First in a Series on the Life of Grace
Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
Of all the many beautiful sayings of our blessed Lord recorded by the evangelists, it would be hard to choose out one more beautiful and more significant than that recorded by St. John in the tenth chapter of his Gospel:
I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
These words contain the summary of all His teaching, they are the revelation of the divine designs, the explanation of the Incarnation. For our blessed Lord was not a mere reformer or philosopher, like so many who had gone before Him and were to follow Him, whose names are written large in the history of mankind. He came indeed to change the world and to reform it, and to teach the fullness of all truth, but the results towards which His reformation and His teaching tended were not bound by the limits of this world. The "life" He came to give in such abundance was a life beyond the powers of sense and understanding, seeing that its aim, its end, its means and principles, were altogether of another and higher world. Yet it was the life for which God made us, the only life that satisfies the strange mysterious longings of our human nature, and gives our complex being its full perfection.
Its beginnings are in time, its foundations and its early progress can be measured by the lapse of years and the span of mortal life, but its completion belongs to eternity, and hence we justly speak of it as supernatural.
We purpose in this series to contemplate the workings of this supernatural life, to understand the sources of its power and energy, the means to which it has recourse in time of weakness and failure and the consequences of final triumph or defeat. Vital questions, surely, and most practical, and therefore worthy of our best attention, for if the proper study of mankind is man, we have before our minds the noblest thought of that same study when we contemplate man's real life in all its varied stages and consider the greatness and the goodness of the infinite Creator in this, the most perfect work of His hands.
How many there are whose lives are failures, in the worst sense of the word, simply because they are so purely natural, for to live a natural life when we are made for something supernatural is to fail most pitiably! How many others, too, there are whose feet have trod these higher paths, and then strayed from them - unfinished monuments, exposed to wind and rain, and falling to decay in consequence - how often have we met with such and wondered at their folly! Like the whitened bones on the desert sand, or the buoy that floats above the sunken ship, they tell us of the dangers that beset our course, and warn us to be careful, but the clearest warnings are unheeded if we cannot understand them. We must know all we can therefore, and act upon our knowledge, and so we shall succeed, and in saying this we are only pointing to the familiar Catholic doctrine of faith and good works. Let us begin with faith.
Faith! The very word would seem to be repugnant to the apostles and disciples of that modern craze known as free-thought. It is quite true that they know very little about it, but, no doubt, they think they know enough, and in their opinion, faith is but another word for self-abasement and self-degradation, or as Pascal crudely puts it, "Pour avoir la foi, il faut s'abêtir." ["To have faith, one must become stupid."] Could anything be more untrue or more misleading? For what do we mean by "faith"? We are speaking, of course, of divine faith, and the definition given in our Catechism is familiar to all of us:
Faith is believing without doubting whatever God has revealed.
Yet this simple definition is clear enough and deep enough to furnish a reply to all their so-called difficulties and objections. It tells us that faith implies the assent of the mind to supernatural truths on the authority of God's word. If we accept the existence of God, we must also accept the existence of truths of the supernatural order; and whether we consider these truths objectively and in themselves, or subjectively with reference to our minds and the criteria on which we base our assent, we are bound to admit their absolute superiority to those which are within the natural reach of our understanding. For our assent to these truths is not based on the evidence they give of themselves, or on first principles, but rather on the infinite knowledge and truth of God, who reveals them - and, for this very reason, the assent which we give to them is firmer and surer in every way than any mere natural certitude, and, without a misuse of terms, cannot possibly be called "blind" and "unreasoning."
It is quite true that the object of our act of faith is something out of sight, something which is not evident to the understanding. But whilst we admit all this, and grant most willingly that a dogma of faith cannot be known by its own intrinsic proofs, yet it can put forward such a power of what we may call extrinsic evidence as to become at once eminently credible. Hence, as Cardinal Cajetan points out, although we cannot prove to demonstration the mysteries of faith, we can most clearly demonstrate their credibility; and as it would be simple folly to deny a fact which proves its truth by its own intrinsic evidence, so also is it foolish and most wicked to refuse assent to truths which are divine, and which, by reliable extrinsic evidence, proclaim themselves worthy of our credence.
Now let us try to see how necessary this faith is to everyone, and the wonderful part it has to play in our supernatural life. According to St. Paul, it is its first and most essential condition.
