what it is and what it does

American Icon Will Rogers was noted for his political wit and supposedly once remarked that “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” To which, I might add, like a new pair of shoes, once worn, you can never again call them new shoes.

When we are born we are like new shoes, aren’t we? Fresh, soft, innocent, beautiful, without guile, with a small exception of course: our soul comes into existence soiled with the stain of original sin and created without sanctifying grace. What in the world is sanctifying grace, you might legitimately ask? That is what we will be talking about this evening.

But first, let me begin with a bit of Catholic humor. In case you are yet unfamiliar with certain undocumented Catholic rules, here is one that you should become familiar: Catholic speakers, especially clergy, are implicitly bound to begin their presentations with a joke concerning one or more of their religious brothers or sisters.

An abbot at a monastery said, ‘Sister Mary Katherine, this is a silent monastery.  You are welcome here as long as you like, but you may not speak until directed to do so.’

Sister Mary Katherine lived in the monastery for 5 years before the Priest said to her, ‘Sister Mary Katherine, you have been here for 5 years. You may speak two words.’  She thought for a moment and then said, ‘Hard bed. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ the Priest said, ‘We will get you a better bed.’

After another 5 years, Sister Mary Katherine was summoned by the Priest. ‘You may say another two words.’ She thought for a few seconds and said, ‘Cold food,’ and the Priest assured her that the food would be better in the future. 

On her 15th anniversary at the monastery, the Priest again called Sister Mary Katherine into his office. ‘You may say two words today.’ Without hesitation she said, ‘I quit.’

To which the priest replied, ‘It’s probably best, you’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.’

So now that I have complied with my bound duty, let’s talk about grace. Anytime one speaks of something as esoteric as grace, we must begin by accepting or coming to terms with certain underlying principles or core beliefs. One of the most, if not the most basic belief is that God exists and that we are his creation. Another is that we have been endowed by God with Free Will, enabled with the ability to make choices. Yet another is that we have been created with an immaterial soul and a conscience, the ability to discern between what is morally good and what is immoral or evil.

In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, we read:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway; the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.”[1]

“Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions,” so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skillful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil.”[2]

Here we begin to gather a sense of the enormous value of grace in our lives, yet there remains much more we owe ourselves before we can truly take advantage of God’s grace.

It is generally understood and accepted as truth that the average distance between the Sun and the Earth is about 92,935,700 miles. For all those who accept the veracity of this statement one might ask this simple question: How do you know it to be true? It is highly improbable that anyone who believes it to be true has actually stretched a tape measure from here to there yet somehow someone has determined the method for doing just that in such a way and with sufficient certitude and probity that it is considered a proven fact. And thus we accept and believe it to be true.

What we believe to be true based not on our own authority but on the authority of another who has been deemed competent and veracious is an act of faith. Faith comes in many sizes and flavors but is normatively based on two words: trust and belief. The Old Testament meaning of faith essentially evokes a sense of steadfastness and faithfulness, whether of God towards man or of man towards God. The modern definition describes faith as either 1) confidence or trust in a person or thing, 2) belief that is not based on proof, 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teaching of religion, 4) belief in anything, or 5) a system of religious belief.

What might readily be surmised from this prescription is that a form of faith is an essential element of everyday life. Throughout our daily lives we both consciously and unconsciously accept and believe as true (have faith in) facts not directly evidenced by our physical senses. What we can also conclude is that the source for what we believe comes from either a human or a divine authority. Human authority is fallible, prone to error, and thus may be refuted or contradicted by subsequent discovery and authority.

