In his very great goodness and love, God has opened up his own Life to us and called us to share in it. By the gift of his sanctifying grace, given to us in our baptism, he has lifted us up to live on his level – to live something of his own divine Life. In our baptism, when he gave us the gift of sanctifying grace, he also gave us the light of grace. He gave us the virtue of faith together with the Spirit’s gifts of understanding, knowledge, wisdom, and much more.
By believing in all that God has revealed to us, and by accepting the gracious Love revealed to us, a real union with God himself has begun in our souls. So, too, has eternal life – personal familiarity with God. So, too, has contemplative prayer or the gaze of faith fixed on Jesus. The pathway to increasingly more profound union with God is now open for us to walk under the influence of still further graces given to us.
What God is doing in the whole mystery of his grace is actually befriending us personally. Perhaps Christianity, and the proposal of a personal relationship with Jesus, has become too familiar to many of us. Perhaps it no longer really astonishes us to hear that God has set about befriending us to himself.
The more common tendency today is often for us to think that a deep and rich friendship with God is simply natural for human beings or that it is in the normal and ordinary course of the development of human nature for us to become friends with God.
It is not.
To be friends with God is a special gift from God, a gift not of this world, a gift of a special and gratuitous Love on God’s part. No human being can make such a friendship happen by his or her own natural strength.
It would be easier for a human being to jump over the moon than for any one of us, by his or her own natural strength, to pass beyond all finite things and enter into a personal friendship with the living God. For “God dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16).
High above all things, existing for all eternity, the very being of God is utterly incomprehensible for human beings, and union with him is beyond the reach of our natural powers. As far as human nature goes, friendship with God is out of the question. The ancient pagan philosopher Aristotle saw this truth clearly. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle delivered one of the most illuminating and compelling accounts of friendship anyone has ever produced. Much of it rings true to this day.
In one place, he takes up the question of whether there can be friendship between those who are not equals such as between parents and their children. It is possible, he says, to some extent and with many qualifications. But “when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, then the possibility of friendship ceases” (Bk. 8 c.7). Friendship with God is simply impossible, Aristotle says, and there is simply no further discussion of the matter. Human beings and God have nothing in common.
Aristotle’s point stands as far as human nature goes, but Aristotle knew nothing of grace.
As a pagan, he knew nothing of what had been revealed through the prophets of the Old Testament. Furthermore, since he lived hundreds of years before Christ, he knew nothing of what Jesus Christ revealed to the apostles and what we have learned from them. What we have learned from Christ and the apostles makes all the difference. When God gives us his grace, he gives us something that Aristotle and the pagans could never even have so much as imagined. God gives us something of his own divine Life, and so by grace we now have something in common with God. Grace establishes the possibility of friendship with God.
Grace establishes the possibility of friendship with God.
In the process of opening up and sharing his life with us, God revealed his intentions to befriend us. At the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus said: “I no longer call you servants… but I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). The Lord did not call the twelve his friends because they were particularly good at being his friend. In fact, their human ability to be friends with the Lord was something of a farce. Peter denied the Lord, Thomas doubted him, and all but one of the twelve abandoned him to die on Calvary. Through it all, however, the Lord Jesus was loving them beyond anything they could fathom. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1).
The Lord Jesus died for them – even while they were weak, even while they were still sinners, even while they fled. He died for us too, each one and all, even though we are weak and even though we sin. The Catechism says very clearly: “Jesus knew us and loved us each and all during his life, his agony, and his passion, and gave himself up for each one of us” (CCC 478). Saint Paul never knew the Lord Jesus on earth, but Saint Paul did not hesitate to speak of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Every one of us can say the same. The Lord has revealed his plan and purpose of making us into his friends. We have no natural ability to be friends of God, and we are weak in every way, but he loves us nonetheless. Knowing our weakness and sorry condition, the Lord loved us first and died on the cross in order to demonstrate how God first loves us (1 Jn. 4:19). “No man has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friend” (Jn. 15:13).
Christ died in order to reveal to us, indeed to prove to us, God’s eternal will to mercy. His death was a free choice of love for the Father and for us. Because he freely chose to die out of love and obedience to the Father and to lay down his life for us, Jesus Christ obtained from the eternal Father the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Holy Spirit poured into our souls changes us inwardly, establishes us in friendship with God, and unites us to God more and more.
The name of this friendship is charity.
Charity is a created grace. God produces it in our souls along with sanctifying grace, faith, and the light of grace. As a created grace, however, it adapts us to live God’s own Life. For charity is love for God himself, and those who love God, those who cling to him in love, become “one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17). Those who love God in charity live his very own divine Life.
The next article in our series takes up some of the details of charity.
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.