When the Sacraments Stop Working
My father loves to tell the story of how one night my little brother, when he was perhaps aged four or so, ran to my parents’ room in the middle of the night, fleeing a night terror. My dad soothed him, made a pallet on the floor next to the bed for my brother to sleep on, and told him that in times of fear, the best thing to do is to turn to God in prayer. They said a quick prayer, asking for God’s peace, and then my father, thinking all was well, laid back down. Just as my father was about to slip back into sleep, a little arm tugged on him again. “Daddy!” my little brother whispered loudly. “It’s not working!”
My brother, of course, was eventually able to make it back to sleep (he’s now 29, and I’m proud to say it’s been at least a couple of decades since he’s slept on my parents’ floor), but our family still loves to chuckle at the unflinching, spiritual honesty of his younger self. And while it’s a winsome story to tell of a child who was able to turn to his trusted earthly father in a moment of spiritual crisis, what do we do as adults when “it” – our prayers, our faith, the Sacraments themselves – stops working?
I read with sadness a few weeks ago the public announcement of a family well-known in some Catholic circles who decided to leave the Catholic Church. While the couple had no clear idea of where they would turn now, they were adamant that they could no longer remain Catholic. Their publicly stated reasons for leaving were many, and none were novel. The reasons boiled down to the age-old problem of evil: we did everything right, but there are still terrible things in our family, our Church, and the world.
This is a couple who taught RCIA classes, went to all the right conferences, read all the best books, attended the Traditional Latin Mass, homeschooled their ten children, prayed daily family rosaries, and, to the best of their abilities, deeply and faithfully lived their Catholic faith for decades. And yet despite their best efforts, two of their children became atheists. Other prayers went unanswered. They became despondent over the myriad of abuses within the Church, the coldness and hypocrisy of many practicing Catholics, and the perplexing problem of how this could all be if the Church truly is what She claims to be. If the Eucharist actually becomes the body and blood of Christ, how is it that a priest could consecrate the Host multiple times a day, every day, for years, and still abuse children? If Christ’s Sacred Heart is real and burns with love for us, how is it that one could be baptized and cleansed from original sin, regularly seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spend countless hours in Adoration, attend daily mass, and still be left so cold?
These are good questions, and they are hard questions. They should not be treated flippantly or summarily dismissed with cold philosophy and apologetics by some smug keyboard-warrior. Instead, if we look at these questions honestly and with humility, they should cause every single one of us to squirm a bit. The truth of the matter is, the Sacraments should change you. But I don’t have to look very long at my own life to see a million ways every single day that I fall terribly short of the Christian standard.
Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). There is not a single Christian, Catholic or otherwise, who fits this definition. It follows naturally, then, that our pews and pulpits are filled with hypocrites. So what gives? What is the point of it all? If the Sacraments are supposed to be conferring grace and continually conforming us to Christ, why are so many of us such abysmal failures spiritually, despite our best and most sincere efforts?
The answer, of course, lies not with any defect in the Sacraments, but instead in our own hearts. Pride, the root of all sin, is so insidious. Slowly and quietly, if left unchecked, it can cause us to turn Christ into an idol of ourselves, as Caryll Houselander writes so eloquently in The Reed of God. “We become what our conception of Christ is. . . . In the degree of the truth of our conception of Him, our minds grow broader, deeper, and warmer; our hearts grow wiser and kinder; our humour deeper and more tender; we become more aware of the wonder of life; our senses become more sensitive; our sympathies stronger; our capacity for giving and for receiving greater; our minds are more radiant with a burning light, and the light is the light of Christ.”
By comparison, when we make “ego-projections” of Christ, paring Him down to satisfy our own needs and insecurities, the opposite occurs. We become narrow-minded, shallow, and cold; our hearts grow dim and cruel; our “humour” becomes thin and coarse; we lose sight of the wonder of life; our senses grow dull; our sympathies weaken; our capacity for giving and receiving diminishes; and our minds become dark. And in the darkness, the graces of the Sacraments cannot firmly root within our souls.
Just as the symptoms of a disease alert us to the presence of a bodily infection, these spiritual symptoms alert us to the presence of the spiritual infection of pride and self-reliance. In her Spiritual Letters, Sister Wendy Beckett, a British religious sister and art historian, wrote: “As long as you have a sense of Him to sustain you – as long as you feel that your prayer is achieving something in you, . . . let alone the question of external recognition and success, which means much to you precisely in its implicit ‘approval’ of your spiritual course – well, as long as there are even some of these supports, you can never be thrown wholly on God, however earnestly and sincerely you desire it.” When we seek God for any purpose other than the very fact that He is God, and therefore all good and deserving of all our love, we will fall short of the Truth. And that’s when spiritual disease sets in.
How then, do we cure this spiritual disease? Sister Wendy answers: “All you can do now is hold your poor barren self constantly before Him, thanking Him for loving you, and believing that all you suffer is love.” Gratitude and accepting hardships as a path to peace are the two key ingredients to continually cultivating a posture of humility in life. And it is only through humility – embracing the poor barrenness of ourselves – that we can grasp the true conception of Christ.
The story of the family who decided to leave the Church is not over. And neither is your story, dear reader. Do not lose hope or have your faith shaken. Christ is still at work – in His Church, in the Sacraments, in you and in the lives of all those around you. And when you fall, as you inevitably will, hold your poor barren self out to Him yet again, trusting in and giving thanks for His endless love.
 I do not address the efficacy of the Sacraments administered by priests in an active state of mortal sin in this blog post. If this is a question you are wrestling with, I would suggest starting with CCC 1128 and then expanding your research from there. There are many good posts addressing this question available through forums such as Catholic Answers and EWTN, or please feel free to reach out to me, and I will help you find them!