Divine authority is infallible because God is perfect truth and Divine faith, derived from Divine authority, can be relied upon with absolute certitude. The Second Vatican Council tells us that “we believe that revelation is true, not indeed because the intrinsic truth of the mysteries is clearly seen by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Who reveals them, for He can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

Saint Paul tells us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible.”[3] Paul later writes “But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”[4]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.”[5] Most importantly, faith is a supernatural gift from God, made “possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit[6] or as Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”[7]

Much has been said and written on the subject of faith; so much so that it is often difficult to clearly discern its exact nature and meaning, especially when expressed without adequate foundation or within appropriate context. The word faith is fraught with nuances and understandings as numerous as those who would speak of it and as a consequence it is often one of the most misunderstood, misconstrued, and misused words found within the English lexicon. The ever increasing tendency toward obfuscation and deliberate linguistic gymnastics only serve to further confuse and mislead those who find themselves on the receiving end of any such pedantic argument.

The broadest and perhaps coarsest description of faith divides it into two disparate taxonomies of meaning: the secular and the religious.

The secular lexicon denotes faith as a strong, confident, and often unshakeable belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence; or allegiance or loyalty to a person or thing. Not so surprising, this particular view of faith seldom if ever provokes controversy, significant dissension, or public outcry.

Any discussion of faith from a religious point of view however will with consistent frequency engender serious heated debate with at times chilling results. The dichotomy between the two views of faith could never be more striking.

The essential article of religious faith is that it is a theological virtue defined as a secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will; a body of religious dogma; or a specific system of religious beliefs or principles.

Secular faith directs its energies to tangible and visible targets such as a person, place or thing. Religious faith targets the intangible, unknowable, and invisible divine of which there are many variations, each commanding a multitude of fervent discriminating adherents and therein lies the tension and the resolute disagreement among competing cults. It is indeed fatuously ironic that there is almost universal agreement when it comes to declaring who owns the one true religion and it is always theirs.

But is it enough to state “I believe” or “I trust” in God? Does a simple declaration of faith offer sufficient value or depth to merit and attain salvific grace from the Divine or does the gift of faith place a greater burden upon one’s soul? What exactly do we mean when we say “I have faith in God?” Is that singularly an expression of belief or trust or allegiance to God?

Prayer

Prayer

When you seriously consider the nature and meaning of your faith in God you will quite possibly discover that the questions far outnumber the answers. And that is a good thing because delving into the abyss of faith will necessarily open your mind and heart to new and deeper understandings.

Consider that faith is much like prayer. We often view it having one dimension. We pray to God but seldom consider listening for His response. We talk and He listens. We never consider letting Him talk while we listen. And such is our view of faith. We have faith in God but we never stop to consider whether God has faith in us. Perhaps faith might be best defined by the quality and depth of our relationship with God. It is something to think about. Seriously.

Religious faith has variously been described by many theologians and biblical scholars as either a belief or trust in God and Jesus Christ. Each position has its own adherent community and each view bears controversy and is definitively non-Catholic.

Quite simply stated, faith can be neither a mere personal belief nor an avowed declaration of trust in God for each can be shown quite easily to possess such an ephemeral quality that either will ultimately fail when put to the test.

The central question rests upon the Teflon ease upon which belief or trust can be lost; stripped away by those who would propound a greater argument or by those who would coerce denial. Place a plea or bequest before God which appears to go unanswered and trust slips away with little or no resistance. Trust quickly metastasizes into distrust and faith in God vanishes with a vagrant wind. And as for the other, just how invincible is a faith that is based solely on a belief in God when one is confronted with a deadly demand to deny His very existence or to acquiesce to another’s god.

Declarations of faith constructed upon belief or trust are foundationally unstable and will soon collapse under the smallest strain or the slightest objection to the truth. So what is the true essence of faith? What defines true faith and how will we know it when we have it?

First, listen to what Jesus tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[8] It is not enough to proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior; you have to do what God wills. You have to actively live your faith. You have to do what God asks of you.

And if that should prove insufficient to convince, Jesus makes it even clearer when he says, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”[9]

Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that faith is “an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”[10] Every part of that statement exudes action, demands action, and requires action. You cannot have faith without honestly interacting with God; it requires that you build a real and intimate relationship with your Creator.

