Grace is a special gift of divine Love, different from all the blessings of nature, and stands out from them all. God has loved us excessively and poured out himself upon us. He gives us himself, his uncreated grace when he gives the person of Jesus Christ and pours his Holy Spirit into our hearts.
He also gives us created graces so that we might consciously receive the gift of himself, and freely respond to him in love. Created graces, however, do more than give us the ability to welcome God and respond to him. They actually adapt us to living in a higher milieu – the milieu of divine Life up above in the heavenly places.
Let us try to explain this mystery a bit.
Love makes us come alive. When two people fall in love with one another, do they not come alive in a new way? So, too, it is when God loves us in a special way, and gives us his grace. When the grace of God comes to us, our souls come alive, but our souls come alive with a form of life different from all the forms of life found in nature.
The life of grace is not of this world. It is obviously not a form of plant life or animal life. It is not a form of human life per se. It is not even a form of angelic life. The angels live a purely spiritual form of life abounding in the most sublime knowing, loving, and freedom. But the life of grace is not the angelic form of life. The life of grace is, in fact, beyond all the natural forms of life whether in this world or in the world of the angels.
The life of grace is strictly supernatural. That means it is above the natures of all creatures whatsoever. The life of grace is, therefore, truly all-surpassing. When our Lord Jesus said “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10), he revealed the intention of God to animate us with something of his very own supernatural and divine Life.
Now, when such an announcement is made the proper response is for the jaw to drop and the eyebrows to raise. If there is one thing that is obvious about human beings, or should be obvious, it is our poverty before God. It is simply not possible for us to live the very life of God by our own human strength. Surely, however, God can lift us up to live on his level if it should so please him. For if one human being can open his home to another, and invite the other in to live there, dwell there, and share life together, why cannot God do the same with human beings?
For if one human being can open his home to another, and invite the other in to live there, dwell there, and share life together, why cannot God do the same with human beings? – Fr. James Brent, O.P.
Indeed, it has always been the purpose of God’s will to do so, that is, to open his Life to us and call us into his house to live there and dwell there for eternity. The very first statement of the Catechism says so: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.”
In order to get a better sense of what sharing in the blessed life of God actually means, let us consider an analogy.
J.R. Tolkien was a man who lived in Oxford, studied and taught there, frequented the pubs there, and wrote stories of fiction. He lived in the world of Oxford, but he produced another world – the narrative world of the Lord of the Rings. Now, let us imagine if Tolkien could reach into the narrative world he created, take hold of one of the characters, lift the character out of the narrative world, and set the character down with himself in a pub in the world of Oxford just to enjoy a beer together and have a conversation. Tolkien would thus give to the character an existence and form of life in a whole new order – the order of reality. Impossible though it may be for human authors to do so with their fictional characters, it is possible for God to do something like this with persons in the world of nature. Indeed, God has done so by giving us grace.
When someone is baptized, and God creates in the soul sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, it is somewhat like Tolkien reaching into his narrative world and lifting a character up out of the story. By creating such graces in our souls, God reaches down so to speak, and lifts us up to live in a whole new order – in the supernatural order, in the unapproachable Light, in the world of God himself, in the Holy Trinity. Though we still live our human life here below, and our bodies still walk the earth, even now our souls live something of the divine Life in the heavenly places. The marvel of the created graces we receive in our baptism is that they adapt us to live beyond nature in the world of God.
Created graces enable us to know God, love God, and enjoy God on the most personal, intimate, and familiar terms. They also enable us to act in the ways he secretly and inwardly inclines us to act in order to go to him. By knowing him, loving him, and enjoying him on such familiar and personal terms, and by going to him according to his actual graces and inspirations at work in our hearts, you and I actually live to some extent the very Life of God. We live his Life in the depths of our hearts by grace.
Thanks to his created grace at work in our souls, it becomes more or less normal for us to commune with God, and to interact personally with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our interaction with them might be silent, in the depths of our souls, or it might be in the liturgy of the Church. It might in some ways be both.
One way or another, to live such a supernatural and divine Life, to be so personally familiar with God, to know him and love him so intimately, and to interact with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a living presence in our lives is far beyond all the powers of our human nature.
The good news is that God is now calling all people up to live on his level. He is calling all to live in the supernatural order – to go up by grace into the unapproachable Light in which God himself dwells. In order to accomplish his plan for us to do so, God gives actual graces to all people everywhere, but in different ways. Through the touches and promptings of his grace, God walks with all people everywhere and directs their course. His actual graces serve myriads of purposes in people’s lives, and God alone knows them all.
One of the primary reasons, however, that God gives actual graces to all people is to lead all of humanity by stages and degrees to the grace given in baptism. For in baptism a human being receives sanctifying grace – a personal share in the very life of God who comes to dwell in the soul. Sanctifying grace is no transitory touch of God, but something of his supernatural and divine Life rooted in the depths of our souls. Sanctifying grace is the root of the whole spiritual life in us.
Spiritual life is an ancient expression of our sacred tradition, and it means something specific. To say what it means is, in a way, the purpose of the rest of the series. For now, it suffices to say that those who live the spiritual life learn to say with all confidence: “I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 116:9). In order to do so, however, one needs the light of grace, and that is the topic of the next article.
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.