In baptism, God gives us the forgiveness of sins and something of the riches of his supernatural and divine Life. Truly we become sharers of his divine nature, but baptism does not instantly restore fallen human nature to full functioning and flourishing. Even after baptism, we still carry many of the wounds of the old Adam – many tendencies to personal sin. The world, the flesh, and the devil remain active in our lives to some extent. As a result, many disordered thoughts and passions swirl in the area around our hearts, seeking our consent, seeking to overthrow the kingdom of grace established in us at baptism. Yet, God too is at work in our lives to bring to completion the good work he has begun in us by grace (Phil. 1:6).
In order to bring to completion the life of sanctifying grace in our souls, God gives new and further graces beyond the grace of baptism. He gives myriads of graces – actual graces, inspirations of the Spirit, sacramental graces, and more. The point of all such further graces, in one way or another, is so that the life of grace given to us in baptism might grow.
The life of grace is indeed supposed to grow in our souls, but the growth of grace is not a theme proclaimed very often or loudly in the Church at present. Yet, it is of first importance in the spiritual life. One might even say one of the main reasons for our life in this world is for us to grow in grace more and more “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). So let us pause with the point that grace is meant to grow in us.
Sanctifying grace is often compared to a seed. It is a seed of heavenly life planted in our souls. Just as a seed is meant to grow, so sanctifying grace is meant to grow. In order for seeds to grow, they ordinarily need a certain environment, certain causes, and certain conditions. They need a hospitable environment, nutrients, water, and sunlight. Similarly, in order for sanctifying grace to grow in our souls, it ordinarily needs a certain environment – the Church. It ordinarily needs certain causes – sacraments, prayer, works of love. It ordinarily needs certain conditions – scripture and tradition, sound teaching and saintly examples, silence, vigilance, and much more.
The good news is that God has given us in his Church everything necessary for sanctifying grace to grow strong in us. He is ever at work in our lives giving us new and further graces. God ordinarily gives us new graces through the sacraments, but he is not limited to the sacraments. God also gives us graces in other ways. Sometimes they come through prayer or works of mercy, but sometimes they come to us without us first doing anything at all. One way or the other, God is ever at work in our lives to bring to completion the good work he has begun in us at baptism.
One way or the other, God is ever at work in our lives to bring to completion the good work he has begun in us at baptism.
The life of grace in our souls is also sometimes compared to a marriage. Wedding days are a moment of great beauty because it is the beginning of a union between a man and a woman. Yet, the wedding day is only a beginning. The union of husband and wife is supposed to deepen and grow over time. Somehow or another, over the course of days and years, the husband and wife slowly become more and more wedded to each other. They go from having two life stories to one, and increasingly more it becomes the one story of us – the spouses and the children and all that God has done in their lives.
So too it is with God and the soul. Baptism is a moment of great beauty because it is the beginning of the soul’s union with God by sanctifying grace. Such a union is interior and supernatural. It is a union of Light and Love. Indeed, our union with God by grace is the true Life. Yet, the day of our baptism is only the beginning. The union is meant to deepen. Though at any one point in time we might not be conscious of our union with God, or only vaguely aware of it, it is real nonetheless. It is a mystery of faith. Like a marital union, it is supposed to grow. Over the course of bright days and dark nights, it should grow into the story of someone whose heart is one with God even while he or she still walks the face of the earth. Or, perhaps more accurately, the union with God established in our souls at baptism can so grow. It might even become the story of someone who, passing through the door of death, goes into the Light for all eternity.
But there is another side to the story. So long as we are in this life human beings are able to throw away the gift of sanctifying grace by committing mortal sin. Mortal sin is called mortal because it kills the life of grace in us. Thanks be to God, the sacrament of penance restores the life of grace to the soul in those who have recourse to it. Venial sin does not destroy the life of grace, but diminishes it. Aside from committing sin, we can also neglect the life of grace to such an extent that it grows but little. It was the Lord himself who taught us of all such possibilities, and he sets them all before us in the Parable of the Sower (Mk. 4:1-20).
What is at stake is whether we shall continue in the life of grace, whether his grace in us will grow, whether our union with God by grace shall develop into a true love story, and whether the story shall end with us passing through death only to enter that bright place with all the saints in Light. One of the most catastrophic attitudes of our times is the widespread sin of presumption. The sin of presumption consists of expecting final salvation even without repenting or practicing the faith. Such presumption is a very radical illusion indeed.
Instead of presumption, God calls us to repentance. God indeed has a plan for each of us. He is ever at work in our lives by grace to recover our hearts from the calamity of the fall, to deepen our union with him, and to lead us to the fullness of Life. Yet, God also calls each of us to participate personally in the process – to participate consciously and freely – as people intent on our own salvation and that of others. The great question is how. How do you and I participate in God’s work of grace in our lives? What must you and I do to grow in grace? What must you and I do to receive by grace the full recovery of our hearts from the effects of the fall and come to the fulness of Life in him? The answer is that you and I must walk the pathways of metanoia. To those pathways we now turn over the next set of articles in our series.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
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.