Faith is above all else an act and any act by its very nature denotes action. Faith requires you to agree and accept with your intellect (your mind) God’s divine truth. Faith must be by free consent, exercised by your God-given free will, for without God’s grace (His divine assistance) your intellect will find it impossible to accept His divine truth.

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible.”[11] In writing to the Hebrews, Saint Paul describes faith as an innate ethereal longing for evidence and proof of the unknowable and the invisible as might be discovered through the refractory lens of the knowable and visible universe.

It is that insubstantial substance of faith which most often leads us to question, to wonder, and to equivocate. No mere mortal is immune to the vagaries of incertitude. Even the holiest and most revered of saints have been confronted with the congenital human tendencies toward uncertainty and doubt. One must proceed no further than the blessed apostles to discern instances of wavering faith, seldom displayed with such compelling honesty as when they said to Jesus, “Increase our faith.”[12]

We naturally question what we do not understand and we search for causality in the tangible. It is built within our DNA to ask those fundamental questions: “Why?“ and “Why not?”  Questions of causality abound throughout all of human endeavor but are asked more so within science, philosophy, and religion. Some of the most basic of questions concerning causality can be found at the beginning of the first lesson of the 1885 Baltimore Catechism. “Who made the world?” “Who is God?” “What is man?” “Why did God make you?” We see the effect but worry about the cause; if we did not we would not be human.

We profess faith in God, yet lacking any understanding of Him we falter. Jesus tells us, “Everything is possible to one who has faith” and yet we cry out “I do believe, help my unbelief.”[13] We believe; we desire so much to believe, even as our faith is compounded by nagging uncertainties and doubts. How should we respond?

We first should recognize that within us are instilled certain innately conformed attributes that define precisely who we are and all that makes us human, and each of these attributes can be either positive or negative depending entirely on how we might express it. Our human character that calls faith into question offers a perfect example of this concept. One can question the existence of an unknowable, invisible, and eternal God from either a positive or negative perspective, yet it is the nature of the approach that is most essential. If one begins with a well-founded faith in the theological premise that God indeed exists and therefore seeks to validate that faith, through reasoned inquiry, then any expression of uncertainty or doubt is both appropriate and valid. If however, an inquiry is instigated based principally upon the conviction that God is either fiction or delusion then no manner of inquiry can be reasonably conducted or proof ascertained.

Perfect faith, like perfect love, is humanly impossible to attain yet Jesus tells us that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”[14] A faith without question is a questionable faith, no question about it.

When we read the Gospels and study the life of Jesus we quickly discover just how much he enjoyed the use of metaphor, allegory, idiom, and parable to teach his disciples. He was often addressed as rabbi, master, or teacher and was generally granted the deference due to one so titled. What might surprise is how seldom Jesus spoke with any degree of literal exactitude, which begs the question: Why not?

We live in an age where comprehending the cosmos seems comfortable, where the everyday person commands a greater understanding of the laws of nature than anyone living a mere century before. Consider that Calculus is now a normal course of study in every high school, yet was unknown until founded by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz in the 17th century or consider that today no one would take seriously the notion that the earth is the center of the universe and that the sun and stars revolve around it. We all know better.

Yet even with all the knowledge accumulated through perception and deduction, we find ourselves uncertain in matters that pertain to God. Saint Paul says, “we walk by faith, not by sight[15] whenever we attempt to understand the truth concerning the unknowable and the divine. Our faith is often tested and found lacking because we allow our perceptions of what is real and true to override our faith in God’s truth. What we cannot see, feel, taste, or smell may raise the specter of uncertainty and doubt within our minds. What we cannot perceive and didactically discern demands more than we are willing to believe or trust. Quite succinctly, we place far greater trust in perceptive and cognitive realities than our faith in the truth of God.

Saint Paul tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”[16] This is the essential element upon which our faith must rest: “that he exists.” If we believe fully and completely that God exists then our faith is at least the size of a mustard seed and Jesus has told us that with faith so small we can move mountains.

Does Jesus really intend for us to believe that we can literally move mountains? No. He is clearly using a metaphor to describe accomplishing a task that appears to be impossible. Perhaps we can better understand with a couple of examples.

