Category Archives: Grace

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.

 

Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

King Jesus and Queen Mary

Although the Church does not officially celebrate an Octave proceeding from the Solemnity of the Assumption, the timing of the liturgical celebration of the Queenship of Mary eight days later sets up what could still be viewed as an “Octave in spirit.”  The timing is especially apt because her coronation completes the picture first presented to us in the Assumption.  Quite literally, it crowns everything that we know about Mary and, even more importantly, about her Son, Jesus Christ.  It is in the spirit of entering more fully into these two Marian celebration that it is particularly helpful to reflect specifically on her role as Queen.

The Church often finds herself in a defensive stance when it comes to proclaiming the truth about Mary.  This posture mostly follows from a belief, even if only unconscious, that Our Lady’s greatness diminishes Christ’s greatness.  We grow anxious that we might love Mary too much and thus take away from Jesus.  But everything that we believe about Mary flows from the fact that she was predestined to be the Mother of God.  God never calls a person without also giving that person the necessary natural and supernatural endowments to carry out their mission.  Mary’s plentitude of grace comes from God because of her role as the Mother of God.  Her union with her Son was not just mystical but natural and His dependence upon her made her cooperation in His work of redemption wholly unique.

Mary’s Role as Mother of God and Its Consequences

There are consequences that follow from her role as Mother of God.  Related to our particular reflection, she was the mother of the One Whom God would give “the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).  In short, she is the Mother of the King of Kings.

St. Gabriel’s message confirms what we already find in many other places in Scripture, namely that the Davidic kingdom provides a blueprint for the Kingdom of God.  And like the other the other near-East kingdoms of the time, the Mother of the king or the Gebirah in the Davidic kingdom played a pivotal role in the management of that kingdom.

This unique role of the Gebirah has been studied and written about extensively (I especially recommend Dr. Edward Sri’s book called Queen Mother), so I won’t duplicate those efforts here (**see footnote).  Instead, I will point out two passages that are particularly illustrative.  Both involve David’s wife Bathsheba, the mother of future King Solomon.  Early in the First Book of Kings (1:6) when an aging David is coming to the end of his reign, she enters the royal chamber in a posture of obeisance and offered homage to the king.  While acknowledging her, he pays her no particular honor.  Fast forward a chapter (1Kings 2:19ff ) and we find that once Solomon becomes king she enters the royal chamber and the narrative finds him bowing before her, having a throne brought in and placed at his right hand.  She intercedes on behalf of Adonijah and the king says he cannot refuse her.

The juxtaposition of these two passages confirms for us two things and help us to see more clearly what role Queen Mary, as the Gebirah, plays in the fulfilled Davidic Kingdom.  First, Bathsheba has no authority as wife of the king, but once her son becomes king, she is given a throne.  Without her son on the throne, she has no authority so that her authority depends upon his royal authority.  Likewise, all that we say about Mary’s Queenship flows only from Christ’s authority.  She has only a share in His authority.  But as is always the case with the Church’s Marian beliefs, take away from Mary and you diminish Christ.  Mary’s exaltation puts flesh, literally and figuritvely, on what we believe about Christ.  Without those beliefs, the teachings about Christ gravitate towards abstraction.  If  you take away her queenship, you will be saying that Christ is not the true heir to the throne of David.  The throne of David always had a throne at the king’s right hand for the Queen Mother.

Second, the Queen Mother was no mere figurehead but had royal authority.  The king could not refuse her.  This helps us to shed light on what can otherwise seem like a rather odd interaction between Our Lord and Our Lady at Cana.  As Queen Mother, Our Lord could not refuse anything that His Mother asked even though His “hour had not yet come.”  She assumes He will do it, because she had such authority to “command” Him.

Why Mary Should Steal Your Heart

While this biblical proof-texting is necessary, we must always have the same goal in sight that Pope Pius XII had when he instituted the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen in his encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, namely, to “renew the praises of Our Heavenly Mother, and enkindle a more fervent devotion towards her, to the spiritual benefit of all mankind.”  The reasons for our devotion might satisfy our heads, but unless it also engages our hearts it will remain sterile facts.  The aforementioned Pontiff helps us begin the longest 18-inch journey by summarizing what we have already said and pointing out that “…as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity. For from her union with Christ she attains a radiant eminence transcending that of any other creature; from her union with Christ she receives the royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”

Well-schooled in democratic logic, we reflexively dismiss monarchical terms and neglect their import.  We must not forget that we are citizens in the Kingdom of God, not in the Democratic Republic of the United States of Humanity and Divinity.  Christ is the benevolent King and seated at His right hand is the benevolent Queen.  You cannot have Christ as King without Mary as Queen.  You cannot honor Him while neglecting to honor her.  A man who pledged loyalty to the King while disrespecting the Queen would be labeled as a traitor.  Our devotion for Christ should overflow onto His Mother (which will always flow back on Him).  We must see her as both Queen and Mother.

A sure way to increase that devotion is to reflect upon the fact that Our Lady has a “royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”  The role of Advocate and Queen are practically synonymous—the Queen Mother in her royal office in the kingdom of David exercised her role primarily as an advocate, interceding for the people of the Kingdom.  In fact she did not share in any way in the royal judicial power.  Our Lady is never referred to as the Mother of Justice, but Mother of Mercy because her role is to distribute from the treasury of her Son.  When we realize that she has real power and real authority and that she exercises it as a Mother to each one of us, it is hard not to fall more deeply in love with Our Queen.

