December 2, 2020

Confessions of an Older Brother

Okay, so I’m an older sister, not an older brother, but that guy in the parable?  I know exactly where he’s coming from.  The Pharisee and the Publican?  Here, admire the tzitzit on my prayer shawl!  In another context, I’ve referred to channelling my inner Saruman, but the fact remains, I like law and order and organisation and clear definitions.  I am that person over there in the corner, discussing, grading, diagnosing and criticising the motes in the eyes of others while ignoring the beam protruding from my own.

I get how Saruman didn’t start off bad but simply followed the path of least resistance when it came to “if they won’t be good of their own accord, we’ll make them be good!  If they won’t do what’s good for them, we’ll do it for them!”  I understand the Pharisee, who probably was praying in sincere gratitude when he said “I thank you, Lord, that I am not a sinner like that publican over there.”  Whether or not he acknowledged his own sins, he probably was sincerely grateful that at least he didn’t have those particular sins of that particular person.

I really, truly can walk in the shoes of the Older Brother, because if being good and obedient and dutiful and doing the right thing and living up to expectations doesn’t matter, if there are no consequences for making a huge mess of things through one’s own fault, if you can eat your cake and have it too, then what is the point?  Why not eat, drink and be merry and let some other poor schmuck clean up after our messes?

If we were talking about alignments in the gaming sense, I’d be Lawful Good – or Lawful Evil.  The paperwork for the Pits of Despair would all be filed properly and the Abyss of Doom would have the appropriate warning signage as required by health and safety legislation.  It’s the “lawful” rather than the “good” part of my character that I can recognize in the following description:

“Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability.  On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.  Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.”

And if you want to see the downside of such an attitude, just wander on over to TV Tropes (as long as you don’t have any plans for the rest of the day – or night) and check out Lawful Stupid or the Knight Templar.

Now, to defend myself and my fellow “them’s the rules” types, let me just say that I don’t like bad law anymore than anyone else, and I am fully in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas on cases such as that stealing may not always be a sin (because natural and divine law trump human law, and “If however a need be so plain and pressing, that clearly the urgent necessity has to be relieved from whatever comes to hand, as when danger is threatening a person and there is no other means of succoring him, then the man may lawfully relieve his distress out of the property of another, taking it either openly or secretly; nor does this proceeding properly bear the stamp of either theft or robbery.”) and that in certain cases laws are not binding on the conscience (“Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”).

Secondly, law is not a dry, dead, dusty thing, but rather a source of beauty and delight.  Yes, you read me correctly.  The structure of law is no more burdensome than the structure of our skeleton is; if we wish to be free to walk, to dance, to sing, to give, to hold, to make – we need a structure for our muscles to react against (and if you want an artistic development of this point, try Ray Bradbury’s short story “Skeleton” – but don’t blame me if you have nightmares afterwards).  In the same way, law gives us a structure for the ‘muscles’ of our mind to react against whilst we attempt to build the just society, seek the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Law is the beauty of winter trees, the silhouette of the leafless branches against a clear, cold sky; order is the glorious harmony of the crystalline spheres of the mediaeval heavens, from the earth at the centre of the universe (the lowest point, not the place of primacy and honour, as C.S. Lewis points out in “The Discarded Image”) up to the Primum Mobile, last and greatest of the material universe before the Empyrean outside of all space and time which is the presence of God and true Heaven; these great circles of the planets and the moon and the sun all moved by the will of God as mediated through the guidance and influence of the angelic choir of Virtues.

In the words of the Psalm, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to the House of the Lord.”  The beauty of law and order and ritual, of tradition, of doing and saying what has been done and said before by those who have gone before us, a commonplace and yet transfigured and hallowed by venerable associations.  This is heady stuff, and dangerous as any drug, when it is not subjugated to the end for which it is intended but becomes a means in itself.  It can degenerate into nostalgia and stiffen into ossification, where the bone loses its necessary flexibility and motion is frozen.  Tolkien presented the dangers of that, in the examples of (for Men) Númenor and Gondor which became backward-looking and obsessed with the glories of the past and (for Elves) the temptation to remove themselves from the changing mortal world and attempt to preserve a kind of changeless ‘theme park’ existence contrary to the cycle of time.

