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History and Theology of Grace

Chapter VI

Actual Graces

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our dependence upon God and His supernatural communication affects every aspect of our being. Through sanctifying grace we are given a new life that raises us to the divine family and makes us partakers in the very nature of God. This corresponds to the vital principle in the physical order, enabling us to perform actions that are meritorious of heaven. Just as, naturally speaking, we receive from God both our nature and the constant influx of His general concursus; so supernaturally He gives to His elect not only the wellspring of deiform vitality but also the special assistance we need to guide the mind and inspire the will in our pathway to glory. Another name for this transitory light and inspiration is actual grace.

The precise term, “actual grace,” is relatively new, and seems to have been used for the first time, in its technical sense, by the Dominican theologian John Capreolus (1380-1446), surnamed Thomistarum princeps, whose stout defense of St. Thomas did much to establish Aquinas’ reputation in Catholic thought. It was more than coincidence that Capreolus had to defend Thomas against such men as William of Occam, whom Luther was later to call “my teacher”, praising him above all the Scholastics. [1]

Historical Development

If the specific name was a medieval innovation, the concept of actual grace is rooted firmly in the Scriptures. Already in the Psalms we find the recurring theme of God’s providential care. He gives His light and strength to those who ask Him, and man has a corresponding need to pray for this help at the risk of falling prey to his enemies. “Enlighten my eyes, or I shall fall asleep in death,” the Psalmist begs, “turn my darkness into light. Train me to observe Your law, and I will cherish it with all my heart.” [2]

The evangelist St. John, with his preference for the symbolism of light, tells of how God comes to illumine every man born into this world, and quotes the words of Christ about the divine call to the mind that must precede any following of the Master. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,” so that “everyone who has listened to the Father, and has learned, comes to me.” [3] And in the same strain, the author of the Acts describes the conversion of Lydia, the seller of purple, who worshipped God and as she listened to the preaching, “the Lord touched her heart to give heed to what was being said by Paul.” [4]

St. John again, in the Apocalypse, pictorially speaks of divine grace operating on the will. Christ orders him in vision to write to the lukewarm bishop of Laodicea that, “those whom I love I rebuke and chastise. Be earnest therefore and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man listens to my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in to him” [5] The Corinthians are reminded to the same effect that “I have planted, Apollo watered, but God has given the growth.” [6] Paul and Apollo who preach the Gospel, are only the external instruments of the word; but unless the Lord cooperates within by His grace, all their ministrations are in vain.

There was no serious challenge to this specialized assistance from God until the time of Pelagius. The British monk and his followers perverted the concept of actual grace by their intransigent position on the native capacities of man. Having denied his real elevation to the supernatural order, they logically reduced whatever help he does obtain to mere external assistance. They admitted that we may benefit from the life and works of Christ, but not so as to receive internal grace supernaturally infused into our souls. “There was a help to keep the law and doctrine,” wrote Pelagius, already in the time of the prophets. But the help of grace, which is grace properly so-called, comes to us from the example of Christ.” Its function is “to show us the way we must walk, although we possess in our own free wills the power not to stray from the right path and therefore do not really need any aid outside of ourselves. [7] At most this auxiliary grace was to make the practice of virtue easier. It was not strictly necessary.

In the anti-Pelagian writings of St. Augustine we have the first detailed exposition of the nature of actual grace. “It is God,” he quoted St. Paul, “who of His good pleasure works in you both the will and the performance. Wherein the apostle clearly shows that even our good will is performed in us by the operation of God. Indeed, unless the will have something occur to it by which it is attracted and invited, it can never be moved; this occurrence is not in the power of man” but only of God. [8]

The same limitation applies to the mind. “Let us understand this if we can. Sometimes God so deals even with His holy ones as not to give them either the assured knowledge or the conquering delight for performing a certain good work, to make them realize that they receive what light they need to illumine their darkness not of themselves but from Him. He is the one who bestows the serenity that causes the earth of their souls to bear fruit. When we plead with Him to grant us help to practice and perfect our justice, what else are we asking but to have opened what is closed, and to make pleasant what is not to our taste?” [9]

