Wednesday 11 October 2023

The law of praying (11): Asking for pardon

We are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners,
hope in your abundant mercies,
graciously grant some share
and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs:
with John the Baptist, Stephen,
Matthias, Barnabas,
Ignatius, Alexander,
Marcellinus, Peter,
Felicity, Perpetua,
Agatha, Lucy,
Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia
and all your Saints;
admit us, we beseech you,
into their company,
not weighing our merits,
but granting us your pardon…

Finally, last of all, we insert a prayer for ourselves, that we may be like these saints. We can work out what’s going on here by looking at a particular example: that of St Perpetua.

St Perpetua and St Felicity were martyred together in Carthage in 203AD. They became very popular, which means the detailed account of their martyrdom has survived. It is a vivid and gory account of the heroism of these women. They were both in their early twenties. Unlike the very young virgin martyrs in this list, they were also mothers.

After some time in prison, they were finally thrown to the beasts. But there were so many Christians for the animals to eat that they stopped attacking once they’d had enough. The gladiators had to be brought in to finish off the job. The account of Perpetua’s death is particularly moving. She had the misfortune of facing a novice gladiator, who wasn’t very sure of what he was doing. He went for her throat, missed, and got his sword stuck in her collarbone. She was knocked to the ground, but not killed. He stood there shaking and nervous, not knowing what to do. So Perpetua had to help him. She pulled the blade free with her own hands, and held it for him over her throat. The account of her martyrdom concludes: ‘Such a woman — one before whom the unclean spirit trembled — could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.’

There is something more than ordinary in the heroism of these martyrs — and the early Christians knew it. And that is why they also placed such great value on the prayers of those about to be martyred. Martyrs carry their message directly to God, and, as it were, win God’s attention by their death.

This idea developed in the early Church, where serious sins led to a person being excommunicated and unable to receive the sacraments until they were on their deathbed. It was a risky business to sin seriously — what if the priest didn’t make it to you in time to reconcile you with the Church? Harsh as it may sound, the idea behind this was not vengeance on sinners. The idea was to deter anyone from taking such a great risk by sinning, because the effect of sin was expressed visibly through the way the Church corrected those who committed serious sins.

The problem came about in one particularly ferocious persecution. So many people — bishops and priests among them — pretended not to be Christians in order to save their lives that the Church had to rethink this policy. And so a shorter period of excommunication and public penance was introduced instead.

Now some clever people thought of a way to get out of this too, and would go to those who had not denied their faith and were in prison awaiting execution. The soon-to-be martyrs would agree to pray for the sinner, offering a share of their own merits gained in dying for the faith to balance out the other person’s sins. When they put this in writing, the first indulgences were formed. The sinner would present the martyr’s letter to the bishop, who would allow them to end their public penance and return to the sacraments.

The Church has always recognised the particular power of the prayers of the martyrs. It’s precisely this idea that we invoke when we ask God not to weigh our merits (that is, the punishment due to us because of our sins) but, implicitly, those of the saints we have mentioned.

A particularly touching example of the power of the martyrs’ prayer is given in the life of St Perpetua. While in prison, she prayed for her brother Dinocrates who had died, unbaptised, in childhood. She recounts the vision in her own words:

I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid colour, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease — his face being so eaten out with cancer, that his death caused repugnance to all men. For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, there was a pool full of water, having its brink higher than was the stature of the boy; and Dinocrates raised himself up as if to drink. And I was grieved that, although that pool held water, still, on account of the height to its brink, he could not drink. And I was upset, and knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day.

Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a wound, I saw a scar; and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to the boy’s navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled with water; and Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.

All members of the Church, living and dead, are helped not just by the prayers of others, but by their merits too — the good works they build up with God. It’s an encouraging thought that we are in credit with God, because it means, overall, the members of the Church do more good than bad. The saints have far more merits than they need — and that’s particularly good news for us.