My friend G.K. Chesterton has outlined quite clearly and beautifully the attractions and the dangers for those of us who love Law and Order (and in my case, he even gets in the love of moonlight and silver which made me go “Are you in my head, reading my mind?”), in the chapter entitled “The Dream of MacIan”  in his novel The Ball and the Cross (here the two characters are in an airship flying over St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where there is a cross mounted on a ball on the very summit of the dome):

As the flying ship swept round the dome he observed other alterations.  The dome had been redecorated so as to give it a more solemn and somewhat more ecclesiastical note; the ball was draped or destroyed, and round the gallery, under the cross, ran what looked like a ring of silver statues, like the little leaden images that stood round the hat of Louis XI.  Round the second gallery, at the base of the dome, ran a second rank of such images, and Evan thought there was another round the steps below.  When they came closer he saw that they were figures in complete armour of steel or silver, each with a naked sword, point upward; and then he saw one of the swords move.  These were not statues but an armed order of chivalry thrown in three circles round the cross.  MacIan drew in his breath, as children do at anything they think utterly beautiful.  For he could imagine nothing that so echoed his own visions of pontifical or chivalric art as this white dome sitting like a vast silver tiara over London, ringed with a triple crown of swords.

But he also reminds us of where too rigid an adherence to the idea of law and order can lead, and what is really important:

“We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the man in white, with a slight smile.

“Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan.”

All well and good, but what has this to do with grace?  I’m coming to that.  I find that I am comfortable with the notion of punishment, but liberty scares me.  And that is the point of the Older Brother in the parable.  If the younger brother can throw it all away and come back for a second go, then where is the justice in that?  What is fair or right?  If anything is permissible, then surely that means everything is permissible?  He doesn’t particularly want his younger brother to be scorned and turned away, but he does want to know why the father seems to act as if nothing has happened or indeed as if the younger son has done what is good, right and excellent just as much as the dutiful, faithful son.

And that’s what grace is.  Grace is liberty, grace is unjust – no, maybe not unjust, but grace is unfair.  Grace is gratuitous – the Latin roots are similar enough for me to make bad puns, with grace deriving from “Middle English, from Old French, from Latin gratia, from gratus, pleasing” and gratuitous from “from Latin grātuītus, from grātia favor” or “Medieval Latin gratutis, probably from Latin gratuitus, voluntary”.  Grace is a pleasing thing given freely by the favour of the giver and no desert in the recipient.  Grace is a fountain in a dry land.

Grace is scary.

So I rush back to the comfort of definitions, trying to put grace in a cage or a leash around its neck, a halter on its head or a hobble on its feet, so that I can classify it and understand it and handle it.  What are the Catholic definitions of grace?  The one we all learned about and half-understand is “sanctifying grace”, the grace received after justification.  I am not going to get mired down into what is justification or when does it happen or the whole kit and caboodle of “Trent says”, “Luther says” and so on and so forth.

When we believe, when we embark on the process of justification and sanctification, then God supplies us with sanctifying grace.  Sanctifying grace destroys sin; it is the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit in the soul; it is participation in the divine life which is God by the direct infusion of that grace into us, into our souls.  Sanctifying grace accomplishes our justification.  It is received through the sacraments of Baptism, which first incorporates us into the life of Christ, and Penance (or Reconciliation as it is now called) which restores us to that life when our souls are dead in mortal sin.  The other sacraments (Confirmation, the Eucharist, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction – as I learned it – or the Anointing of the Sick, as its restored name is now) are received when we are in a state of grace and increase the flow of grace within us.  Catholics believe we can refuse grace and destroy grace by sinning.  Sin kills the soul, grace brings life.  Grace is life, the life of God within us.  That is why Baptism can only be received once (and Holy Orders, but that’s not the main point here): it creates an ontological change in the soul.  That’s why the atheist stunts about “de-baptizing” are a good joke and a catchy way of attracting publicity, but cannot be taken seriously in any other way, because you can’t be “de-baptized” any more than you can be “de-born” – you can be killed, but being dead is not the same as never having been born in the first place.  The reception of sanctifying grace in baptism makes a permanent change in the soul, even if we lose that grace through the practice and habit of mortal sin.  To quote the “Catholic Encyclopedia”, the qualities of sanctifying grace are “sanctity, beauty, friendship, and sonship of God.”

Ah – there’s that word again – beauty.  Is this perhaps an intersection where lovers of the law such as myself can grapple with the whole concept of the crazy generosity of grace?