Church councils during the fifth and sixth centuries further clarified and stamped with their authority the teachings of Augustine, Jerome, Prosper and others who defended the existence and necessity of actual grace. At the Council of Carthage (A.D. 418), later confirmed by Pope Zosimus, it was decreed that “knowledge of what we ought to do and love for doing it are both gifts of God.” [10] In the catalogue of papal pronouncements, published shortly after the death of St. Augustine, Pelagian naturalism is condemned, since “God so works in the hearts of men and in free will itself that the holy thought, the gentle counsel, and every movement of a good will is from God, because it is through Him that we can do any good, and without Him we can do nothing.” [11]

Still more explicitly, the Council of Orange (A.D. 529) declared how helpless man is to do anything on the road to salvation, without the prior assistance of God, “Without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” [12] This terminology has since become technical to define actual grace as the internal enlightening of mind and inspiration of will that God supernaturally infuses in the respective faculties.

During the whole patristic period and into the Middle Ages, there was no particular effort to distinguish actual from habitual grace, although the early councils were clear enough about the existence of the two kinds of benefits to the soul. With the advent of Scholasticism, however, the familiar Aristotelian categories of habit and action were pressed into the service of theology, with the result that by the time of St. Thomas the difference between a “habitual gift” and “the divine help for willing and doing well” was fully established. [13] Capreolus then added the terms, habitual and actual that are still current today.

Consistent with their ideas of justification, the sixteenth century Reformers paid little attention to what Catholics called actual grace, since they questioned the existence of a supernatural order that implied an elevation of man above his natural powers of being and operation. They allowed for neither habitual nor actual grace, in their Catholic sense. Sanctifying grace for them meant the merciful favor of God, who does impute (without conferring) the holiness of Christ to the justified man. Actual grace would mean a kind of direct assistance which affects the soul, in the absence of true human freedom, moving it to perform good actions for which God alone is fully responsible.

Since the principal kind of actual grace denied by the Reformers was that which precedes man’s justification, the Council of Trent stressed its absolute need and utility. The justification of adults must begin with God’s call, by which “God touches the heart of man with the illumination of the Holy Spirit; if a man receives that inspiration, he can also reject it." [14] Moreover the same kind of assistance is available after a person has sinned gravely and finds himself urged to repent from salutary fear. This is “a gift of God and an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not, indeed, as already dwelling in the soul, but as merely giving the impulse that helps the penitent make his way towards justice.” [15]

Under the aegis of Protestantism, Baius and the Jansenists had no more sympathy with the Catholic idea of actual than of habitual grace. According to Baius, “we should reject both terms of the distinction between two kinds of justice, one of which takes place through the indwelling Spirit of charity, and the other which occurs by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit urging the heart of penance.” [16] Or, more positively, in the words of Quesnel, “Grace is the work of the hand of the omnipotent God, which nothing can hinder or retard”; it is “nothing more than God’s omnipotent will commanding and doing what He commands.” [17] Thus the vital quality of actual grace was reduced to an immanent divine power that no human will can resist.

From the seventeenth century on, the most debated issue about actual grace has been the domestic one of its relation to human conduct and, especially to the free cooperation by man. The long and sometimes acrimonious controversies between Thomists and Molinists were partly stimulated by the earlier conflict with Jansenism. If they contributed somewhat to clarifying the speculative meaning of actual grace, they had the practical effect of obscuring the importance of habitual righteousness and the sublimity of the indwelling Trinity. A new impulse to study the implications of God’s transitory operation on the faculties has come from the modern interest in applied psychology, notably in the area of motivation and the development (or conquest) of moral habits.