  • On Good Friday, April 9, 1982, when a 1964 Chevy Impala collapsed on her teenage son, Angela Cavallo (a 5’ 8” woman in her 50s) grabbed the side of the car and raised it enough to allow him to be pulled to safety.
  • On September 16, 2010, Bonnie Engstrom gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. A medical team worked for 61 minutes until he began to breathe on his own. The parents prayed and asked Venerable Fulton J. Sheen to intercede for them.

When our faith falters it is because we fail to believe in the power of God. Jesus told his disciples that “for God all things are possible[17] which tells us that if we have faith in God the impossible will always be possible.

There are two questions that no doubt you have heard before: “Have you been saved?” and “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?

The central tenet or core belief that underlies these two questions is a firm belief that there is being and existence beyond this mortal life that involves eternal life with God. Most importantly and fundamentally within each question is the eschatological premise that salvation can be and is achieved by merely saying yes at some point in one’s life and that faith alone (sola fides) is all that is required to enjoy eternal happiness and bliss with God.

Let us examine for a moment this notion of salvation. While the dictionary contains several definitions for the noun ‘salvation’, ‘salvation is the deliverance from the power and penalty of sin, that is, redemption’ appears the most appropriate for our discussion. Christians believe that Jesus, the Son of God, came into this world to save us from the original sin of our first parents and by doing so reopened the gates of heaven for all of mankind. Virtually all Christian churches agree that God came into this world to save us from the consequences of sin which is eternal death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”[18]

While there is general agreement on God’s plan to ‘save’ us, there is little agreement as to who can and will be saved or even how salvation might or can be attained. As is often the case when it comes to man and religion, the devil is in the details, and in any discussion concerning salvation, the details are the loci for many significantly divergent points of view and at times vitriolic and bitter disagreements.

Before traipsing further into what is most assuredly bound to be a contentious quagmire of strongly held beliefs, let us dissect that first question “Have you been saved?” a bit. Within this seemingly simple question lies the direct implication that salvation is a singular event that has no subsequent consequences that might result in the any future loss of one’s salvific status. In other words, say yes now and be saved forever, no matter how sinful one might be in the future. “Hallelujah! I have been saved! Let the sinning begin.”

Somehow I’m not quite convinced that this is what God has in mind. There has to be a bit more to it than that. And there is. There are three pillars or elements that must be present for salvation to be possible and for us to attain it, and they are grace, faith, and works. And it is that nasty auxiliary verb ‘must’ where the battle has been waging, certainly since the Protestant Reformation in 1517, but in reality, since the very beginnings of Christ’s church.

To be saved, one must stand firmly and sinless before God and that requires a solid stable foundation. No one can stand on a one- or two-legged stool, but can easily stand on one with three legs. Thus to be able to stand before God at Parousia justified, one must consider the three pillars of salvation throughout the entirety of one’s life.

We were created by God in the image of the Divine, indivisibly corporeal and spiritual creatures, tangible and intangible, material and immaterial, mortal and immortal. We do not have two natures but rather the union of our body and soul form a single nature: “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity.[19]The [Catholic] Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not ‘produced’ by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.[20]

God is the uncreated, infinite Creator of all creation; all of creation has been willed into being by God. God has no beginning but we do; we began when God willed our unity (body and soul) into existence. Death separates our immortal soul from our mortal body, at least temporarily, for they “will be reunited at the final Resurrection” at which time we will live forever either wrapped within or excluded from God’s presence. Whether we will spend eternity with God depends entirely on the sanctity of our soul at the end of our mortal life here on this earth.

To attain salvation, to be saved, our souls must be holy, filled with sanctifying grace and fully prepared for a supernatural life in perfect and absolute union with God. We are not born with soul sanctified and our concupiscence, that is our inclination to sin, can result in the loss of sanctification. To be sanctified, to fill our soul with holiness, we must first reconcile ourselves with God for all deadly or mortal sins.