Now, there’s another form of grace called actual grace, and that is the kind of grace associated with good works (remember the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy?) and the merit we derive from them.  Actual grace is, if you like, the grace of the moment.  We might borrow a phrase and call it “grace under pressure”.  It is the grace given to us for the performance of that deed, to help us to do it, and the grace we harvest from the performance of that deed.  It isn’t as lasting as sanctifying grace and it doesn’t save you (that’s why you can’t “earn your salvation” by doing good works) but it does help you.  Ever said “God, give me patience!” or “Give me strength!”?  You’ve asked for actual grace!  When you grit your teeth and bite your tongue and instead of giving that donkey a richly-deserved tongue-lashing, you speak and act with courtesy and civility and politeness because he or she is your fellow Christian and a child of God – you’ve acted graciously, we might say – then that’s actual grace: “a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ.”  And that’s the merit we derive from our good works – the creation and deepening of a habit of chastening our will and acting according to the will of God.  We have free will and we can freely exercise it for good or ill, but if we ask God for help, we will receive it, and because we are sons not slaves, we can reap a harvest from the good seeds we sow – merit in association with and through the merits of Christ (because we can do nothing of our own, but we can do all things through Christ).

There’s a ton of stuff on grace and all the different forms of it, and if you’re really that interested in technical terms, here’s the Catechism for you.

But to get back to the conflict between Law and Grace – grace is unfair, yes, but not unjust.  “Can I not do what I like with my own?” the Master asks us in the parable, and we have to answer “Yes”.  Unfortunately, we are all too likely to answer “Yes, but…”.  There’s always a “but”.

But – won’t this let sinners off the hook?  But – won’t this be too easy?  But – how is this fair?  But – won’t people take advantage?  But – if it makes no difference what we do, then how can we tell people they have to believe to be saved?  But – but – but.  But nothing.

We who love law should love it for its justice, not because it is law.  We who love the beauty of order should acknowledge beauty.  Grace is the deep justice of God and grace produces beauty.  Grace beautifies us.  Grace is where “mercy and truth have met together, justice and peace have kissed”.

And so, all we older brothers (and sisters), Pharisees who have kept the law from our earliest days, this is what we ask for, this is what we seek:

“One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”

To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord is to be given grace, and grace is not under our hand.  Grace is dangerous, grace is scary, and grace will break us – but we need to be broken.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Break our hearts of stone, we children of the Law, and give us hearts of flesh!


  1. I frequently played a Druid so I probably would just reflexively cast myself as true Neutral. It probably comes close for me personally in my life as well. I actually do live pretty decently close to the usual script for life as promoted by most religious institutions. Not because of any inherent goodness but just because life is a lot less complicated that way. It’s my brain that gets me into trouble. It does not like to stay in close lines and can always, always conceive of situations where something or other might be justified. Also, I am quite a egotist, so I don’t really care how other people choose to live as long as they’re not leaving a chain of horribly mutilated victims behind them. That was probably the biggest relief of leaving Christianity … no longer having the chastising of sinners spiritual act of mercy hanging over my head.

    • I am sharpening my Big Pointy Sword of Dictatorship and glowering meaningfully in your direction even now, cermak_rd 😉

  2. To me, Martha, you will always be Lawful Awesome.

    • Oh, if I only took my own advice, I’d blind you all with the glare of my sanctity, visible for miles about 🙂

      As ever, a saint has been there long before me and said it much better. Link courtesy of Eve Tushnett, a consideration (well worth reading in itself for this week of posting about grace) of the film “Amadeus” and the character Salieri which quotes St. Catherine of Siena on lack of humility and ingratitude:

      “…solely through the man’s own wretchedness and hardness, with which, with the hands of his free will, he has covered his heart, as it were, with a diamond, which, if it be not broken by the Blood, can in no way be broken.”

      Yes. We cover our hearts with the bright, glittering, cold, impenetrable shell of self-centredness, and unless it is broken by the blood of Christ, by His grace, then nothing will break it and we will kill our hearts, though they may appear to be perfectly preserved under the hard covering.

  3. Martha,

    It is always a pleasure to read your writing style, I have a feeling your some famous Irish novelist (or are you the Pope under a pseudonym?) keeping your craft sharp…

    Also loved the way you worked some of the Tolkein, off the beaten path ideas through your writing (Middle Earth and Silmarillion).

