Reflections on Confirmation or, How I Learned to Trust the Sacraments
I must admit I felt very little at the moment of my Confirmation. The Bishop had raised his hands and invoked the Holy Spirit upon us candidates (thirteen in all), and then came to each of us in turn. Placing his hands upon my head, he called me by name, blessing me and anointing my forehead with oil, sealing me – my baptism, my life in Christ so far, my fears and doubts, my relationship with our risen Lord – with the Spirit of God.
Earlier at the font where two other candidates were baptised I welled up with tears. Here, with the Bishop softly tapping my cheek, I was merely peaceful. But the Sacraments need not provoke an intense emotional experience, at least not in all believers at all times. It is an easy thing to ‘validate’ a Sacrament by reference to our personal response, but how much harder to trust in a promise unfelt? And how much more trusting to rely on the Church, the Body of Christ, to dispense those promises in a very real and physical way?
Around a year ago I chose to reconcile myself to Christ in the Sacrament of Confession. Of course it was greatly humbling to work through my life in preparation and identify the countless ways in which sin has marred the kinship with Christ – however imperfect – to which we are called. More humbling still is to ‘lay your cards on the table’ with someone you respect and before whom you will be acutely embarrassed!
And yet for me Confession – a ‘rebaptism in the tears of repentance’ – did not recreate the emotion I feel when I witness a Christening. I walked out of my first confession wondering ‘is that it?’. I had spoken for three quarters of an hour about a lifetime of sin, and after some words of comfort and suggestions for penance – thanks be to God – I was absolved.
After some thought, I realised ‘that’ was all ‘it’ needed to be. While the sacramental Grace of God is truly conferred through the action of the Bishop or his priest, nonetheless it is God who has worked in you to bring you to the point where you can trust in the promises of Christ and His body, and put yourself forward to receive that Grace.
I struggled to trust. Yes, I was reconciled to Confession and the awesome power Christ trusted to the Church, but understanding Confirmation was an entirely different matter. My questions were various: why is it administered separately from baptism in the West, but granted freely to infants in the East? Is it linked to our ability to reason? Is the Grace of God linked to a positive choice on our part? Is our baptism somehow ‘incomplete’ prior to Confirmation?
Above all, what exactly is Confirmation for?
These are all valid theological questions, but I discovered they were missing the point of what this Sacrament meant in God’s plan for me. It was in an e-mail exchange with an Orthodox priest that I suddenly saw the wood for the trees. Very cogently – almost brutally – he wrote that the East doesn’t understand the Sacraments in terms of Hooker’s formula, ‘visible sign of an invisible grace.’ My correspondent then turned the questions on its head.
“Listen to what the Bishop prays,” he wrote, before quoting the words of the prayer of Confirmation:
‘Confirm, Lord, your servant James, with Your heavenly grace, and anoint him with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service and keep him in eternal life.’
“Are those words you can believe in?” In effect, can you trust the Church with this?
Over this summer I came to believe that yes, I could trust the Church. I trust the irresistible Grace of God that brought me to holy baptism as a babe in arms, raising me to new life before I was aware of it. I trust in holy matrimony, my wife and I reborn in one flesh. I trust in the forgiveness of sins confessed, and I trust in the presence of my Lord in His Body and Blood before me each week. How could I not trust in the sealing of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation?
No, I did not feel any great swell of emotion as I stood before the Bishop. The Holy Spirit can come as a great rushing wind, or as a quiet whisper. He blows where He will, and we are called to trust in His presence. And that is why my memory of Confirmation will primarily be one of peace.