Theological Analysis

Catholic theology commonly defines actual graces as internal and immediate illuminations of the intellect and inspirations of the human will. They are internal because they are conferred on either of the two spiritual faculties, which alone can perform salutary actions that positively lead a person towards the beatific vision. Later on we shall examine in detail the much neglected external graces, whose number and variety are myriad but which are either not internal because, originating outside the intellect and will or, though internal to the spiritual faculties, they are not strictly graces but the native movements of the soul.

The immediacy of actual graces is an elusive concept. It does not mean that whenever God gives an actual grace, He dispenses with such external media as preaching, spiritual reading, exhortation or good example. On the contrary, He normally uses such means as the occasion for conferring internal light or strength. The grace is called immediate because it does not arise by means of purely natural causation, such as would be inherent in the native powers of the soul or as God supplies by the general concursus He gives to all secondary causes. God enters the faculty in a special and gratuitous manner, so that the mind or will are now able to produce acts that are essentially superior to anything a man could perform naturally and without such divine influx.

While insisting on the existence of immediate actual graces in the intellect, we do not question there are also mediate graces for the mind. Such would be any one of a countless number of ways that God may enlighten us, in keeping with His supernatural providence. In other words the mental image or operation arises spontaneously and naturally according to the laws of psychology, even though God may have generously directed certain factors outside the mind in our favor.

Similarly we may speak of mediate inspirations of the will, that follow naturally on a previous mental illumination which the mind presents to the appetitive faculty. God may also have so arranged things that the antecedent knowledge was not the bare fruit of our own thinking but supernaturally infused, or at least we came by this knowledge with providential help. Unless the essence of the inspiration is itself supernatural, it is still mediate and not an actual grace in the strict theological sense. It is interesting to note that a few older theologians, who did not deny there were immediate inspirations, questioned their necessity once a man received an immediate divine illumination, which then sua sponte produced supernatural affections in the will. [18] Their theory is generally frowned upon as hard to reconcile with the sources of revelation.

What are these actual graces concretely? In the mind they can be supernaturally infused judgments, whether practical or speculative, which patristic literature variously calls divine exhortations, vocations or, simply, divine knowledge. They can also be single ideas, especially when so strongly impressive as almost to constitute a positive judgment. Inspirations of the will may be movements of charity, or of any other virtue, like hope, temperance, penance or fear of God’s justice.

Before we examine more closely the nature of actual grace, we should clearly distinguish between what are styled gratiae excitantes (prevenient graces), also known as the grace which calls (vocans), and their antithesis, the gratiae adjuvantes (helping graces), sometimes known as the grace that cooperates (cooperans). The distinction is not abstruse, since the vital acts of the soul are either spontaneous impulses or free acts of the will. Regarding the will, grace may either precede the exercise of freedom or cooperate with it. When actual graces precede the free determination of our will they are called prevenient (coming before). When they accompany or coincide with the will’s determination and merely cooperate with the will they are considered cooperating (working with).

There are two theories on the ultimate analysis of actual grace, each with a different explanation of the two general kinds of grace – the prevenient and cooperating. Briefly stated, the first (Molinist) is based on the idea of God’s simultaneous action, along with the vital activity of man’s faculties. The second (Thomist) postulates a divine previous action, in the nature of a premotion that God applies to the mind and will before they exercise their vital function.

According to the Molinist theory, prevenient grace is explained by identifying it with the respective illuminations and inspirations by which God immediately affects the spiritual faculties. Of course the latter must be raised in order to perform (elicit) actions that are truly (entitatively) supernatural; but to do this we need no recourse to a new entity that has somehow been previously received in the faculty.

The postulate in Molinist terms is for an elevation that is not intrinsic but extrinsic. In other words, God comes to the assistance of the mind or will. He personally and immediately supplies what these powers naturally lack to produce supernatural acts. Thus the first supernatural reality which the faculty gets is not some divine movement prior to the act, but the indeliberate act itself, the whole of which proceeds from God and simultaneously from the faculty. Both God and the faculty together are responsible for the totality of the effect, but separately and partially regarding the cause, since the act is vital relative to the human faculty but supernatural in that it comes from God.