Without faith, it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Faith in God, therefore, and in His generous love of us, is the beginning of the spiritual and supernatural life, the life of grace; it is the gate of that bright pathway of the just, "which as a shining light goeth forward and increaseth even unto the perfect day." (Proverbs 4:18)
We have defined faith as a firm assent of the mind to a truth revealed by God. It is, therefore, a species of knowledge or vision by which the mind apprehends certain truths of which it would be otherwise in ignorance. For, as an eloquent French writer has so beautifully pointed out, we may distinguish three separate and distinct worlds in which the great Creator manifests Himself and His exceeding glory. He made man for Himself and for the vision of Himself face to face, but, for a time at least, the full perfection of that vision is deferred, for "we see now as in a mirror and in a dark manner;" (1 Corinthians 13:12) and in these three worlds, and by means of them, as by three marvelous stairways, the soul of man mounts up to the throne of God.
First of all, there is the world of nature. To see the great hills towering aloft, half veiled in driving mist, or the fields and woods and gardens bathed in sunshine, to stand before the ocean and gaze out upon the mighty plain of tossing waters, to look up at night to that dark blue vault above our heads, which our great poet fitly calls "the floor of heaven, thick inlaid with patines of bright gold," to think of all these worlds separated from us and from each other by distances which can be counted only in heaven, and all following their appointed paths across the wildernesses of space - surely all this lifts up the mind and heart to God, and makes the trembling soul fall prostrate in fear and adoration at the thought of His unspeakable magnificence.
Now, all these wonders are revealed to us by that great power of sight which God has given to us. It is the eye of man which leads his soul abroad, and shows him all the beauty of his earthly home. Yet, of what use is the eye without the mind? What pleasure could it bring us, unless the mind were there to guide the eye and help the soul to learn its easy lesson? And so there is another world of no less beauty than the world of nature, yet utterly beyond the powers of sense, an immaterial world, of thoughts and laws and principles, to which the mind alone has access; and when the mind is wanting, when the understanding and intelligence of man forget their work, he passes by this world as ignorant of it and its lessons as the poor blind man is ignorant of the gorgeous rainbow that spans the sky above his head. But great minds, on the contrary, can find such real pleasure in these higher joys revealed to them by their keen powers of thought, that for their sake they patiently endure the loss of all beside. It is naught to them, as Milton wrote so grandly in his years of blindness, that earth should be in darkness, when "in a purer clime the being fills with rapture, and waves of thought roll in upon the spirit."
And then, once more, beyond the world of nature and the world of knowledge there is another world higher still, and far more wonderful, to which they are but as the stepping-stones across the river to the meadow lands beyond: the supernatural world of grace. It is a world which shows us God and His infinite being, His powers and His perfections, His dealings with His creatures and His revelations of Himself, not one world only, but rather many worlds of infinite beauty and attractiveness, far, far beyond all that the eye of man can see or the heart of man imagine. How, therefore, could man hope to know its wonders, unless the great Creator and efficient cause of all, who gave him eyes to see, and a mind to understand, had not once more been at his side to help him, and, by the gift of faith, completed His own handiwork and man's perfection? This, then, is the place of faith, this is its sphere of work most natural and most reasonable.
Of course, there is no absolute necessity obliging God to speak to us and tell us all these wonders of Himself; but once we grant that God created us and made us what we are, because of His exceeding goodness, once we grant that that same love and goodness prompted Him to raise us to a supernatural state, the end of which is nothing less than intimate union with Himself, then revelation follows as a natural consequence, and is itself the proof of love. This is the reasoning of St Thomas:
If the end of man be the vision of God face to face, then must man do his best to tend to God, and cling to Him by knowledge and by love, and not by any sort of love or knowledge, but only by that which we call supernatural, because the means must be proportioned to the end.
But "means" which in themselves are supernatural can only be bestowed by God, and hence we have revelation and the gift of grace. So, on the other hand, the act of faith by which the soul of man accepts God's revelation is man's return of love and highest pledge of loyalty. It is the worship of the understanding, the sacrifice of our best possession, the offering of the brightest jewel in our crown in tribute at God's feet. God might have acted very differently. He could have drawn aside the veil and made His revelation so complete that not a shred of mystery remained, but then our faith would cease to be a sacrifice, much less a means of merit, or rather, to speak truly, it would cease to exist. It is impossible to believe and see at the same time. We believe in the existence of Jerusalem, supposing we have never been there. We know there is a city called Oxford, and there is no sacrifice on our part or merit to be found in our admission of this geographical fact. The apostle St. Thomas refused to believe in the Resurrection; he craved that lower and more natural certainty which comes from knowledge, and so drew upon himself his Master's kind rebuke:
Because thou hast seen Me, Thomas, thou hast believed. Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed. (John 20:29)
Still, there was a blessedness of faith which the apostle could claim, for, seeing Jesus risen from the dead, he believed in His Divinity. Hominem vidit, says St. Gregory, et Deum confessus est. He saw a man before him, and confessed Him to be God. So must it be with us. Our faith is given to us to pierce the darkness of the supernatural world and manifest what otherwise would be hidden from us. It is the "evidence of things that appear not," (Hebrews 11:1) a mighty power which only God can give, enabling the soul to hear the voice of God above the tumult of the world, and to accept with humble submission all that He has revealed.
