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A Mysterious Alchemy Within the Communion of Saints

October 23, 2023

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We human beings are far more interconnected with each other than we tend to realize. Our actions right here, right now can impact any other human being who has ever existed or ever will exist anywhere in the world. Or to state it more succinctly: our actions right here and now can impact anyone, anywhere, anywhen. And we ourselves may have been the beneficiaries of the actions of someone we’ve never met, living anywhere in the world, now, in the past, or in the future. How? Through the mysterious phenomenon known as the communio sanctorum, or “communion of saints.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar has referred to the communio sanctorum as one of the most profound and beautiful mysteries of the Catholic faith. And yet, the communio sanctorum also tends to be one of the most under-discussed, under-appreciated, and under-utilized aspects of our faith, despite the fact that we express our belief in the communion of saints every week at Mass when we profess the Creed.

Hopefully, most Catholics know the basic definition of the communion of saints found in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died.” And hopefully they also know that one can ask the saints in heaven to intercede on behalf of the petitions that they submit to God in prayer. But what some Catholics may not know is that the exchange of spiritual goods within the communion of saints can consist of far more than the canonized saints interceding in prayer on our behalf, and that we ourselves can contribute to the spiritual goods being exchanged as well as being the recipients of such goods. As Balthasar puts it, “We can be, act, and suffer much more profoundly for one another than we often think.”

You can ask God to distribute the spiritual fruit generated by your acts of love to someone specific, or you can ask God to give the fruit to whomever is most in need of it.

How does all of this work? Balthasar has referred to the exchange of spiritual goods within the communio sanctorum as a “mysterious alchemy” and as a type of “spiritual osmosis.” God takes the good intentions contained in any person’s loving actions that are “offered up” to God for the benefit of other people, transforms those loving intentions into the type of love that another person most needs at a particular moment (for example, consolation, encouragement, inspiration, guidance)—that’s the “alchemy” part—and transfers the love to that person in need. Because God exists outside of space and time, the spiritual good (also called “fruit” or “merit” in the Catholic tradition) produced by the originator’s intentions and actions can be transferred to anyone existing anywhere in the world at any point in the history of the world. Balthasar rightly calls the whole process one of both “straightforward simplicity” and yet “unfathomable profundity.” Our loving actions can reach out and benefit anyone across all space and time, and we can be the beneficiaries of meritorious acts of love performed by anyone else across all space and time! Léon Bloy, the French Catholic novelist, has given us an especially eloquent expression of this astounding spiritual truth:

A particular movement of grace that saves me from some profound danger can have come from the loving act (yesterday, tomorrow, or five hundred years ago) of an entirely unknown person, whose soul stood in a mysterious relationship to mine and which thus found its reward. What we call ‘free will’ is like those modest flowers of the field whose seeds the wind carries far away in all directions to land and germinate on God knows what mountain, in God knows what valley. The revelation of his miracles will be the spectacle of one moment in eternity.

Balthasar identifies a wide variety of actions that can generate spiritual goods/fruit/merit that can be shared within the communion of saints: prayer; works of charity (including the spiritual and corporal works of mercy); sacrifices made for the sake of love; any form of suffering that one willingly accepts and “offers up” to God for the benefit of others; ascetic practices (such as fasting and abstinence) engaged in for the sake of other people; the fulfillment of one’s God-given mission of love in life; and even the act of willingly and lovingly handing one’s life over to God at the point of death.

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The potential recipients of spiritual goods extend to all people for whom Christ died, which is everyone who has ever existed or ever will exist. You can ask God to distribute the spiritual fruit generated by your acts of love to someone specific, or you can ask God to give the fruit to whomever is most in need of it. Recipients could be people with any type of need, including someone suffering from a serious illness, someone in need of conversion to the Catholic faith, someone who has ceased to practice their faith, someone in a grave state of sin, souls in purgatory, etc.

Saints and theologians have offered a variety of images for the communion of saints and the exchange of spiritual goods within that communion. St. Paul, of course, referred repeatedly to the “Body of Christ” and its members; St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of human beings as all consisting of “one dough”; and Balthasar, in addition to his images of “mysterious alchemy” and “spiritual osmosis,” described the communio sanctorum as “blood circulating in the Body of the cosmic Christ” and referred to spiritual goods offered up for the sake of others as “a wave taken back into the sea” of the divine goodness.

In light of the beautiful and profound mystery of the communio sanctorum, three responses on our part seem most appropriate:

Give thanks to God for the spiritual goods that have already been conferred on you by virtue of other people’s loving actions.

Pray for some of the spiritual goods of the communion of saints to be conferred on you, your loved ones, and anyone who needs your prayers, in whatever form God wills for your and their highest good. Balthasar reminds us that the canonized saints, and most especially Mary, are “like open treasure-houses accessible to all, like flowing fountains at which everyone can drink.” Drink often, and drink deeply, from the “flowing fountains” of the communio sanctorum.

Strive to be a producer of spiritual fruit for others, engaging in acts of love, and offering up any suffering that comes your way on behalf of those people most in need of that fruit. By doing so, you can extend the impact of your life into the realm of infinity through the power of God and the “mysterious alchemy” of the communion of saints. Léon Bloy, once again, so beautifully described this: “Every human being who performs a free act thereby projects his personality into infinity. . . . Wherever and whenever it occurs, an act of love, a movement of genuine compassion sings the praise of God from Adam to the end of time, heals the sick, consoles the despairing, quiets tempests, frees prisoners, converts the unbelieving and protects all mankind.”

Our “acts of love” can be like ripples of goodness in the cosmic sea of the divine goodness, radiating outward from us to touch the lives of innumerable others. We will not know all of the fruits of our loving actions until the end of time, but the revelation of that fruit will “astonish us as the highest beatitude” (Balthasar). It’s a happy thought, even now. But the loving actions have to come first (at least for those of us who still find ourselves within the bounds of space and time), so let’s get busy.