicated in his book, while the grace of God “saved Dismas,” a critical factor in the transformation was that Dismas was also “an active participant in what took place on the cross.”  And this participation began with his admittance of the need for redemption as demonstrated by his comment to his partner in crime Gestas (who rejected Christ) “‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve’” (Pg. 46, Jesus, Remember Me).

Corcoran goes on to say that “what Dismas offered to Jesus was his repentance.  Repentance in many ways is judging ourselves and owning up to the fact that we are lost.  When we come to that place, it is not a place of listing our excuses or the extenuating circumstances of our lostness.  It is the acknowledgement without excuse of our lostness.”

And like the prodigal son in Luke, it requires a true change in heart.  A change, which is based on a genuine recognition that we are not masters of our own lives, and have irreparably fallen short of the ideal and flawless standards by which and for which we were originally created?  It also means an acceptance of the fact that this state of brokenness cannot be repaired or reversed through our own efforts, but is instead totally dependent on the grace of a loving God, and acceptance of His Son as our Lord and Savior.

This is certainly an unbridgeable chasm for those of us who are proud and committed to the human or secular ideal of self-determination.  However, this can also present a challenge for those of us who profess a belief in God and Jesus Christ, but fail to fully embrace and therefore acknowledge our own state of brokenness.  The inability on the part of the Christian to accept the fact that like Gestas and Dismas we all have the “same spirit of depravity,” within us as Corcoran puts it gives testimony to the real nature of the human heart.  And it is in the heart where a true transformation begins.

Even Matros recognized this fact when he presented the position that “Ideally, sacraments effect what they signify.  That is they cause to happen in our lives what it is that they symbolize.”   But even in making this statement, he acknowledged that the sacramental rituals do not always produce the “cause and effect” outcome that is intended, referring to an “inner disposition, which was needed for the fruitful reception of a sacrament.”  This is why Matros referred to the fact that “today’s theology” talks about conversion and the “authenticity” of sacramental worship.

And given that by nature we all possess a deceitful heart with a mind that is disinclined towards a relationship with God it is not surprising that the cause and effect outcome associated with the mere act of sacramental worship would leave some Christians with a hollow and unfulfilled life.

While Matros talked about a reviviscence of a sacrament, whereby it’s meaning “hits home,” or “comes alive” in a new way that affects our lives in a manner in which it had not previously done so, the fact remains that we are ultimately and fully dependent upon God’s grace and His desire to reach out to us in love and fellowship.  And because God loves us, He gives us the freedom of choice.  And once we make the choice to accept His calling and follow Christ we then have to actively seek out the rituals and exercises that build our relationship with God through a proactive church.  And this is perhaps the point in time when the sacraments take on a significance in which they begin to come alive.

In the end one would conclude, it matters not how we come to know and accept the Lord as Savior and Master, but that we make the decision to reciprocate His ultimate gesture of His love for us by faithfully following His will and plan for our lives.

Whether it be through a quiet and consistent prodding of our hearts, or a cataclysmic event in which the circumstance of life overwhelm us, we must get to the point of understanding what Paul described in Romans 3:23 (KJV) which is “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

This acknowledgment of our own human frailty and our subsequent inability in making right that which has been wrong with mankind since Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience, creates the attitude of thankfulness that is necessary to approach the sacraments from a place of true worship.  For that matter, it creates the attitude that is necessary for all of our responsibilities as Christians in a secular world.

From a personal perspective, this has caused me to consider my own journey to the cross, and the Christian life I now so enthusiastically embrace.

For many of us, the transformation is associated with a gradual series of events that evolve over a lifetime of experiences.  My journey to Calvary is no different.

An example of one of many steps on the road to eternity is the birth of my children and the unconditional (as unconditional as humanly possible) love that I feel for them.  From that first moment when I looked into the eyes of my newborn daughter (and of course my son when he was born), I had a sense for the very first time of the love that God must feel for us as His children.  This in turn led to a much deeper level of understanding of the cross and the sacrifice that He made in saving me by offering up His only begotten Son as atonement for my sins.

When I recently viewed the movie the Passion of the Christ, each lash that my Lord took for me had more meaning.  And who, through the renewed lens of parenthood, could not be moved to either repentance or a greater level of understanding, which resulted in an even greater commitment to live one’s life for the Lord.

With the recent passing of a parent, I was yet again transformed and my relationship with God deepened when the Holy Spirit (the great Comforter) was present during what to a non-Christian and their family is more often than not a frightful journey into the unknown.

As I held the hand of the very person who brought me into this world, and loved me throughout my entire life, I could hear Jesus saying to me in what I can only describe as an inaudibly, audible voice “do not be afraid for I have overcome sin and I have overcome death.”  With that the final breath was taken and a peaceful calm enveloped the room.

While there is certainly sadness as well as a heavy heart, there is also a feeling of joy and peace in the tears, as I know that all who come to Christ are in and will for all eternity be in God’s loving presence.  Who could not be transformed by such an experience?

So while questions regarding sacramental impact on individual Christian’s will remain unanswered as only God can truly see into a man’s (or woman’s) heart, and therefore really know the motives behind one’s actions, I need to learn how to present the sacraments in a way that motivates and inspires a closer relationship with the Lord.

I need to understand how, as Matros put it, “our sacraments should symbolize what we are already living; our daily dying to whatever it is that robs us and others of the fullness of life, and our daily rising to a newer, more abundant life, our awareness of the miraculous wonder that is life itself; our acknowledgement of everything, absolutely everything, as a gift, for there is nothing that we have entirely earned (though we may have worked hard for it).”

To be even more succinct, it points the way to how we as Christians and Catholics can be empowered to live our lives as true disciples of Jesus until that blessed day when He finally calls us home to be with Him.

For these reasons the Matros readings, which not only represented the culmination of everything I have been seeking to learn and understand through my studies, have been the most meaningful.

Whether as a result of timing because of the recent passing of a parent, or the birth of my children (my son was born in early November), and the financial challenges of everyday life, Matros’ writings caused me to examine my faith at a much deeper level and in a way I had not previously considered.  The benefits of which have been a considerably closer relationship with God as well as a greater level of understanding and love towards the members of my immediate as well as extended family.

While there are challenges ahead to be sure, this exercise has helped to strengthen the foundations of both my faith and the life that God was so gracious to give to me.

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