Underlying this solution of the problem is the premise that our natural powers of cognition and will are taken over by God to produce supernatural effects, in virtue of an obedience potency that is strictly active. Our spiritual faculties are endowed with some potency mysteriously subject to the influence of an almighty power, which can activate it to operate in a way that is higher, more noble and absolutely not due to our nature - in a word, to effectuate in us indeliberate and vital acts that are intrinsically supernatural.

Much the same is explained to take place in the case of helping graces. They are said to consist in something very vital, i.e., something in which the mind and will of man vitally participate, and require neither a special divine influx over and above that received from the prevenient grace nor a new physical premotion from God. It is a motion because through it God moves a creature to action. It is a pre-motion because it logically precedes the action of the secondary cause, namely the exercise of its native activity. It is physical and not moral because it does not operate objectively by means of knowledge and attraction, but subjectively as a physical cause that flows into the faculty. In fact the two species of grace (excitans and adjuvans) are said to be really the same grace, only looked at from different viewpoints: the one preceding and the other assisting the free exercise of our wills.

In the Thomist explanation the essence of prevenient grace is found in some sort of movement or physical reality whose effect is the mental enlightenment and volitional impulse. There must be an antecedent supernatural help given to the faculties in order to enable them to act in a supernatural way. This elevation is strictly intrinsic to the faculties. The divine aid comes logically before the act which they produce. It is a physical entity, not vital, because it is not produced by the mind or will but only by God. It is not, as we say, in the intentional order because it does not move the faculties as an object to which they respond but as a physical impulse moving them to action.

Consistent with this theory, it is held that helping grace is also a non-vital reality which God infuses into the soul. The reality is a new physical premotion, divinely conferred in addition to the previous actual grace. This time the help is not to stimulate the will to action but to enable it to perform a free supernatural act.

The complex nuances involved in these speculations are considerable, as will be seen in a later, detailed analysis of the rival theories on the relation of grace and free will.

External Graces

One of the most practical aspects of actual grace is the function of external graces in the spiritual life. Ascetical writers often describe the whole providential disposition of life with all its elements as a series of divine graces. They see all creation unified in this divine operation and consequently regard every creature, in its way, as a predestined means to lead men to their appointed end, that is, as a grace of God. [19] The order established by God, we are told, the good pleasure of God, the will of God, the action of God, grace - all are the same thing in this life. They are evidence of God laboring to make the soul like to Himself. Perfection is nothing else than the soul’s faithful cooperation with this labor of God.

It is not the business of spiritual writers to offer subtle theological distinctions, not to explain in technical language the valid insights they give to their readers. Yet some clarification of this important phase of ascetical literature is necessary. It is certainly useful to understand what we mean when we say that all creatures have been made “for man to help him in attaining the end for which he was created,” and thereby verify their claim to being somehow divine graces offered us on the road to heaven.

Although writers seldom distinguish between internal and external graces, but consider everything in some way as a grace of God, it is not difficult to trace such a distinction in their writings. In fact, precisely this distinction gives us the only sound basis for universalizing the concept of grace and applying the term, analogously, to all the other things on the face of the earth.

External grace in this context is every creature which is not an internal grace of God. It is called external because it is not internal in the strict sense of a special and direct illumination or inspiration that God directly produces in the human mind and will. Perhaps a better word would be “extrinsic” to distinguish such graces from the intrinsically supernatural lights and impulses we have previously analyzed. They may be internal experiences of the soul, in its spiritual or sensible powers; external experiences received through the bodily organs; persons or events that enter our lives, living or inanimate objects that affect us; words spoken or heard, ideas communicated or received; circumstances of time and place; in a word, no creature is excepted from the possible ambit of things which the divine Intelligence may intend to use as an instrument of our salvation.

