Calculating Grace

We’re drawing to the end of November, a month in which Catholics are accustomed to remembering and praying for the dead. At Saint John’s Abbey we have the wonderful custom of inviting the public to send in cards with the names of their beloved dead. At each Office and Mass, each monk takes one or more cards and prays for the names sent in.

For lots of reasons, we do not ask people to send donations with their list of names. Think sale of indulgences, Martin Luther’s posting (at least legend has it) of 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, and the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation.

That unfortunate history got me thinking about what the monks’ prayers for the dead are worth.

One submitted card has 1 name, another has 12. Both cards get a remembrance of one office from one monk. Did the loner there get 12 times as much grace, since the dozen souls had to split up the benefit from one monk’s office?

Then there’s the varying length of the offices. The daily little hour at noon is barely 14 minutes – are some souls getting less relief than if they had been remembered at morning prayer (30 minutes) or evening prayer (sometimes up to 35 minutes)?

The monastic community prays its way through all the cards several times. But the number of cards coming in increases each year, meaning it takes longer to cycle through the whole lot. Another calculation to wonder about: a submitted name might only be remembered twice in the month instead of four times as in years past. And depending on how far in we are on November 30, some cards get used one more time than others.

So much for God to calculate. But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t worry about such stuff. Nor should we.

In fact, here’s the main point I would make about all these calculations: Once grace is understood as a quantity, everything has gone off the rails.

You get questions that miss the whole point, such as: If several priests concelebrate, has the Church lost the grace of several missed individual Masses? Do you get the same amount of grace from a quickie Mass with no singing? Do you get more grace if you receive Communion under both forms? (Or as it’s more likely to be formulated: Do you get the whole Christ and the same amount of grace from just one form?) How many Masses should I buy for my deceased spouse?

Here are better question to ask: How can I and we die and rise with Christ? How can the power of his resurrection live in us? How can we be more open to the transformation he offers? How can we be better conformed to him? How can our liturgical celebrations best reflect and engender – with good, strong symbols and full engagement of us at all levels – the paschal mystery?

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