    As for the santifying/actual grace thing – since I get to teach 1st through 8th religous education as my other vocation this is right up my alley. And I too can sometimes be the older brother, though one has to remember that the father welcomed the younger son back, threw a party for him, but did not say, all I have is yours… so he may be back but maybe not in the same place before he left (probably will have to work with the pigs again for a while, a kind of purgation so to speak, only now he’s on his father’s land)….

    • Dante, Chesterton and Tolkien rather than my catechism classes – that’s where I get all my theology (you should hear me rave about the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”) 😀

      I don’t think the older brother wanted his erring sibling to be disgraced or kicked out of the family home, but he definitely did want him to know that he had Been Forgiven and Had Come Home In Disgrace, but the father tells him “Your brother who has been dead is alive again.”

      Sin kills, grace gives life.

  4. Martha,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. My wife and I are in the RCIA process now, and we have had many comments from concerned protestant friends and family to the effect of “what about grace?” Next time I hear that, I’ll send them a link to this post 🙂 I especially loved this passage:

    “We who love law should love it for its justice, not because it is law. We who love the beauty of order should acknowledge beauty. Grace is the deep justice of God and grace produces beauty. Grace beautifies us. Grace is where “mercy and truth have met together, justice and peace have kissed”.”

    Thanks again!


    • Thank you very much, Ryan, for your kind words – I am a bit worried about being used to reassure anxious Protestants that being Catholic is not as crazy as it looks, but you can justifiably tell them “Listen, if this one can be a Catholic, anyone can!” 🙂

      Best wishes to you and your wife, and I hope that all your questions will be handled well, and that the grace (there’s that word again!) of God will be with you, and your concerned friends and family (who, after all, only wish you well).

  5. “Grace is the deep justice of God and grace produces beauty. Grace beautifies us. Grace is where ‘mercy and truth have met together, justice and peace have kissed.’ ”

    Beautiful, Martha!

  6. I too, love the law. But not for what it brings me…but for what it does to me.

    It exposes me. It paints me in the corner. It leaves me with no hope in my pretentions to righteousness.

    I love it because it slays me. So, then the gospel of the forgiveness of sins might raise me to a new and better life of trust in the Savior.

    Nice work, Martha!

  7. Martha, I stayed with you through Dante, Chesterton, and Tolkien, but when you started in about all those Catholic sacraments — I am not a Roman Catholic — my eyes sort of crossed and all the words sort of ran together and I had to speed-read the rest of the post. This is in no way a criticism of but more one of me.

    I think we receive the grace of God because God is gracious, period. Who can explain his ways? He can choose to dispense the grace through the receiving of sacraments as you think or through the words and actions of others or through the unexpected shocks of life (Flannery O’Connor, anyone?). He is not limited.

    I do disagree with you statement about the elder brother in the parable, “I don’t think the older brother wanted his erring sibling to be disgraced or kicked out of the family home, but he definitely did want him to know that he had Been Forgiven and Had Come Home In Disgrace, but the father tells him “Your brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost, but is found.”

    I think that is exactly what the elder brother wanted — to have the upstart returnee kicked out of the family home so he could get on with his new role as sole heir. The story stops with the reconciliation and we can only guess at what might have happened afterward. The father does tell the elder brother, “Everything I have is yours” which seems to indicate that the younger brother had already received his inheritance (and squandered it). His return to the father’s house was not as a hired servant as he had expected but as a son that was dead and was alive again, yes, but whether there was more inheritance for the returned prodigal is unclear. He was received into the father’s presence with love and joy, true, but did he then receive rewards that had become, due to his own behavior and poor choices, part of the older brother’s inheritance?

    I appreciate your writing and your explanations, Martha. I just had a slightly different slant on the parable of the prodigal son. Please enlighten me as only you can what I might be overlooking.

    • Well, as I said, I’m an older sister. Younger siblings can drive you nuts, but they would have to do something very, very dreadful to make you want them be kicked out or driven away. I don’t get the sense that the older brother was expecting the father to drive away the younger son, but that he did want Da Rulez made very clear; that Junior was back only due to Dad’s good graces and that he would have to work to get back into his good books and that it should be made evident that he had messed up big time.

      Throwing a party, lavishing Junior with gifts, being overjoyed to the point of running out to meet him? What kind of example was this going to give? I think the Elder brother may have been worried that, once Junior got a full belly and the novelty of being home had worn off, he would get itchy feet again, clear out, and break Dad’s heart all over again.

