There are conversations that stay with you and repeat in your mind, gaining greater significance as you think about them. Lourdes is a place for those conversations, and although they rarely seem important at the time, they come back to you in prayer, in dreams and in reflection. The Wednesday of Lourdes is always a special day for me; I try to make it to the baths, confession and the Blessed Sacrament Procession all in one day. I do this for two reasons; firstly because once I have found the courage for the baths, confession seems a doddle; secondly, it means I am free for service to others every hour of every day at all other times. I have my day, and that is all I need.
On Wednesday evening this year I joked with a friend. When he commented: 'You made it to confession?' I replied: 'I am surprised you cannot see my state of grace! I have been bathed, confessed and blessed today.' He replied something like: 'There is no such thing as cheap grace, and you, of all people, should know that.' I may not be accurate but, it is this thought I would like to consider because, whatever the comment of my friend, he set me thinking about the first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
'Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price, grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance, and since it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?'
Bonhoeffer goes on to explain passionately that the cost of grace was the death of a son, and that this cost, if it were anything, was not cheap. Costly grace, he responds calls people to follow the teachings of Christ, to change. It has very little to do with the processes and ceremonies of religion. His tone is echoed in the writing of Herbert McCabe OP:
'The only true God is the God of freedom. The other gods make you feel at home in a place, they have to do with the quiet cycle of the seasons, with the familiar mountains and the country that you grew up in and love; with them you know where you are. But the harsh God of freedom calls you out from all of this into a desert where all the familiar landmarks are gone, where you cannot rely upon the safe workings of nature, on spring time and harvest, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring. The God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the old traditional shrines and temples of your native place, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way.'
In the light of the religiosity and traditional piety of Lourdes, it seems difficult to make sense of what these two great thinkers are getting at. Do the religious traditions of Lourdes mean nothing? Teach us nothing? And what of the sacraments of the Church? For me the answer is found in the revelations of a woman in love, Catherine of Sienna. In her Dialogue with God, she describes grace as the fruit of a desirous heart for union with God, the Infinite good. He replies to her:
'No virtue can have life in it except in charity, and charity is nursed and mothered by humility. You will find humility in knowledge of yourself when you see that even your own existence comes not from yourself, but from me, for I loved you before you came into being. And in my unspeakable love for you I willed to create you anew in grace....Pressed by my servants prayers I look on them (sinners) and give them light. I rouse the dog of conscience within them. I make them sensitive to the perfume of virtue and give them delight in the fellowship of my servants....The eye cannot see, nor the tongue tell, nor the heart imagine how many paths and methods I have solely for love. and to lead them back to truth that my grace may be realized in them.'
I have seen and written of Lourdes: 'At communion...people seek out priests from whom they should receive the eucharist....I was touched by the need in the faces of the crowd, they were chasing after grace.' Of my own experience 'part of being in Lourdes is about taking the time to stop hiding from yourself. There is a call to pay attention to who you are, and attention to the eyes of God looking upon you.' Costly grace is caught up in a desirous need for God, revealed in the love of our neighbour, the most vulnerable, the poor and the sick. The sacraments of the Church, so readily available, are not cheap. They are tools for the expensive grace of self discovery and atonement in its truest sense; to be honest, they can be a bit of a shock. Wednesday in Lourdes is about rediscovering a desire for God in my life, and having made that discovery, resolving to change my pattern of living to be more in tune with the Gospel, whatever that may take.
Photo: Incense Bearer at the Blessed Sacrament Procession taken by Bro. Lawrence Lew OP