In what sense are these myriad things graces? They are such primarily because the providence of God, in the existing supernatural order in which we live, is absolutely universal. As defined by the first Vatican Council, “by His providence God watches over and governs all the things that He made, reaching from end to end with might and disposing all things with gentleness. For all things are naked and open to His eyes, even those that are going to occur by the free action of creatures.” [20] Put into ascetical terms, the divine order gives to all things, in favor of the soul which conforms to it, a supernatural and God-given value. Whatever this order imposes, whatever it comprehends, and all objects to which it extends, may become the instruments of holiness and the means of reaching God.

Furthermore the ordinary way that God infuses graces is through the instrumentality of external ones. We recall the words of St. Paul about the necessity of preaching. How will people believe, he asks, unless they have heard the Gospel taught? And how will they hear without someone to preach to them? The issue here is profound. For not unlike in the natural order the mind is determined to act by some extrinsic object, supernaturally God has established innumerable extrinsic media, by which men are to be led to their eternal end.

Consequently, when a pious thought or a good impulse naturally arises from any of these sources, whether seen, or heard, or no matter how produced, God as it were interposes Himself in the process and then by a supernatural concursus evokes an internal actual grace. His entrance into the sequence raises an otherwise natural activity of mind or will to the salutary level of a means that leads to heavenly glory.

There is still another way in which external graces warrant the title of “grace,” besides their instrumental function of leading to internal illuminations and inspirations from God. They are also the normal way by which these internal graces find expression or embodiment. After all, the internal graces are given for a purpose, which is to fructify an act. They are directed to having a man perform some good actions, whether interior, as in mental prayer, or exterior, as in the practice of fraternal charity. In either case the terminal effect is obviously not the internal grace itself but something beyond it, to which it gives rise. This something outside and beyond the internal supernatural light or impulse also partakes of the supernatural as the means by which strictly internal graces “take on flesh.” The material aspect of what I do under a divine impulse may be quite natural - giving money to the poor or assisting a man with advice - but the soul of the action is more than natural, since it comes from the special operation of God.

Varieties and Forms

An exhaustive tabulation of the various types of external grace is impossible. They are too numerous and varied to allow strict classification, and too complex to describe except in the most generic way. Yet certain broad lines of emphasis appear regularly in ascetical literature, which goes back to the homilies of Origen and Augustine, and may be found in all the classic writers on the spiritual life.

As a general principle, the love of God transforms into grace everything which is good, and does not limit the transformation only to things which appear good to us. For divine love is present in all creatures, with the sole exception of those which are sinful and contrary to the law of God.

God uses temporal afflictions and adversities to convert and sanctify souls. [21] No matter how painful, sickness and physical suffering are in reality external graces, always intended as such for the one suffering and sometimes used by Him for the conversion and sanctification of others. We know from experience, however, that sickness and adversity often can be more easily accepted as coming from God than to recognize His gift in the negative conditions of mind and emotions: distaste for spiritual things, worry, anxiety, strong passions or fears. No doubt these may be due partially to past negligence, but that is not the point. They are also species of grace. St. John of the Cross observed that just as God converts, reproves, and sanctifies ordinary people through temporal afflictions and trials so He normally converts to Himself, rebukes and leads to sanctity those on whom He has higher designs by means of spiritual trials and interior crosses that are many times more grievous than material or bodily pains.

In the same way, God uses the actions of other people as graces for our sanctification. Their ordinary words, conduct and gestures are intended to produce supernatural effects in our souls. This is particularly hard to see where the actions are offensive and the offender is personally not wicked, and may even be quite virtuous. Hence an exclamation coined by the saints: “Blessed be the God of all things for sanctifying His elect through one another.” Unless we look beyond the petty (or grave) offenses caused us by others, we shall not see their providential purpose of refining our souls and making us daily more fit to receive greater divine blessings.

