Lent, Day 3, Grace Discussion, continued

2000 Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.

When I hear of “sanctifying grace,” I think of a friend I once knew in Syracuse, NY, who once asked a waitress at a Syracuse bar in the Irish part of town, if he could have some “sanctifying grace” in his beer. The waitress apparently didn’t know what he was talking about and simply said, “I don’t think we have that.”  Well, my friend was being irreverent, and the waitress was right that “sanctifying grace” was not an additive they could pour into beer.  When Catholics are talking about grace, they are generally thinking of “sanctifying grace,” the essential grace needed for the soul to “live with God.”  I sort of like the idea of sanctifying grace, but also have problems with the concept.  As I understand it in Catholic thinking (and I may have it wrong), our souls are not ready for the divine life or for any sort of communion with God, but sanctifying grace “cures” our souls so that we are ready.  There is a sense that, left to our own devices, we’d just wallow in sin and in an existence without God.  I see no need to jump to the conclusion that we’re all broken and need external salvation.  I prefer to see grace in terms of a relation between us and the world beyond (the interdependent web, if not God or some deity).  In The Color Purple sense, this would be an open invitation from the world at large (God in TCP) to us, one we can accept, or at least notice.  I think that the world beyond, other people, nature can get under our skins, for good, or for bad.  I think that the invitation is often there for a closer union, for some greater relation.  We have to notice that invitation, and we have to say yes to it, for the magic to happen.  If we are distracted, or angry, or unreceptive, we’ll miss the invitation, or shut it down.  The idea of sanctifying grace preparing us for a divine life seems to put all the focus on the God beyond, and makes me wonder — if God is always exuding this grace, why is it that it doesn’t have its salutary effect, no matter what?  And if this is God exerting influence on the world, where am I in the equation?  And how can I be an agent of this grace (be the color purple, as well as notice it)?

Habitual grace does seem to make sense — it’s behind ritual and any sort of regular and normal behavior.  To do something well, or get the benefits of something, you keep at it, Participating in regular ritual helps train body and mind.  So if we do yoga every day or every other day, or tai chi, or go to Mass, the regularity of the practice helps build a habit and the benefits of the activity build.

Actual grace — the extra spurt of mojo we get to carry through on a particular task — that’s something I’m struggling with.  For someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Gandhi, their ability to endure seems as much about habitual grace as anything.  And I think that people who need an extra boost can often find it by channeling something within themselves or by acknowledging something without.  A parent might endure a particular hardship to help a child, partly because of something within (his/her image of him/herself as parent) and partly of something without (something in the child) and perhaps due to some overall sense of connection and reciprocity.  My problem with actual grace as I think of it — an extra shove or boost or support from God in a time of need — is that it implies an interventionist God which I find troubling.  For, if God intervened to give Dr. King and others strength in Selma, why didn’t God intervene to keep young thugs from killing Rev. Reeb?  or the four little girls killed in a church that was bombed?  I think that part of the explanation would be that actual grace can have a salutary effect on those who already have accepted God.  In the face of great evil, though, I have trouble with a deity who doesn’t stand up to great evil when such standing up is called for — if Bonhoeffer was brave enough to stand up to the Nazis, why not the church leadership?  why not some clear call from beyond?  For me, that failure, more than anything else, gets in the way of belief in an interventionist and personal God.  But the revelation, which might come in a flash, or over time, that we are all connected in some way, that we all have the spark of the divine, and that those two truths can propel us to loving action — that revelation is something I can believe in.

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