While our soul will never cease to exist it can experience spiritual death and a soul that is spiritually dead cannot and will not see God. Through the mercy and grace of God we can respond to His gift of actual grace and regain the supernatural life of the soul through genuine and contrite reconciliation.

Another word for sanctification, which is often used by our Protestant brothers and sisters, is justification. St. Paul wrote “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? … but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”[21] Protestants often claim that justification is a mere rhetorical device, a simple declaration by God that one is abruptly “justified.” Once you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you are now “justified.” Even though your soul remains unchanged, perhaps even spiritually dead, you have been saved and are on the expressway to heaven. You are still expected to seek sanctification, but whether you achieve any degree of holiness is irrelevant since you have been justified and have therefore been saved.

This is an unfortunate scam since it places God at the center of a lie: God says the sinner is justified when it really isn’t the case at all. Justification without sanctification is de facto impossible, no less so than God prevaricating. Sanctification is necessary for justification; without sanctification, justification is lost and the soul spiritually dead.

We have been created with certain inherent talents that inform us intuitively and quite unconsciously as to what is right, what is moral, what is ethical, and what is good. It is a part of our nature, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, to be good and to do good; goodness can be found within every human heart, even those who profess no belief or faith in a Creator God.

Instilled within every human heart are the elementary characteristics that cause parents to love their children, neighbors to respect and behave well toward neighbor, and employer to treat their employees with honesty and fairness. This moral code is part and parcel of the human experience; we are born with it and cannot rid ourselves of it, although unhappily we can and all too often do, ignore it and even deny it.

While it is within our nature to know what is right, moral, ethical, and good, we carry within us the inclination to sin inherited from our first parents when their eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil. Fundamentally we are flawed by concupiscence and cannot of our own strength hope to remain in perfect goodness for any significant length of time. Simply put, we are inclined toward sin, and will without assistance, find ourselves lapsing, falling upon occasion into grievous sin.

God, who gives us life itself, desires us to be good, to be holy, so that we might live in his perfection for all eternity. He understands our willfulness and inclination to sin and although we clearly don’t deserve it nor can we earn it, He gives us His grace to prop us up, to strengthen our will, and to build within us the humility to ask Him for forgiveness.

Saint Augustine, acknowledged as the Doctor of Grace, wrote “It is the grace of God that helps the wills of men; and when they are not helped by it, the reason is in themselves, not in God.” Without God’s free gift of grace we cannot hope to achieve or remain in holiness, in that state of sanctification necessary for salvation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”[22]Grace is a participation in the life of God.”[23] Pope Francis says that “Grace is not part of consciousness; it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason.”

Grace has been a part of the conversation within Christianity since the earliest days of Christ’s Church. As Max Lucado points out “The apostle Paul never seemed to exhaust the topic of grace – what makes us think we can? He just kept coming at it and coming at it from another angle. That’s the thing about grace. It’s like springtime. You can’t put it in a single sentence definition, and you can’t exhaust it.” It is a topic upon which volumes have been written, and where both mystery and controversy surround it. What is essential to understand is this: God’s grace sanctifies and leads us to salvation.

Virtually every rational human being accepts as axiomatic the absolute necessity to belong, to exist within the context of a community, to depend, in even a small way, on the existence of others. This associative dependence is an essential element of our humanity, gifted to us by God, a vital ingredient of our well-being. The English poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island, Entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” and Joan Baez sang “No man is an island, No man stands alone, Each man’s joy is joy to me, Each man’s grief is my own.

God created us to depend on one another, to rely on one another for help and support. After God created man “The Lord God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.[24] God recognized from the very beginning, that His creation was not designed to be a solitary creature; that man could not long survive without companionship, without relationships with others.

Thus we recognize and admit that our human nature is fundamentally a social nature, designed for interdependence with others: family, friends, neighbors, tribes, communities, nations, and humanity in its entirety.