But, though the manifestation of supernatural truth is the first and greatest work of faith, it would be a mistake to limit it to this; and it will help us greatly to appreciate its powers and worth, as well as to reject the foolish sophisms of "free-thinkers" if we reflect upon the well-nigh universal work of faith in every plane of life. Divine faith is its highest evolution, but there is a human faith as well, and what would be our life without it? The shallow-minded men, who talk so glibly of their freedom from all mental shackles, and express so loudly their conviction that all faith is but a superstition, overlook the fact that not a day can pass for any one of them without an act of faith of some sort or another. When we study history, what is it but an act of faith? And, to descend to commoner things, so also is the reading of our daily papers. A cup of coffee in the morning is an act of faith; still more a dose of medicine. And who will call us credulous because we do not summon an experienced analyst to our breakfast table or to our bed of sickness before venturing to take one or the other? Yet, even then, we should have to make an act of faith in the skill and truthfulness of the analyst. So also in our social and domestic life. How strong the bond of love that binds together parents and their children, yet what is its foundation but an act of faith? An introduction at a dinner party is a triple act of faith; in fine, wherever we go, whatever we do, how ever we may live, an atmosphere of faith and blind dependence upon others must surround us, and we can no more escape it than we can escape the air we breathe, and nobody calls it humbling or degrading. Yet, whilst we are obliged to put faith in each other in this universal way, there are not wanting those who try to make us shrink from faith in God, although our faith in Him and in His word, unchangeable, eternal, can never know the doubt or shadow of a cloud which human faith must ever feel! Humanum est errare.
Returning, then, to our comparison of God's three great worlds and those distinct mysterious powers which show them and reveal them to us, it is well to note how, though distinct in every way, they yet are bound together in the closest union for mutual help and ready service. The straight oar dips into the water, and at once seems broken, but reason comes to our assistance, and reveals to us those laws of light and its refraction which explain the erring judgment of the senses. So is it with our reason and our faith. The one explains the other.
We have already shown the work of reason in the act of faith. It is the reason which examines and decides the value of the motives of credibility. It is the reason which unveils to us the why and wherefore of God's revelation, the work it has to do, the need we have of it and all the good it can bestow on us. And this has ever been the teaching of the Catholic Church and of those great minds whose intellectual greatness is the harvest of her blessing and her guidance. There have been some amongst her children who have sought to minimize or even to deny the work of reason in what pertains to morals or religion, but the Church rejects their wild suggestions, and, on the contrary, has ever asserted the doctrine so magnificently developed by St. Thomas in his explanation of the opening chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and confirmed by her with all the weight of her authority in the [First] Vatican Council. There, she first of all emphatically denies the possibility of opposition between faith and reason, and then explains their close relationship.
Although faith be altogether above reason, there can never be a conflict between the two, for the same God who reveals mysteries, and infuses faith, likewise gives the light of reason to the soul, and God can never contradict Himself, nor can one truth be at variance with another. If at times such opposition seem to exist, it is either because the dogmas of faith are imperfectly understood, or the assertions of mere opinions are put forward as the dictates of reason. [...] And not only can faith and reason never be in opposition, but they always give each other mutual assistance, for reason shows and proves the groundwork of faith, strengthening by its light the knowledge of divine things, and faith in its turn safeguards reason from many errors, and assists it in many different ways. (Vatican I, Session 3, Chapter 4)
Then she goes on to brand with her anathema all those who hold the opposite extreme and, claiming for themselves the name of "rationalists" and "free-thinkers," maintain that human reason or "free thought" is the one and only measure and criterion of all truth. "Free thought" and "free thinkers!" Were ever words so outraged? Faith and faith alone gives us free thought and makes us true free thinkers, for it is faith which shows us God, the one eternal and unchanging Truth, and this is perfect liberty, as defined by Christ Himself.
