JULY 28, 2002 , 16th SUNDAY OF YEAR-CHAPTER

 NOT BY WORKS OF JUSTICE THAT WE PERFORMED BUT IN KEEPING WITH HIS MERCY GOD SAVED US BY THE BATH OF REGENERATION AND RENEWAL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (Titus 3.5). With these words St. Paul touched upon one of the most awesome of all mysteries that each of us encounters in this life. I refer to the questions of grace, predestination and freewill on the one hand., and, on the other, the closely related mysteries of sin, unhappiness and suffering. I was forcibly reminded the other day that these issues press upon every generation living upon earth when I began reading a new book. Here are the opening lines of this work which is written by a physician of long and broad experience. 

Suppose you could ask all the people in the world who are not hungry, sick, or poor, people who seem to have a lot to live for, to give you an honest answer to the question, ”How are you?”  Millions would say, “I’m miserable.” (William Glasser, M.D. Choice Theory, 3)  

Where is happiness to be found in this life? How are we to achieve it? What sense can we make of suffering? These are questions that everyone is confronted with today just as they have always been since the origins of our race.  Many go through the stages of their lives even into advanced age without having any clear indication of a satisfactory answer to give themselves or others, one that serves well as they traverse the paths of life. All of us who have received the gospel as truth and who have heard the invitation to take up the cross and follow after our Lord know that he himself is the one answer to these fundamental issues.  

Faith, however, does not exempt us from the necessity of learning by experience something of the realities referred to by such terms as free will, grace, suffering, sin and predestination.  We, like all persons on earth, must continue daily to confront as best we can the challenges posed by events that raise these often painful and perplexing questions. We regularly find that they are so bound up with our human activities that they await us as we strive to carry out our particular destiny as members of the mystical body. For we must not only believe the truths that are revealed to us but we are to assimilate them and live in keeping with the values and goals they set before us as we got about our daily exchanges with others. To gain experience as a man is to learn that we inhabit a world where we repeatedly meet with resistance, even opposition, from within and from without, at times where we would least expect it.  

The saints, even the very great saints, were no exception to such struggles, as we see from the witness of St. Paul, to name but one of the most favored. For him the difficulties raised in connection with fidelity to God’s law, human freedom and grace were significant enough that he returned to them a number of times in his letters to the churches. He had struggled at length and repeatedly in order to arrive at views concerning these mysteries that were able to account for his experiences of God’s dealings as we travel along the way to salvation. His ideas changed dramatically after his encounter with the risen Lord from what he had thought earlier when he lived under the law, as he put it. The changed view is reflected nowhere more distinctly than in the lines written while in captivity. ’By grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your doing. It is a gift of God, not from works, lest anyone should glory’ (Eph.2.8, 9).  

We cannot long live a life of faith and of prayer without coming up against these issues. They bear upon our daily experiences with a persistence and an intensity that constrain us to reflect more earnestly on these matters which earlier had seemed too abstract to require our attention. Let the theologians worry about questions such a free will, predestination, grace, I have more practical concerns, we felt. But a life dedicated to prayer in which we put all our hope in God causes us to feel intensely the need to deal with deeper matters that, unaddressed, divide our attention and saps our energy. We stand in need of  reassurance that comes from knowing we can count on his love and that he will prove faithful to his promises. We acutely realize that no human support is adequate to the problems we confront; the answers we seek, the assistance we need can come only from divine grace. 

 As we progressively renounce the things of this world and enter into the solitude of God’s presence we experience our total dependence on him. And so the question arises with greater urgency: ‘What assurance do I have that I can trust him?‘ We are carnal and it is natural for us to crave visible even palpable indications that we are cared for and loved. When we do not find such support outside of our self we seek it within and so our interior senses become more important channels of light and strength. In this manner the words of Paul to the Ephesians cited above takes on a fresh significance for us: ’By grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your doing. It is a gift of God, not from works, lest anyone should glory’ (Eph.2.8,9).  

At the same time this desire for security arises from the exterior as well. For as we attempt to follow the path of virtue so as to bring our actions in conformity with God’s will and thus be in a state where we are able to enter into his presence with that peace and confidence essential to contemplative prayer, we come to learn our insufficiency. The need for grace in order to carry out God’s commands becomes apparent to us.   We discover very soon that our best intentions do not suffice to alter deeply rooted habits. We are led to agree with Aristotle who taught that ‘habit is a second nature’. After some years, or even decades, of living the monastic life and, having put off many of our more superficial habits we inevitably encounter what seems unconquerable resistances to change, even when change is to our interest and in keeping with our desire. We can then appreciate why the Duke of Wellington is said to have disagreed with Aristotle and to have commented: ’Habit a second nature!  Habit is ten times nature.’ While this is obviously a gross exaggeration, yet it effectively suggests something of the resistance we can expect to meet in our efforts to give a radically new orientation to our more stable habits.  

It is not only bad habits that are firmly fixed in the soul; fortunately, we also encounter good habits that are no less solidly established in the depths of our character. Indeed, certain good dispositions that give rise to correspondingly virtuous habits are more firmly inserted within the texture of our soul than the disordered impulses that hold us in bondage. The love of justice, the desire to attain to what is genuine and true among others are instances of such virtue-oriented dispositions that, though neglected and ignored, yet are not fully eradicated from the soul even when distorted and frustrated by vicious living. 

The early fathers understood very well the truth of our total dependence on God. St. Cyprian, the martyr bishop of Carthage (+258) stated his conviction that  grace is necessary for us; only with its help can we prove pleasing to God by carrying out his will. Here are his own words:  

we pray that God’s will be done in us. That it may be done in us, there is need of God’s will, that is, of his help and protection, because no one is strong in his own strength, but is safe by the indulgence and mercy of God (Saint Cyprian, Treatises, "The Lord’s Prayer,"139, tr. Roy Deferrari, [Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 1977] "The Lord’s Prayer,"139) 

The Greek fathers shared this same conviction and set about elaborating its implications. In particular, they considered it a manifest point of faith that the potential for good remained in sinful man in the form of his nature, made as it is in the image of God. At the same time they were penetratingly realistic and in consequence acknowledged that the innate impulse toward the good that gives rise to virtuous habits, was covered over by garments of skin. That is the image that St. Gregory of Nyssa uses to describe the condition of our race after we had fallen into sin and became alienated from God. We were, by that very fact, also strangers to ourselves. Our true self, the image of God within us, as created by God and for him, remained intact and so continued to aspire after union with him. But it does so ineffectually, for it was so covered over by evil habit and dispositions that it lost its power to guide us effectively back to our Creator. 

This view was not confined to the Greek fathers. A younger contemporary of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, arrived at the same position. He too came to hold that, even though man sinned and lost the likeness that is needed in order to know God and be united with him, he does not lose the image, so that he remains capable of God. He states this quite explicitly in his work on the Trinity and takes this principle as the foundation of his mystical theology. Later on it was to provide the foundation for the spirituality of William of St. Thierry and was adopted widely in the West. Augustine formulates his opinion in the following statement. 

Before the mind is considered as a participant in God it must be viewed in itself. For in it is found the image of God. For we state that even if the participation in God is lost and the image is tarnished, yet it remains. And by that very fact it is his image by which he can be his participant (De Trinitate 14.11 cited in David Bell, The Image and Likeness, CS 78  [Kalamazoo:: Cistercian, 1984] 42.  .     

In formulating this doctrine of the permanence of the image and the lost likeness to God resulting from sin, the early fathers, and the Cistercians centuries later, were touching upon matters that have a direct bearing on the doctrine of grace. For in view of our having lost the likeness to God that we are created to reflect, there arises the necessity of understanding how to regain it so as to restore the image to its pristine purity. Since we are by nature made in the image of God. is it possible for nature to restore what has been damaged? Seen in this perspective, it is evident that the both the image theology and the proper concept of the working of grace and of our natural faculties remain of practical import for our life of prayer. The seeming abstruse discussions concerning these matters are not merely abstract and sterile reflections of philosophers but matters that affect our attitude to God, our concept of salvation and our way of prayer. 

The first point to grasp is that the teaching on grace that eventually became classic and remains the accepted doctrine of the Church today is founded above all on revelation as set forth by St. Paul in his letters. It is not based primarily on human reason or analysis of human acts. Reason alone, in its present state, as applied to this question of the interplay between nature and grace did not prove adequate to demonstrate in any convincing way to the orthodox believers the proper sphere of grace on the one hand and the natural operations of free choice.  Once enlightened by the insight given by the Holy Spirit, St. Augustine became capable of discerning the way in which grace acted upon nature, and could give an explanation conformable to reason. 

That such special revelation is needed is demonstrated by history. Any number of persons who were convinced believers were persuaded by Pelagius when he presented the case for holding that the first steps leading to salvation depends on man, not on grace. His arguments have a show of reason that appeals to our natural way of conducting our affairs, a matter of common sense. So much is this the case that he managed to convince two synods of bishops that his view was compatible with St. Paul’s doctrine and so was orthodox. There was required someone with the spiritual acuity of St. Augustine to see that this reasonableness was in flat contradiction to Pauline doctrine. The Bishop of Hippo saw through the argument that the first stage of salvation depends on the good will of the person to be saved. However reasonable such a view might appear to us, in that in our human dealings with others we look to their good dispositions before we entrust them with our favors, it does not apply to God’s dealings with man. Divine revelation alone allows us to grasp something of the manner in which fallen man is restored to his healthy state and recovers the lost likeness necessary for salvation. Augustine puts the matter in the following terms. 