In a very real way, then, we see why the Queenship of Mary completes the Assumption.  Although her earthly life came to an end at the Assumption, her throne reminds us that her mission was really only just beginning.  She is the Advocate who always makes an offer that can’t be refused and our celebration of her Queenship must be a time of gratitude to God for so solicitous a Queen and to her for her constant intercession before God.

**For those interested in looking up some further passages supporting this see the succession narratives from 1 and 2 Kings, when each of the kings is mentioned, his mother is also mentioned with him emphasizing her important place beside the king.  The Queen Mother is alsodescried as having a crown (Jer 13:18), a throne (1 Kings 2:19) and is a member of the royal court (2 Kings 24:12-15).

 

 

Justification and the Friendship of God

Any discussion surrounding the issue of justification ought to, like all fruitful discussions, begin with defining our terms.  The first act of the mind is apprehension and intellectual grasping of what is being discussed.  We must first agree on the meaning of the terms we are going to be using before we can argue about them.  In my experience, Catholics and Protestants use the term justification without actually saying what they mean by it.  They proceed to argue operating under the assumption that they are using the terms univocally.  Often, however, this is not the case.  A clear definition at the outset goes a long way in helping the two sides not argue past one another.

Justification

Justification only makes sense when we properly recognize what amounts to, according to Aristotle, an insurmountable obstacle.  He thought friendship with the gods was impossible because it can only occur between equals.  Man as a mere creature is incapable of true friendship with God unless he is somehow made equal with God.  He can never enter into a personal relationship with God unless He freely elevates man.  The term justification has a juridical tone to it, but in truth this is not essentially a legal problem.  It has nothing do with sin per se, but really is just man’s default position as a creature.  Sin has just complicated the issue for sure, but the problem would exist even if sin didn’t.  Thus the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant teachings on justification, said that one is changed by justification “from an unjust person into a just person and from an enemy into a friend of God.”

Elevation from man’s natural state to a supernatural state that makes him capable of friendship with God is a free gift.  That ought to be obvious from what has been said.  We call this gift grace.  But there is a problem with using this term; namely that grace is a broad term that requires a modifier.  This is where it is helpful to have a strong Catholic vocabulary.  Grace, broadly speaking, falls into two categories: actual grace and sanctifying grace.

Grace

Actual grace is the interior assistance that God confers upon mankind in order to render him capable of supernatural acts of the soul.  In other words, it is God’s help to us in doing works that make us worthy of eternal life.  These works can be antecedent in the sense that when a man is in need of conversion or returning back to God from sin, he is given supernatural assistance in doing so.  They can also be consequent, a topic we will return to in a moment.  What actual graces do is enlighten the mind to recognize the true Good that is friendship with God and/or strengthen the will to move to repentance.  What is equally important is that these graces require man’s cooperation—friendship can be offered but never coerced.  God is responsible for bestowing them, but man is still responsible for responding to them.

Sanctifying grace on the other hand “is a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (CCC 2000).

pope-and-lutheran-pastor

It is, once again, a free gift but it is this free gift that renders us capable of friendship with God.  By making us “partakers of the divine nature,” sanctifying grace infuses the divine life into our souls and elevates us to a supernatural plane.  In other words, we truly become like God.  Our first parents were created with this free gift (made in the image and likeness) but lost it during the Fall (thus only in the image of God).  Now, rather than having it bestowed on us in birth, it is bestowed on us in re-birth.  The ordinary way that it is given to us is through Baptism.  We are “born from above” (Jn 3:7) in Baptism and adopted as true children of God.  Baptism gives to us a likeness to God—like Father, like son.

It bears mentioning as well a word about Heaven.  We tend to treat Heaven as “other-wordly” and simply as a reward.  That is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go far enough.  Heaven is really the place where the friends of God see Him face to face.  It is only those who have remained His friends that are capable of seeing Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2).  This is why we speak of the necessity of remaining in a “state of grace.”  Only those who die with sanctifying grace in their soul can avoid being destroyed by God, “Who is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).  In other words, only those whom God has made holy, not just imputed holiness to, but who actually are holy, can endure His presence.

Merit

Despite the fact that we speak of justification as a free gift, we also speak of merit.  This term seems to imply a debt on God’s part.  This sounds suspiciously like “we can earn our salvation” and so people tend to shut down when we use the term.  An important reminder helps to clear up some of the confusion.  Naturally good acts remain just that, natural.  They remain in the natural realm and have their reward here and now.  We are capable of doing many good acts on our own.  What we are incapable of doing are supernatural acts.  Even those who are in a state of grace cannot do these action.  They require actual grace and must proceed from a supernatural motive.  Christ says both “without Me you can do nothing” (actual grace) and promises reward for the works that are performed for His sake (c.f Mk 9:40 “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”).

Although we require the assistance of actual grace in performing these supernatural acts, God still imputes them to us as though they were done by us.  He rewards our cooperation in them because it shows our desire to love Him and in so doing actually increases that love within us.  This is what St. Paul is referring to when he tells the Corinthians that “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me” (1 Cor 15:10). It is not unlike a father who gives his son money so that he may buy a Christmas present for his father.  He is pleased not because of the gift but because of the heart from which the gift came.

Merit again is not just a legal term but a way to describe how we grow to be more like God.  These acts are completely outside of our natural capacity, but once elevated to the supernatural realm, we become capable of doing them.  God is the initiator, we are the secondary instruments.  Notice how this explanation helps to sidestep the whole faith and works controversy which quickly develops into a conversational wormhole.  Knowing these terms can help us avoid this apologetical pitfall.