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)
For there are golden chains which honour and adorn, as there are common fetters which humble and degrade. To know the truth and place its yoke upon our minds is liberty, but in the minds of these would-be philosophers we see the lowest form of intellectual slavery. We should not approve of liberty which allowed a man to pick our pockets or break into our house, we should call it license, and the ruin of all liberty; and justly so, for civil liberty supposes laws which safeguard all just rights. And has not intellectual liberty its laws also, and does not the defiance of these laws mean intellectual license? God made us free, because He made us to His own image and likeness; and when a man professes his belief in God and in God's teaching, he declares that he allows no barrier in the way of intellectual freedom, save the barrier of God's truth! "I believe in God," he says, and in those words sums up the Magna Charta of the mind. That is the free thought for which our nature craves, far different from the state of mental chaos and confusion which is the antithesis of faith, and everywhere involves a blind obedience to the changing dictates of our own strong passions, or the opinions of the latest fashionable writer.
From the mutual relations of faith and reason we pass on to a closer consideration of the virtue of faith in itself. When we quoted the definition of faith given in the Catechism, and tried to show that it implied and proved the eminent reasonableness of such an act, we were looking at it, if we may say so, from a purely objective point of view, or, in other words, with reference to the truths proposed for our belief. It will help us greatly if we likewise try to look at it subjectively, for since we showed the act of faith to be an act of knowledge, the subject in which this intellectual act takes place, or the power which gives it being, is necessarily implied, as well as the object known. So we may say at once that, to enable us to give an assent to any supernatural truth, we stand in need of what is called the light of faith - in other words, a supernatural virtue bestowed upon the understanding by Almighty God. This is a defined dogma of the Church, and follows from the very meaning of the definition.
An absolutely supernatural truth is one which is beyond the reach of any mind, actually existing or even possible, unless its natural powers be supplemented by an additional gift which we call the light of faith. It is a light because it manifests certain truths; a light of faith because, as we have shown above, these truths cannot be demonstrated by their own intrinsic evidence. The act of faith is, therefore, an act of knowledge, elicited by the understanding, strengthened by this supernatural power, and moved thereto by an act of the will. It is an act of the understanding because its object is a revealed truth, and truth is the natural object of the mind. But it is an act which is due to the influence of the will, because the object of faith is a hidden truth, and therefore is incapable of causing an assent of the mind, or that entire adhesion which is certitude. Hence the knowledge which there is in faith accompanies the assent, but is not its necessary cause, and this explains the rationale of temptations against faith. So, concludes the Angelic Doctor, the intellect concurs in the act of faith by the assent of adhesion, and the share of the will is its consent to the adhesion of the intellect.
Now note what follows: This influence of the will, having for its object a supernatural good, must be in itself a supernatural act, for the nature of an act depends upon the nature of its object, and as the will left to itself cannot be the principle of a supernatural act, it follows that it must owe its action to a gratuitous supernatural help, or in other words, an actual grace from God. Summing up the whole question, St. Thomas says:
To believe is an act of the understanding, assenting to a divine truth, being moved thereto by the will under the influence of grace. "With the heart we believe unto justice." (Romans 10:10)
Evidently, then, we cannot guard too zealously or too carefully this most precious gift of God, which, like so many of God's gifts, seems so dependent on our feeble care, and that we may better realize the dangers we must shun and the efforts we must make, we may take a parable from nature.
When the wintry days are over, and the warmer winds of spring begin to wake the life that sleeps within the cold, dark earth, the little plant slowly pushes its head above the ground, and gradually thrives and nourishes until the flower and fruit seem close at hand. Yet, even then, we know that it may be a failure. Perhaps day after day the hot sun beats down upon it until the earth around it is parched and broken, and the moisture which gives it life is all dried up, and one by one the green leaves droop and fade, and the stalk bends lower and lower, until at last the plant is withered and dead. Or, on the other hand, the sun may hardly ever shine at all, but hide himself for weeks together behind the cold grey clouds, and the sweeping rain may fall incessantly until the rich earth is turned to mud, and the roots rot away in the water.