God by his co-operating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us, since  He who perfects by co-operation with such as are willing, begins by operating that they may will (De gratia et libero arbitrio, xvii cited as authoritative by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. 1a2ae 111 art.2, Chicago 1947, 1137).     

This view of God’s grace as initiating the work of salvation in us by effecting the good will necessary to cooperate with further grace that he offers us became the normative doctrine in the Roman church. Jesus had already stated the principle in the simplest of language: ‘without me you can do nothing (John 15.5).’ Augustine grasped the literal truth of these words so that he maintained that ‘Man is suited only for his fall; he is not apt to effect his rising. (En. In ps. 129.1, cf. Bell, 59,n. 161). The analyses of Augustine and the other fathers provide reasons for taking our Lord’s words here quite literally. They are not a rhetorical exaggeration but intended to reveal a truth concerning the role of grace, mediated by our Lord, in our salvation. We can do nothing whatsoever apart from the Savior and the special help from God that we call grace. No one stated the case with more relentless insistence and clarity of expression than St. Augustine displayed in his several books dedicated to this matter. Aquinas in the following passage cites the African doctor nearly 900 years later as the best authority on the topic. In doing so he manages to add a further consideration showing our total dependence on God’s initiative for our good acts. 

neither in the state of perfect nature, nor in the state of corrupt nature can man fulfil the commandments of the law  without grace. Hence, Augustine (De Corrept. Et Grat.ii) having stated that ‘without grace men can do no good whatever’, adds: ‘Not only do they know by its light what to do, but by its help they do lovingly what they know.’ Beyond this, in both they need the help of God’s motion in order to fulfill the commandments . . . (1a2ae 109 A.4, p 1126).      

This last sentence affirms the principle that any act at all on our part is possible only by virtue of God’s moving us to act, as being the First Mover of all that is and moves. It becomes apparent then, the more we reflect on these matters, that we are totally dependent upon God for our life and all the acts that it comprises in this world and, with a more particular necessity, for our attaining to that eternal life for which we are created.  We can relate to God only as being helpless without his aid. The very fact that we turn to him, that we pray to him, then, is an indication of his actively seeking us and of his care for us. St. Bernard grasped this encouraging insight and so exclaimed ‘We would not seek him if we had not already found him.’  Because we have some hold on God through his gift to us, we sense that in him is our fulfillment. Moreover, that we continue to seek his help so as to become all that he intends us to be is itself an indication that his grace is operating in us.  Our very efforts to seek him are a pledge of his desire to take us to himself.  

Thus the doctrine of our total dependence upon God’s grace assumes a fresh significance for our life of prayer in that it discloses to us the active, caring wisdom with which God pursues us. Our basis for holding to this conviction is the evidence of faith, not of reason. Faith creates possibilities of experience otherwise beyond us. the encouragement and strength it imparts is the fruit of trust in God’s revelation. It is accessible to those who accept with childlike simplicity the light offered by his saintly doctors and guaranteed by his church. Persistent, even tenacious reflection on God’s words in light of his own experience persuaded Augustine that God is alone deserving of the gift of our very self. And so he arrived at the persuasion that he felt was best expressed by the words of the Psalm: ‘For me it is good to cling to God’ (Ps. 72.28). And, he added elsewhere: ‘to whom we cling by loving.” (De Trin. 8.4) He commented further on what this meant to him.  

In order that we might receive the love by which we might love, we were loved while we did not yet have it… For we would not have that with which we might love him unless we received it from him by his first loving us (De gratia Christi et de pecaato originali 27 (cited in Bell, 60). 

In the end, the further we travel along the path that leads to God, the more definite it appears to us that God alone can lead us on the way that leads to our fulfillment. Then we appreciate with a fresh increment of sensitivity and perception the depth of significance contained in Jesus’ claim: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Once again it is St. Augustine who tellingly states the case. 

The image which is renewed in the spirit of the mind in the knowledge of God from day to day, not outwardly but inwardly, will be perfected by the vision itself, which then, after judgment, will be face to face, but which now makes progress per speculum in aenigmate (through a mirror, unclearly) De Trinitate 14:25, in Bell, 76).      

The vision of God for which we are made is a health-giving light that heals and enhances our powers of intellectual and spiritual sight, empowering us to recognize in him the beauty and truth that is our joy and our very life. This is the great gift of  Gods grace freely given to those who choose him as their all, ‘with that freedom with which Christ has made us free (Galatians 5:1)’

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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