It is of special value to see God operating in the persecution or perhaps criminal actions of others. He permits these things in order to draw good out of them. St. Paul’s panegyric on the great believers of the Old Law - Noe, Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph - is an application of this principle. [22] God tries His chosen servants by sending them trial and opposition. Their sanctification is determined by the measure of faith which recognizes in these human obstacles the workings of divine grace. This was the spirit in which David accepted the cursing of Semei, as a just punishment ordained by God for his spiritual welfare. St. Augustine tells us to “marvel at the way God uses even the malice of those who are wicked, in order to help and elevate those who are good.”

The same with temptations. When they come from the devil, their diabolical intent is to destroy our souls. But from the viewpoint of God’s permissive will, which never allows a man to be tried beyond his strength, they are true graces. Comparably the revolt of the passions or other signs of our fallen nature, no matter how strong, are so far from sinful that they are one of the main instruments of sanctification. [23]

Sins at least might seem to be excluded from the category of external graces. Evidently God does not want anyone to offend Him; and yet, without willing sin, He uses it as a most powerful means of drawing souls to Himself. The humility they engender and the self-depreciation they induce are the bedrock on which God intends to build. Speaking of Peter’s denial of Christ, St. Augustine declared this was permitted to teach the apostle not to trust himself but to rely entirely on his Master. The experience he gained was a lesson for all of us on the relation between sin and the acquisition of virtue.

Sanctifying Effect

The salutary purpose of external graces was familiar to the Fathers, and was explained by St. Thomas who recognized that God exercises a special providence over souls living in His friendship. It is special not only in the broad sense of God’s solicitude for rational beings as distinct from His interest in all creatures, but in the very particular sense that persons in the state of grace have a claim to God’s love and the promise of His care that no one else is assured. This was the basis for St. Paul’s astounding statement that, “for those who love God all things work together unto good, for those who, according to His purpose, are saints through His call.” [24]

Though external graces are sanctifying in countless ways, we can reduce these modes to the three familiar ones of purification, illumination and union with God; without implying that only these effects take place, that they occur in any particular sequence, or least of all that the terminal results can take place without the correlative presence of internal grace to purify, enlighten and unite the soul with God.

A great deal of spiritual literature centers on the purifying aspect of external grace, achieved through detachment from creatures and stripping of self-love. Repeatedly the axiom is stated that “a person cannot be united with God, source of all purity, except through detachment from everything created” that tends to draw a man to himself and away from the Creator. The stress may be so great it may seem exaggerated or misplaced; yet properly understood, detachment is the sine qua non condition for sanctity.

The normal way that God effects detachment in souls is through suffering. He appears to measure it out according to the perfection He has in store and the degree of holiness to which He had destined a man. As a general rule, “suffering makes wicked souls miserable, but borne with fortitude it purifies souls that are good.” [25] There is a more subtle difference in His way of acting with different persons. Those already advanced in the spiritual life, He is accustomed to despoil of spiritual gifts and sensible fervor, which in the saints may reach the “dark night of the soul.” With less perfect individuals, He may deprive them of temporal possessions and secular goods in order to detach their hearts from this world.

Throughout Christian tradition we find the same basic theme: God purifies by suffering and trial. Not only are just men tried by affliction as gold is tried in the fire, but crosses and tribulations are said to be such great graces that generally sinners are not converted except through them, and good persons are not made perfect except by the same means.

Following the analogy used by Augustine, God is a compared to a doctor who administers bitter medicine to restore health to a soul and removes with the scalpel of suffering whatever stands in the way of spiritual progress. In those whom God loves, like a wise physician, He cuts away the tumor of self-confidence.

This law of purification is universal. It applies as well to the worldly minded as to the saintly; it affects temporal goods as well as spiritual attachments; and it is proportionately more intense as the degree of union with Himself to which God intends to raise a soul is greater. According to the proportion of its purity will also be the degree of enlightenment, illumination and union with God - either more or less according to its quality of self-detachment. We may therefore conclude that the more God retrenches self-love through purifying trials, the more He bestows the supernatural.