      That’s just my view of it. Whether Big Brother wanted Junior to be kicked out for good, or merely put in his place, the message of the father is the same: your brother, my son, was dead. Now he is alive again. Rejoice!

      • Martha, I had ther same reaction as Bob about the older son, until I noticed that you had put “Been Forgiven and Had Come Home In Disgrace” in caps. I think the older son wanted grace held over the head of the younger brother, which makes it no grace at all.

        Great essay. Get going on the book.

    • Sorry to have crossed your eyes; once I get going, inertia kicks in and I tend to the verbose 🙂

      The point of what I was saying about the sacraments was that phrase got me between wind and water, as it were: Baptism is the Sacrament of the Dead.

      We say “In baptism we died with Christ” and that’s always been strange to my ears: if we talk of baptism as initiation, as the doorway into the new life, how can we talk of dying by it? But that’s what is most forcefully shown – particularly in the churches that practice baptism by immersion – being drawn up out of the waters of baptism is like being drawn up out of the grave, in the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ icons of the Eastern Orthodox where Christ draws Adam and Eve out of Hell by their wrists.

      We were dead. Now by grace we are resurrected, given a new life, in a foretaste of the resurrection of the body in the new Heaven and the new Earth that we confess in the Creed. Sin is death and grace is life.

  8. …not a criticism of you but more one of me…

  9. Since I played the younger brother in this tale, I am oh so happy that Grace is not fair. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

    • Life isn’t fair, the Universe isn’t fair. Luckily for us, grace isn’t fair either.

      Dance, sing, eat, drink and don’t mind your brother sulking in the corner. He’ll come round, sooner or later 🙂

  10. Sometimes I am the younger brother; sometimes I am the older brother. Sadly, I am never the totally loving, forgiving, gracious parent.

    One thing I note in the Prodigal Son parable is that the wayward son had to come to a realization and he had to turn in the direction of his father. After that, the father took the rest of the actions. It wasn’t like the younger son was turning in his father’s direction because he was sad about what he done to his father, either. He just realized that only at his father’s house would he have any chance of any kind of life. God doesn’t ask much of us before he starts the celebration!

    (Is anyone having the same problem I am when posting now? I hit the Post Comment button and it looks like nothing happened. So I hit it again and it says I am duplicating the comment. So, then I can go to the page and see that the comment IS actually there.)

  11. Martha,
    I like seeing the relationship of law to grace much like the relationship of grammar to language. The proper use of one leads to the effective expression of the other. Residing within the rules of grammar allows us our freedom to express ourselves in word. It doesn’t restrict, it exults. The better we understand this, the more beautiful our story becomes.

    (and just think, all that sentence diagramming in the fourth grade really did serve a purpose).

    • Yes! Law should be the trellis supporting the blooming roses of Grace.

      And now I’d better stop before I get carried away with the purple prose 😀

  12. What did St. Paul refer to the 10 Commandents as?

    Oh yeah…”the ministry of death” (2nd Corinthians 3) 😀

    LOVE that ministry of death…

    • Steve,
      And if we continue reading 2Cor3 (and not lifting from convenient context)…

      How did Paul refer to the letters in stone when they come in glory?
      Ah yes, the Ministry of the Spirit.

      Maybe there’s something to this “fulfillment and not the abolishment” thing after all.

      • flatrocker,

        I did keep reading. I didn’t see what you saw. I saw that the letters carved in stone were a fading glory, not comparable to the ministry of the Spirit.

        Hmmm. The ministry of death seems pretty final…to me anyway.

  13. Martin Romero says

    Thanks Martha. It was a really interesting reading… Especially from the perspective of someone who was taught in church, among other things, to distrust anything that looks or smells minimally Catholic. At this moment, well, I might disagree with some of what the RCC teaches, but during the last couple of years I’ve come to see it with different eyes. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a better understanding about different issues which were misunderstood or misguided.

  14. I have ALWAYS related to the older brother, even if I am only a youngest sister. People breaking rules…whether parking in the fire lane at the grocery store, taking a full cart through the express lane AT the store, or cheating and getting away with make me crazy!!! (Unless, of course I am the one doing it, for which there is surely a very GOOD reason for the exception!)

    I have to work every minute to NOT be the police-lady of the universe, in daily life or in the Christian walk. My sinful nature sometimes hates that in order to get grace, I have to understand that everyone ELSE who God loves gets it too….and that would be, ummm, everyone on planet Earth.