|St. Dismas receives the grace of final perseverance|
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Ezekiel 18:25-28
If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.
Both the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel and the parable which our Savior offers in Matthew 21:28-32 (the parable of the two sons, the one who would not work but converted and the other who said he would work but did not) hint toward the reality that what is most important of all is the manner in which we finish. Certainly, the beginning and the middle are important, but the end or the finish makes all the difference.
In a stage of the Tour de France, it is possible for a rider or (more likely) a small group of riders to lead the day for over a hundred miles (this is called a break-away from the pelaton); however, it almost always happens that the main pack of riders (i.e. the pelaton) will catch this small break-away with less than a mile to go before the finish. Having led the stage for all those miles, the break-away group will lose all hope of victory in just the last minutes of the several hour long day of racing. What is most important is how one finishes.
So it is with the life of grace. Certainly, it is important to start well and to live in Christ’s grace throughout life, but what is most important of all is to die well, to finish well, to complete one’s life with the grace of final perseverance. This alone will bring us to heaven: We simply must die in the state of grace.
However, the Church teaches that we cannot merit this grace, not even by a holy life. How then do we gain perseverance and eternal salvation?
We cannot merit the grace of final perseverance
Final perseverance is the preservation of the state of grace until the end of life. It is the final grace which is necessary for salvation. It is by final perseverance that a man dies in the state of grace and is ultimately to be admitted into heaven. Without the grace of final perseverance, a man would certainly be damned.
The decree on justification from the Council of Trent (session six) speaks of the grace of final perseverance and states that this special gift “cannot be derived from any other but him [i.e. God]” (chapter 13). Further canon 22 of the same session teaches that: “If anyone says, that the justified, either is able to persevere, without the special help of God [i.e. without the grace of final perseverance], in the justice received; or that, with that help, he is not able; let him be anathema.”
This is the point of the Council’s teaching: Without the grace of final perseverance, which can be given by God alone and is not obtained through human merit, a man cannot possibly be saved. However, with that grace, a man’s salvation is certain and most sure.
But why is it impossible to merit final perseverance? St. Thomas explains: “What we merit, we obtain from God, unless it is hindered by sin. Now many have meritorious works, who do not obtain perseverance; nor can it be urged that this takes place because of the impediment of sin, since sin itself is opposed to perseverance; and thus if anyone were to merit perseverance, God would not permit him to fall into sin. Hence perseverance does not come under merit.” (ST I-II, q.114, a.9, sed contra)
The Common Doctor explains further that, while it is possible to merit the glory of heaven, this glory can be lost through sin. Indeed, it is only through the special grace of final perseverance that a man may avoid sin at the end of his life and instead persevere in grace and come into the fulfillment of the glory of heaven which he had merited through his works. Hence, while we do merit glory in heaven, we do not merit the attainment of that glory which is gained only through the grace of perseverance. Therefore, it is not possible to merit final perseverance – no matter how good a man may be, final perseverance (i.e. the actual attainment of heaven) is never gained through works. Even the just man may well fall into sin and, turning away from God at the moment of death, suffer the eternal second death.
How we gain final perseverance
If, then, we are unable to merit final perseverance through good works – if a good man may well fall away and a wicked man (by God’s grace) may be converted at the last moment – how is it that we may hope to gain this most necessary grace?
St. Thomas offers the wisest answer: “We impetrate in prayer things that we do not merit, since God hears sinners who beseech the pardon of their sins, which they do not merit, as appears from Augustine [Tract. xliv in Joan.] on John 11:31, Now we know that God doth not hear sinners, otherwise it would have been useless for the publican to say: O God, be merciful to me a sinner, Luke 18:13. So too may we impetrate of God in prayer the grace of perseverance either for ourselves or for others, although it does not fall under merit.”
We gain final perseverance through prayer, through asking and begging this special grace from our heavenly Father. This is the particular hallmark of the spirituality of St. Alphonsus Liguori. St. Alphonsus bids that at the end of every prayer period (and many more times throughout the day) we ask the good Jesus for the grace of final perseverance.
What is more, the Doctor of Morals tells us that we must recall the great love and mercy of God (especially as shown us in the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of the Christ) and, inspired by this divine love, be strengthened to ask for the grace of perseverance in all boldness.
St. Alphonsus believed so strongly in the certainty of this daily prayer for final perseverance that he would often say: “All those who are in heaven are there for this one reason: They prayed, they asked for perseverance. All those who are in hell are there for this one reason: They did not pray and they did not ask the Lord for the grace of final perseverance.” Everything depends on this one prayer – our whole life (not only this life, but also the next) rests upon the daily petition (with confidence and love) for the grace of final perseverance.
St. Louis Marie de Montfort adds that this grace is always given to those who entrust themselves to the care and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Servus Mariae non peribit - The slave of Mary will not perish.
What is the grace of final perseverance?
Final perseverance is, of course, that last grace which confirms us in the Lord at the moment of death. However, it is also possible to recognize the grace of final perseverance as the body of graces which we receive throughout our whole lives. St. Alphonsus argued that final perseverance is the whole string of graces leading up to the last grace.
By analogy to sports we can see that a rider in the Tour can scarcely win if he is not near the front of the pact as they come to the final miles of the stage. Likewise, we admit that the best way to die in the state of grace is to live in the state of grace.
Still, it is also good to recall that even the greatest sinners have hope for the grace of final perseverance. Consider St. Dismas, the good thief who converted in only the last hour of life and found mercy in the wounds of our Savior. The Council of Trent teaches that “all should place the firmest hope in the succor of God” – and we recall that our Lord desires not death, but life.
The saints (especially Sts. Francis de Sales and Alphonsus Liguori) consider the Lord’s great mercy and love in granting the grace of final perseverance.
When we look to the goodness of God, we cannot help but be certain of the grace of perseverance not only for ourselves but for all sinners. When we look at our wretchedness, we recognize more easily just how merciful the Lord is to be willing to extend this grace to us – and we see why we must pray daily for this special gift.