External graces also enlighten the soul to recognize the will of God. We may look upon this manifestation of the divine will as the spiritual direction of God. One of the surest means of sanctification is to use whatever God, the supreme director of souls, places before us moment by moment, to either do or suffer. Souls who thus search for God’s will, find evidence everywhere of what He wants. They are directed by the intermittent actions of a thousand creatures, which serve, without study, as so many illumination graces of instruction.

Consequently God leads us not only by the internal light He infuses in the mind but by all the events and circumstances of life. He “speaks” to us in the book we are reading, in the counsel given by a friend, in the misunderstanding that befalls us, in the success or failure we experience, in the passing trial we have. Too often people look upon these things as only a matter of chance, or caprice, or natural coincidence, forgetting that with God there is no chance; that His providence embraces every last detail of what ostensibly just “happens” in our lives.

The illuminating function of external grace is particularly useful when the obstacle to recognizing God’s lesson is not that we mistake it for chance or coincidence, but fail to see His will because a certain effect was the result of sin, our own or someone else’s. Yet there is divine pedagogy also, and emphatically, in the sinful actions of men.

Faith tells us that nothing happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either permits it to happen, or He brings it about Himself. Therefore we may not doubt that God does well, or wants us to learn from the fact, even when He permits evil.

He does not permit this except for a just reason, and all that is just is good. Although, therefore, what is evil, in so far as it is evil, is not good. Nevertheless it is well that not only good but also evil should exist. Were it not a good that evil things should also exist, the Omnipotent God would most certainly not allow evil to be, since beyond doubt it is just as easy for Him not to allow what He does not will, as it is for Him to do what He wills. Unless we believe this, the very first sentence of our profession of faith is endangered, wherein we profess to believe in God the Father almighty. He is called almighty for no other reason than that He can do whatever He wills, and because the effectiveness of His almighty will cannot be thwarted by the will of any creature whatsoever. [26]

Unless we steel ourselves against the natural evidence to the contrary, we may fail to see the supernatural workings of Providence, whose purposes are often brought about through the sins and even malice of men. It was by the good will of the Father, working through the envy of the high priests and the cowardice of Pilate, that Jesus Christ was slain. The result was so beneficial that when Peter protested that this should not be allowed, he was called Satan by the soon to be slain Savior. We are told in the Book of Acts how earnestly the faithful begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem, for fear he would suffer the evils foretold by one of the local prophets. Yet it was God’s will that the apostle too should suffer for the preaching of Christ and prepare himself for martyrdom. He carried out His ulterior purpose not through the good intentions of the Christians but through the evil ones of the Jews. Both God and his enemies brought about the same effect; He through them for a good end, and they against Him with their evil designs.

The same thing occurs, on a lesser plane, in the lives of all men. The genius of faith is to see behind the veils of external (humanly mistaken or malicious) circumstances and recognize in them the hidden objectives of God.

Every situation of daily life, then, is somehow an expression of the divine will for us at that moment: of something to be done or avoided, accepted or refused, enjoyed or sacrificed, continued or abandoned, depending on the circumstances and conditioned by the dictates of right reason and faith.

On the same illuminative plane, external graces afford us a convenient way to learn by experimental knowledge of God’s dealings with us, and give us what no books or spiritual direction could supply. In the realm of the spirit, real knowledge as distinct from notional cognition can be acquired only by action and suffering. No one understands God’s mercy the way a forgiven sinner can, or the value of kindness as the man to whom some great favor was done, or the meaning of humility if he has never been humiliated.