Now the soul of man is like a plant in the garden of God's supernatural world, "a tree planted by the running waters," (Psalm 1:3) and we may liken faith to the beautiful flower that crowns it, and slowly ripens into the rich fruit of good works. But we have seen what faith implies - lowliness of mind and heart, submission of will - self-surrender, therefore, carried to its uttermost limit, and all this is very hard to flesh and blood. For there is ever whispering in the fallen heart of man the secret voice of self-love and self-worship, urging him to rise up against his Maker and tell Him to His face: Non serviam! I will not obey! (Jeremiah 2:20) If the soul listens and consents, the result is obvious. The soft falling rain of grace will cease, the heavens will become as brass and the earth as iron, and the heart becomes as hard as a rock, so that faith, which is the beginning of the spiritual life, seems quite impossible. We have an instance of this in the Egyptian Pharaoh, who saw the wonderful signs wrought by Moses, and "hardened his heart" (Exodus 11:10) and would not believe. Another, yet more striking instance is put before us by the Scribes and Pharisees who listened to the preaching of the Son of God Himself and saw His miracles and would not believe. They were the wise and prudent of this world from whom were hidden the things of God to be revealed to little ones, whose hearts were humble and submissive, whereas the hearts of these blind leaders were hardened and burnt up with deadly pride. For it is just this pride of heart and mind, this independent self-sufficiency that God will destroy at any cost, because it is so hateful in His sight. He demands of us the avowal of our own littleness and dependence on Him. He exacts the humble confession of our own utter inability to look on Him face to face, and it is only when the soul has done this, it is only when she has fallen with her face in the dust, and declared her nothingness apart from Him and her readiness to accept what she cannot see or understand, it is only then that God stoops to look down upon the lowliness of His servant, and pours into the mind the glorious light of faith. We humble ourselves therefore, but only that we may be exalted by God.
Then there is another obstacle to be avoided, another dangerous enemy to our faith of whom we must beware, and this obstacle, this enemy, is in many ways more evident and easy to discover, though perhaps no less difficult to overcome. Our blessed Lord Himself has pointed it out to us when He declared that, although He Himself, the Light of God, had come into this world to give light to them that sit in darkness, yet men fled from Him, and preferred the darkness because their deeds were evil.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. (John 3:20)
In other words, there are some hearts so corrupted, so buried in sin, that they positively shun the light of faith, and dread its brightness, because it shows them their own moral vileness in its true colours. In souls such as these, there is not even the wish to believe, and, as we have said, this readiness to accept the teaching of God is the essential condition of faith. Such souls may hear of those wonderful words spoken on the green hill-side of Galilee - "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8) - but there is no answering echo in their hearts. They have no wish to "see" God, because their hearts are so unclean, so soiled with the love of all that is degrading. How can the flower of faith flourish in such a muddy soil? Slowly but most surely it must wither away and die, and leave the unhappy, uncrowned soul to be cut down and cast into the fire in punishment of a loss to which it has actually become indifferent. It is of souls like these that St. Peter speaks so indignantly, comparing them to the irrational beasts, to fountains without water, to clouds tossed about by whirlwinds, and assuring us that for them is reserved an eternal mist of darkness, the darkness of willful ignorance and unbelief in this world, and, in the next, the darkness of the hopeless loss of God.
All this, then, shows us the inevitable conclusion. Faith implies self-sacrifice. It cannot come to souls that worship the self, and if it has been given to such souls, it generally fades away and dies. It only flourishes in souls that are ready to pay the price it necessarily entails. Even when God does not demand the sacrifice of the body, the laying down our lives in martyrdom, He always demands the sacrifice of the soul, the sacrifice of the understanding and the will, as we have shown. A heavy price, our human nature cries, yet even human nature can appreciate the reward, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. In life it gives us peace that no sorrow can destroy, like the peace that dwelt in the heart of Abraham when he led his son his only son towards the hill of sacrifice, and answered his inquiries with that magnificent act of faith: Deus providebit, God will provide a victim. (Genesis 22:8) And that same peace of mind does but increase as we near the dark valley of the shadow of death.
Look at the death-bed of the apostle of free-thought, Voltaire, an agony of misery and despair, and then turn to the passing away of that great saint and doctor, whose keen intellect had soared so high on the wings of faith, St Thomas Aquinas. "Full of calmness and peace," says his biographer, "patient as a child, gentle as charity itself," he waited for death to come. And when the Blessed Sacrament was brought to him, "I receive Thee," he exclaimed, "the price of my soul's redemption, for love of whom I have studied and watched and laboured. Thee have I preached, Thee have I taught, against Thee never have I breathed a word, nor am I wedded to my own opinion. In entire obedience to Holy Church, I now pass out of this world." And so he was taken from the twilight of faith to the glory of the everlasting vision. So was it with all the saints, so is it, and so must it ever be with all truly great souls, no matter what their work in life may be, for their faith is common to them all, and their faith is the secret of it all. So also will it be with us if we walk in their footsteps, and this same beautiful gift of faith, bestowed upon us at our baptism, shows us how to succeed by placing us at the entrance of that narrow way leading to the eternal home, where we shall see our Maker face to face. The journey may seem long and tedious, and full of strange and unexpected turnings, and our souls may grow weary and our hearts fail us in the darkness, but faith will ever guide us safely and surely, and enable us to cry out bravely when our poor human nature seems tried beyond its strength:
Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief!