Identity, Part 3: The Sacramental Self

“This is the condition of human nature, that it surpasses other classes only when it realizes what it is in itself; as soon as it ceases to know itself, it must be reduced to a lower rank than the beasts. To other animals ignorance of themselves is natural; in men it is a fault.”

So said Boethius (480–524) in his Consolation of Philosophy.

Every sacrament of the Catholic Church leads the soul into a more complete realization of its individual character and also into the greater communion of persons, through which the “image and likeness” of a triune God is realized in humanity.

Although each of the sacraments contributes, in a special way, to the formation of Christian identity, it is on the Mass and confession that I wish to concentrate, because these are the regular sacraments by which the image of God is continually imprinted on the human heart.

Boethius, in Consolation of Philosophy, talks at length about the perils which face the human person that identifies himself with his sins. The most obvious manifestation of this in the modern world is the “Gay Pride” movement, which explicitly links same-sex behaviors to personal identity.

In fact, the phenomenon is not, by any means, limited to the rainbow brigade. Those whose identities are caught up in materialism, worldly success, self-righteousness and vanity are no less guilty just because they don’t explicitly use the word “identity” in justifying their sins.

It is all too easy to come to think of one’s faults and vices as essential to one’s personality. This is what the sacrament of confession, and particularly the examination of conscience, allows the soul to overcome.

“In this sacrament, the sinner, placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life” (Catechism, No. 1470). For a moment, the soul steps back and sees herself from the perspective of eternity, like an artist stepping back from his work in order to better assess it. This knowledge, aided by the grace of the sacrament, allows the soul to radically reorient herself — to stop investing herself in her sins, and to turn towards God.

In confession, the soul is like a farmer going down the rows and pulling out the blighted crops. In the Mass, the soul is like a farmer examining the ripening wheat. The bread and wine that are brought to the Eucharistic altar are not only the “fruit of the vine” — gifts given by God — but also “work of human hands.”

The money that we put into the basket is an outward sign of our work. What we are offering is not merely a financial sacrifice, but all of our thoughts, words and deeds since the last time we were at Mass. Our disposition should be something like that of a child bringing a present to his father: “Daddy, Daddy, I made this for you!” And the Father, being infinitely good, replies, “Ah. I know what we can do with this” — and promptly turns the popsicle-stick spaceship into a galactic cruiser.

At this point in the Mass, the soul should be aware of what she is bringing. I imagine that the two “good and worthy servants” in the parable of the talents did not manage to multiply their holdings without taking regular stock of their investments (Matthew 25:14-30). At the end of each Mass, the soul is sent out into the world “to love and serve the Lord.”

She is given “the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation” to strengthen her for this task. When she returns next week, she should know what she accomplished.

It is not merely a matter of superficial achievement.

A week spent drudging, half-conscious, in the service of mammon, collapsing at the end of the day to squander some “quality family time” in front of the television, is not much of an offering. What a person does with himself determines who he is as a member of the body of Christ.

The Mass gives us the spiritual currency to invest in our salvation. We are united, entirely, with Christ, and made new. Every time that we are dismissed, filled with the heavenly banquet, we have a fresh opportunity to apply ourselves to the heroic task of becoming saints.

Eucharist prepares us for this task by orienting us toward eternity: “We already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all” (Catechism, No. 1326). We return to the bedrock of our identity, to the mystery of our origins and our eternal destiny in God, and are made one with Christ, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer