Teaching our Fingers to Fight:
My father belongs to a certain cut of man which this country has long prided itself on producing: a spiritual heir of the frontiersman who pushed westward to tame the wild interior of the continent, a cowboy of a mechanic age. In short, indefatigable. That’s my father. So when I took it upon myself at a more tender age to fire up one of his tractors and engage in a little landscaping around the property, I was high on aspirations; this was my father’s work and in a rare, red-blooded moment, I was assuming his mantle. But an aspiration is one thing and execution another, and I’m sure my work, in the end, amounted to little more art than the proverbial bull-in-the-china-shop could produce. Yet my father was not so harsh and his mild affirmation – “not bad” – was music to my ears.
In literature, one might call this story a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, and indeed it is. My young self was attempting to undertake a workaround which, in my mind, the golden aura of fabled adulthood shone. Such a story’s universality betokens the importance of that period of time in all our lives, its importance to our understanding of ourselves; we must all come of age. And if this is true of our natural lives, there must be some analog for our spiritual lives. Thus says St. Thomas Aquinas, that as “it is evident that in the life of the body a certain special perfection consists in man’s attaining to the perfect age, and being able to perform the perfect actions of a man… So, therefore, in Confirmation man arrives at the perfect age, as it were, of the spiritual life.” The sacrament of confirmation confers spiritual maturity.
To grow in our spiritual life – to come of age spiritually – presupposes the fact of our spiritual birth, and confirmation proceeds directly from baptism. In our baptism, we are fully born into the spiritual life; buried and raised with Christ to new life. We receive the Holy Ghost, and are made members of Christ and children of God. This is the principle of our spiritual birth, and in confirmation, God confirms us in the grace which He poured out upon us at our baptismal birth. He gives us spiritual maturity.
It is at this juncture that a pointed question might arise: if confirmation is God’s action of confirming us in the grace we receive at baptism, then what is the point of a confirmation class? What is there to learn? Why not just anoint the confirmands and call it a wrap? Now I realize this is rather crassly put and perhaps only the most featherweight of a straw man would ask such a question, but the question is a real one: why bother with confirmation class? what difference could it possibly make? It is this: at the same time that God confirms us in the sacrament of confirmation, we ourselves are confirming the promises we made (or others made for us) to Him at our baptism. In confirmation, we confirm our vows to renounce the devil, the vain pomp of the world, and the sinful desires of the flesh, that we believe the Christian faith, and that we keep God’s commandments.
This is, by any measure, a tall order and it is only by the animating presence of God given to us in baptism that such vows can be fulfilled, but as St. Nicolas Cabasilas says, “it does not profit us to have received the gift if we are careless. There is need of effort and vigilance on the part of those who wish to have these things active in their souls.” It is little wonder then that the Epistles are replete with imagery of the Christian life as exercise and exhortations to run the race, to wrestle, to fight.
And that is what confirmation class is all about. How should we or our children ever come of spiritual age, and attain spiritual maturity, how should we ever undertake the work to which our souls aspire if we have not been taught? As the psalmist sings in Psalm 144, our fingers must be taught to fight. A laissez-faire approach will not suffice here, as it would not in the midst of any mortal combat. Around and over us spiritual forces are engaged in battle and we are in the thick of the fray to fight manfully under Christ’s banner or to die.
Of course, I won’t claim that one confirmation class will be of such import in forming us for the battle to suffice alone, but confirmation class is a part of that continuous exercise by which we undertake the work prepared for us in Christ to keep our vows. In confirmation class, we are given the space, as it were, to realize what our commitments are and to evaluate what it means to come of age spiritually. And in understanding, we might aspire for the spiritual maturity given us in the sacrament.
The Gospels say little about our Lord’s own coming of age except for the episode recorded by St Luke: a twelve-year old Jesus striking out from his parents’ care, staying behind in the temple to undertake the perfect action of a man. And that action? “I must be about my Father’s business…” May we say the same.
– Steven Vanderlip
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, August 22, 2021. The image featured is a woodcut entitled” The Descent of the Holy Spirit” by Albrecht Durer. Available at WikiArt.org.