17 December 2015, The Tablet

Indulgence is one of those words that seem to have acquired negative connotations

I had my first Scrooge encounter of the year yesterday, although I have no doubt there will be more – one of those anti-Christmas rants that interestingly never seem to make the scrooger feel any better. This particular Scrooge did not say “humbug”, although that was the overall tone, but did say Christmas was “just an excuse for indulgence”.

Indulgence is one of those words like “consolation” and “sympathy” that seem to have acquired negative connotations in contemporary English usage for no good reason whatsoever. “Mere consolation” say the professional atheists about faith, though what can conceivably be “mere” about comfort in grief? And sympathy is now said to be patronising and offensive.

(We are meant, apparently, to have “empathy”, which ought to dictate that we totally avoid and ignore anyone whose particular sufferings we have been lucky enough not to experience. I cannot have empathy with someone who has broken their leg, because I have never broken my leg; I cannot know exactly what they feel. Surely sympathy is better than scoffing laughter or turning my back on them?)

Who does not want consolation in grief, sympathy in suffering and, indeed, indulgence as often as we can get it? To indulge is, according to the OED, “to be courteous, to be kind … to treat people with such favour or kindness as they have no claim to, but desire or like”. It is “to bestow as a matter of free grace”.

You might think even the scroogiest individual would feel that indulgence could not come often enough and scarcely needed any excuses anyway, and if Christmas offers special extra opportunities for indulgence – for courtesy, for kindness, for giving people what they “desire or like” whether or not they deserve it – then so much the better.

It is true that the OED admits that the word “indulge” can be used “dyslogistic­ally” – pejoratively – to mean improper fondness and permissiveness towards oneself or even others (sparing the rod and spoiling the child, though I have never encountered a child spoiled or damaged by courtesy and kindness), but most virtues can become excessive or obsessive and we do not make them all into sneering insults; “kindness” and “courtesy” for instance are seldom, if ever, used dyslogistically.

However, I have been thinking about indulgence in a rather different context. For this Jubilee Year of Mercy, one of the churches in my parish, in Whithorn, has been given – if that is the right word – a Holy Door. Bishops internationally have been asked not just to open such a door in the cathedrals but also in other significant churches.

Ours is in honour of St Ninian because Whithorn is where he established Christianity in Scotland and it is the destination of our annual diocesan pilgrimage. And if you go through a Holy Door during a Jubilee Year you get a plenary indulgence. (You also have to desire conversion, participate in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Mass, reflect on mercy, make a profession of faith and pray for the Pope’s intentions.)

This sort of indulgence has been spoken of in the most pejorative terms – and with at times real justification. The Catholic Church’s misuse and abuse of indulgences in the sixteenth century precipitated the Protestant Reformation, the Great Schism (precipitated but not caused). Luther was right – forgiveness, particularly in relation to time off Purgatory, really should not be sold for cash or, as a matter of fact, for anything else. And if the Church did not actually teach that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (attributed to Johann Tetzel), it certainly allowed people to believe it and encouraged that coffer-ringing in no uncertain terms.

Even now, Protestant-raised, I fumble with the concept. I caught myself wondering if the negative use of the adjective my present Scrooge deployed was a subconscious reflex of anti-Catholicism (there is a good deal of that in southern Scotland) – though in fact it almost certainly is not, just more general bad temper and ill will. But I am going to keep trying because a “plenary indulgence” is simply an outward and visible sign of the fullness of God’s mercy and indulgence towards us – divine courtesy, kindness and treating us with such favour as we have no claim to, but desire or like. It is a matter of free grace.

I will indulge myself and walk through that Holy Door.

Sara Maitland is a novelist and writer.

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