…. I remember a priest… in my youth who used to say in his sermons, Build up your spiritual bank accounts, or you will find yourselves broke when you stand before God's judgment seat. That has stayed with me all my life, and it often comes into my mind now when I know I can't have many years left. I had to work hard to raise the family when times were hard, but I did it for the family, not for God. I have no merits at all in God's sight. I feel afraid. I'm afraid of dying and having nothing to show. I heard a talk you gave… and I'm writing to you now to ask if you have any advice you can give me. Jack
I'm sorry you had to bring that particular piece of bad theology with you all your life. It really is poisonous: it doesn't do justice to God, to the Gospel, or to you. I wish you had forgotten it every time you heard it long ago; it doesn't deserve to be remembered. I apologise vicariously to you for that priest long ago and for his flimsy theology. But it is never too late to heal these old wounds and to receive an insight into the warm-hearted tradition we have inherited.
Listen to St Bernard of Clairvaux, a great Cistercian abbot and Doctor of the Church, who lived in the twelfth century: “The mercy of the Lord is my merit. I am never bereft of merit as long as God is not bereft of mercy. For if the mercies of the Lord are many, then many are my merits.” Doesn’t that lift your heart and give you hope after all you suffered? It is like climbing up at last on solid ground after struggling in the water to the point of exhaustion. Why not memorise those words so that you can repeat them to yourself any time of day or night that you need to hear them? I often do that with phrases that have come alive for me and that give me hope.
Unfortunately there were wrong-headed debates about merit in the past. To read them today, centuries later, is to see some of those people thinking like shop-keepers or bankers – or that curate in your parish long ago. The long and the short of it is that we don’t have to earn our way to God. Using shopkeepers’ language, we could say that the price has been paid already by Christ. But there are better ways of saying it. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters, we are God's family; God's gifts to us are gifts, not wages.
All the saints and heroes of our faith have warned us against shopkeeping with God. Meister Eckhart (fourteenth century) preached about Jesus driving the buyers and sellers out of the Temple. That Temple, he said, is the human soul. If you try to buy your way with God, he said, God will cheat you! God a cheat? Yes, but it is a most creative kind of cheating – which is what you would expect of God. Anything you try to pay God with, he explained, is already a gift from God. It is as if you went to pay for some goods in a shop and when you looked in your wallet you realised that everything in it was already a gift from the shopkeeper. So that puts an end to accounting and totting. God makes a joke of it.
Does that mean that we don’t have to do anything because God will always pick up the tab? No, we will want to do everything we can, because we are “members of God's household” (Ephesians 2:19). We have good breeding. We will want to co-operate in every way that we can, but out of love, not out of fear of being disinherited.
Our religion is one of joy, not fear and miserliness. It is full of poetry and music. That's why we sing in the Liturgy. There are no poems about money or business. No good songs either. Yes, there was Abba’s song about money, but it was good because of the tune, not because of the lyrics. “In my dreams I have a plan: / If I got me a wealthy man / I wouldn't have to work at all, / I'd fool around and have a ball.” That’s not something you could live by; it is too sad. “Money, money, money / Always sunny / In the rich man's world.” No it isn't. Just look and see for yourself.
All the hard work you did during your life, you did it “for the family, not for God,” you said. I want to say to you that everything you did for your family was also done for God. God isn't in competition with your family. All your work was another form of prayer. You didn’t just pray with your mind and your words. You prayed with your hands, with the strength of your back, the determination to go out to the fields in bad weather, day after day, because you had a family to rear. What is that but prayer? I’m not making this up. Listen to a great mystic of the fourteenth century, Johann Tauler: “I know a man who has loved God more dearly than most, and he has passed his whole life as a ploughman. He has followed the plough for forty years, and that is what he does to this day. This man once asked our Lord if He wanted him to stop working and go and sit in church; but the answer was: No, He did not want that. He wanted him to go on earning his bread with the sweat of his brow.”
I'm so sorry, Jack, that you had that depressing shadow cast over your life. Now is the time to see it drift away. Memorise those wonderful words of St Bernard, as I was suggesting to you, and let them shine on you and all around you and through you. You are God's beloved son.