An important element in this knowledge is the experience it gives of our weakness and imperfection in the face of trial and temptation. These occasions - external graces of tribulation - show us how impotent we are to do any good without the help of God. They teach us to turn to Him instead of depending on ourself. It is a hard lesson to learn, that our misery is the cause of the weaknesses we have, and that God permits them by His mercy. Without such realization we might never be cured of secret presumption and self-complacent pride. Naturally speaking we should scarcely understand that all the evil comes from ourselves, and all supernatural good from God. A thousand experiences are needed to help us acquire this two-fold knowledge as an abiding habit; and the more deep-rooted the urge to self-complacency, the more necessary is the experiential cure.

The most important effect of external graces is the love of God which they develop in the soul, to which detachment and illumination are only contributing means. It is the common teaching of spiritual masters that awareness of the divine benefits is necessary to grow in the love of God. In St. Ignatius’ words, a person is told to strive “for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that, filled with gratitude for everything, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty.” [27] And according to St. Thomas, the first condition required to attain to perfect charity is “the recollection of God’s benefits, since all that we have, in body and soul and external possessions, has come from Him. Consequently to love Him with a perfect heart, we must earnestly reflect on everything He has given to us.” [28]

In the ordinary disposition of Providence, unless there is a previous consideration of God’s goodness in my regard, I will not rise to that love of Him which is true friendship. At this point a whole panorama of prospects opens, to see that every good thing I possess, or satisfying experience I have, is a divine invitation to be recognized as a token of God’s love. The number of these good things and pleasant satisfactions is past counting. They are a stream of benefits that impinge on my consciousness daily and many times a day. Yet each one is a quasi-sacramental sign of the mysterious reality which God need not have communicated outside Himself, yet chose to do so in the multitudinous ways we call creatures - beginning with myself and including every least blessing that crosses my path.

From gratitude we rise spontaneously to love the One from whom the benefits proceed. But then we go a step further. The creatures that enter our lives do not only, foster divine love and lead us through knowledge to perfect charity, they are ready instruments for putting that charity into action.

The ultimate goal of external graces, therefore, is to have them serve as channels for the practice of the virtues to which Christian charity gives rise. They help us give expression to the sentiments that strictly interior graces inspire. The expression may take the form of laboring at our own sanctification, or of furthering the interests of the Church; it will always partake of some kind of charity for the neighbor which is the language of our love for God.

Chapter VI - References

[1] CCC 2000, 2024.

[2] Psalm 118:34.

[3] John 6:44-46, CCC 259.

[4] Acts 16:14.

[5] Apocalypse 3:19-20.

[6] I Corinthians 3:6.

[7] Pelagius, quoted by St. Augustine, “De Gratia Christi,” MPL 44:361, 381.

[8] Philippians 2:13; St., Augustine, “De Diversis Quaestionibus,” MPL 40:118, 128; CCC 2001.

[9] St. Augustine, “De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione,” MPL 44:170.

[10] DS 226.

[11] DS 244.

[12] DS 377.

[13] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, 109, 6; 111, 2: CCC 2000.

[14] DS 1525: CCC 2001.

[15] DS 1678; CCC 1433; cf. John Paul II, On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World [Dominum et Vivificantem] (1986), 28-33.

[16] DS 1963.

[17] DS 2410-11.

[18] Thus Denis Petavius (1583-1652), who wrote against the Jansenist Arnauld, and Gabriel Vazquez (1549-1604), a Spanish moralist.

[19] CCC 358; cf. Gaudium et Spes 12§1; 24§3; 39§1.

[20] DS 3003; CCC 302.

[21] CCC 385, 1502.

[22] Hebrews 11: CCC 164-65.

[23] CCC 2847.

[24] Romans 8:28: CCC 313, 395.

[25] St. Augustine, “De Agone Christiano,” MPL 40, 295.

[26] St. Augustine, Enchiridion 96, CCC 311-312.

[27] “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God”, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1951), 233.

[28] St. Thomas Aquinas, “De Duobus Praeceptis Caritatis,” Opuscula Omnia (Paris: P.Lethielleux, 1927), vol. IV, p.420.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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