When God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,[25] He gave man a soul and the ability to live in His presence for all eternity, but only if the soul was pure, sanctified, and in a state of holiness pleasing to God. Man’s arrogance and disobedience to God’s covenant resulted in the loss of sanctification and an estrangement from God’s presence and without God’s help man’s salvation would be forever lost.

Despite our inclination to sin, God loves us and desires for us to love Him and to ultimately dwell with Him for all eternity. And so, He gifts us graces to help us regain the sanctification that was lost through our own sin.

Salvation demands a soul that is filled with sanctifying grace, “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.”[26]It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism.”[27] And as Saint Paul describes it “whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.[28]

When we are born our souls, because of the stain of original sin, are unprepared for heaven. What is missing is the sanctifying grace from God that is “infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it.[29] It is through the Sacrament of Baptism that our souls first become sanctified and it is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that we can regain sanctification when we commit mortal sin. There is nothing that we can do on our own to sanctify our soul. It is a supernatural gift from God and only through His boundless love and forgiveness can we receive it.

Into every being there comes that defining moment when what did not before exist now does with unmistakable clarity and purpose. One moment there is simply nothing and then within the brief span of a fleeting thought a new life comes into existence, into being. While there are ongoing questions and serious debate concerning when exactly life does begin, there are two fundamental premises concerning life that should be accepted by everyone: the irreversibility of existence and the unknowable longevity of life.

The first premise states that existence cannot be returned to non-existence; that the threshold that lies between nothingness and existence can be traversed in only one direction. Existence is permanent, existence is forever. Whether a life once lived is remembered or forgotten does not negate the fact that a life once existed. There is a somewhat subtle corollary to this premise that should be made and that is that while existence cannot be undone, there is absolutely nothing that one can do about it. Once in existence you cannot wish or cause the cessation of your existence.

The second premise tells us that the length of any life is unknown and unknowable to the created.  Whether a life lasts for only a brief moment or for many years cannot be determined by anyone but God. A corollary to this is that to God the value of any life is not measured by its longevity; we are all children of God and loved equally no matter how long or short a time we might live.

Just as you have no control over your own existence; neither do you have any control over the sanctification of your soul. God freely fills your soul with sanctifying grace and you can do nothing to earn it, absolutely nothing. Your soul is eternal and there is nothing you can do to cause it out of existence. You cannot destroy your soul but you can lose sanctification by committing supernatural suicide through the commission of mortal sin. And if your soul is not sanctified you will lose the opportunity to spend eternity with God.

In order to restore your soul to supernatural life and receive sanctifying grace from God your soul must respond to actual grace, “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”[30] Actual graces are helping graces, given by God to incentivize or push us toward some supernatural act of faith or repentance. It is through God’s assistance and our soul’s response to these actual graces which we receive from Him that enables us to humbly seek forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to receive sanctifying grace and to once again regain supernatural life.

The sanctification of our souls is not, as most fundamentalists and many of our protestant brethren will argue, a one-time event. This is not a position held simply by the Catholic Church, it can be found throughout Scripture. The truth is that sanctification is an ongoing process that demands reiterative human responses to God’s gifts of grace.

When we commit grievous sin we lose sanctification; salvation is lost. Through the help of actual grace and reconciliation with God our souls are once again sanctified and salvation regained.

God’s grace is freely given to all of His creation; every soul receives the gift of His grace but not all benefit from His unbounded munificence. It is incumbent upon each of us to recognize that without God’s help we will most assuredly fail to overcome and remove sin from our lives.

We cannot solely of our own devices conquer our inherent proclivities, our concupiscence, our human inclination and natural attraction to that which is not good, to that which is sinful and deleterious to the sanctity of our soul.  Without God’s grace there can be no hope for salvation because we cannot on our own efforts sanctify our soul.

The Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Christ

While it is outside of our control to achieve sanctification, it is totally within our nature to lose it, all we have to do is give into the temptation of sin. And temptation is a stranger to no one, for even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was exposed to temptation. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.”[31]

Temptation can be and often presents itself as an illusion, a chimaera, enveloped by wondrous delights and enticing goodness, which at its core contains the darkest of lies, and it is only through the grace of God that we can perceive beyond temptation’s shell its true nature. Saint Paul freely admitted that he struggled with temptation and sin, “that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”[32]

We can never hope to overcome temptation and sin through our own strength and self-righteousness, for those are characteristics that place one’s self above God. It is when we acknowledge our weaknesses, kneel before God, and ask for His mercy that we will find the true strength to overcome sin. In truth, we must determine whether we are approaching God like a Pharisee or a tax collector. As Jesus tells us “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”[33]

It is when we approach God with humility, when we are at our weakest, that we are the strongest, because only then are we filled with the power of God, only then do we fully benefit from His grace.

 

Let me close with a story:

A king who did not believe in the goodness of God, had a slave who, in all circumstances would always say, “My king, do not be discouraged, because everything God does is perfect. He makes no mistakes!”

One day, they went hunting and along the way a wild animal attacked the king. His slave managed to kill the animal, but could not prevent his majesty from losing a finger.

Furious and without showing his gratitude for being saved, the nobleman asked, “Is God good? If He was good, I would not have been attacked and lost my finger.”

The slave replied: “My king, despite all these things, I can only tell you that God is good, and he knows why these things happened. What God does is perfect. He is never wrong!”

Outraged by the response, the king ordered the arrest of his slave.

Later, the king left for another hunt, this time alone. He was captured by savages who engaged in human sacrifices. On the altar and ready to sacrifice the nobleman, the savages discovered that their victim did not have one of his fingers. According to them, only a whole person with all his/her parts intact could be offered to the gods. The king without a finger was deemed an abominable sacrifice for their gods. So, they released the king.

Upon his return to the palace, the king authorized the release of his slave. He received the slave affectionately. “God was really good to me! I was almost killed by the wild men, but for lack of a single finger, I was let go! But I have a question:   If God is so good, why did he allow me to put you in jail?

The slave answered, “My king, if I had gone with you on this hunt, I would have been sacrificed instead because I have no missing finger. Remember, everything God does is perfect. He is never wrong. He made you keep me in jail so I would not be with you on the hunt.”

Often we complain about life, and negative things that happen to us, forgetting that nothing is random and that everything has a purpose.

Rather than complaining I would ask you to try this: every morning, offer your day to God; don’t be in a rush. Ask God to fill your soul with grace, inspire your thoughts, guide your actions, and soothe your pain. And do not be afraid for God is never wrong!

 


The above commentary was delivered to the RCIA at St. Albert the Great Catholic Parish on March 10, 2016. Portions of the commentary were taken from previous reflections and commentaries.

[1] Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Chapter I, §16, December 7, 1965.
[2] Ibid., §17.
[3] Heb 11:1, 3.
[4] Heb 11:6.
[5] CCC 150.
[6] CCC 154.
[7] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dei Filius 3.
[8] Mt 7:21.
[9] Mt 7:24-27.
[10] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.
[11] Heb 11:1, 3.
[12] Lk 17:5.
[13] Mk 9:23-24.
[14] Mt 17:20.
[15] 2 Cor 5:7.
[16] Heb 11:6.
[17] Mt 19:26.
[18] Jn 3:16.
[19] Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Chapter I, §14, December 7, 1965.
[20] CCC §366.
[21] 1 Cor 9:11.
[22] CCC §1996.
[23] CCC §1997.
[24] Gn 2:18.
[25] Gn 2:7.
[26] CCC §2000.
[27] CCC §1999.
[28] 2 Cor 5:17-18.
[29] CCC 1999.
[30] CCC §1996.
[31] Jn 4:1-2.
[32] 2 Cor 12:7-10.
[33] Lk 18:11-13.

About the Author

Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator.

Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin.

He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is “Colloqui: A journal for restless minds”, a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated.

He is the author of two books: “The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence” which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and “Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories” which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love.

He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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