In researching El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (known in English as the Way of St. James the Greater), a 500-mile walking pilgrimage across northern Spain that has been calling to me, I came across a reference to plenary indulgences in the Camino’s history. I had almost forgotten about indulgences, as they are foreign to my faith experience.
My grandmother had a thing about “first Fridays.” If you made it to Mass on the first Friday of the month so many times in a row, she said, you were guaranteed a fast-track to heaven. I remember asking her when I was 11 or 12: What if you do all those first Fridays and then murder someone? Do the Fridays override mortal sin? What if you do the first Fridays and don’t even believe in God?
I wasn’t being a brat. This concept of wheeling and dealing with God truly perplexed me. My practical brain could not reconcile an ironclad assurance of the soul’s fate with other, more abstract (and theologically sound) things I was learning at Catholic school.
This concept of wheeling and dealing with God truly perplexed me.
The indulgence granted for completing the Camino is not what calls to me. I am not sure which part of walking 500 miles does sound like a good idea, but I have learned that calls do not always make sense. I also know that my grandmother’s indulgences were a case of good intentions gone awry because I am pretty sure that we cannot bargain with God.
As I write about celestial bargains, I am remembering a moment with my dear departed mother in the neonatal nursery about 25 years ago. My twin nephews had been born two months prematurely. Under three pounds each, they looked like tiny, skeletal monkeys: They were still covered with the downy hair that is no longer present on full-term babies, and they had no meat on their bones. One was more endangered than the other on account of a collapsed lung. He was touch-and-go for a day or two, but then he stabilized.
“Thank God,” I said. No small number of prayers from the whole family had been whispered on behalf of these babies.
When we maneuver to make a deal with God, we are in essence saying that we know better than God.
“Thank God and, confidentially, you can thank me,” my mother said. “I told God I’d go back to church if this baby lived.”
“You can’t make bargains with God,” I said, these still being the days when I used to argue with my parents about theology. I was still sure I could enlighten them with my vast store of Catholic knowledge.
“I just did,” she said. “You believe what you want, but I made a promise. Now I have to go every Sunday so he won’t die.”
My mother eventually stopped going to Mass when her Parkinson’s symptoms got the better of her. If her theory was correct, I guess God let her off the hook because my nephew is still alive.
When we bargain with God, we espouse a God who keeps score, rather than the God who loves us no matter what.
We like to think we can bargain with God. The God of the Old Testament, after all, is quite the dealmaker: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lv 26:12) and all that. Or we could take a cue from Abraham, who famously talked God into sparing the thousands of wicked no-accounts in the city of Sodom if there are even 50, no, 45, no wait, 40, or, how about 20, or wait, 20, or, this is the last one I swear, 10 worthy people who are not sinners! Abraham’s stalling tactic actually works with God. Why shouldn’t we try for a similar outcome when we pray?
Prayer is where we come face-to-face with our concept of God. Who is the God we believe in deep in our hearts? When we bargain with God, we espouse a God who keeps score, rather than the God who loves us no matter what, the God who is love, according to the first letter of John (4:8). When we offer to negotiate with God, we presume that we actually have anything that God needs, which is pretty presumptuous on our part. And when we maneuver to make a deal with God, we are in essence saying that we know better than God. Whatever crisis we are facing, we have a desirable outcome in mind, and we are going to bring God around to our way of thinking. Whatever God’s will for us may be, we have a counter-proposal. In fact, we have a list.
I wonder sometimes if my mother thought that the family who lost their baby in that neonatal nursery did not offer God a good enough contract.
My mother has gone to God now, as has my grandmother with her indulgences, and my day will come. I no longer think I am smart enough to make people believe in the God that I think they should. I accept that my own image of God has aged to a divine power more loving, more tender, more expansive, more forgiving, more merciful, more compassionate and more whole than my mind can grasp. I cannot get it, but I believe. On most days, I am at peace with the mystery of faith.
That is why I am going to invest in some sturdy walking shoes, while I work on letting go of my own expectations for God.