Friday, July 8, 2011

A sower went forth to sow, but who prepared the soil?

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 13:1-23
A sower went out to sow. […] Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
The parable of the sower describes the manner in which the grace of God is freely bestowed upon the earth and bears much fruit in the hearts of those who believe. The liberality and the generosity with which the Lord pours forth his Word upon the earth – giving grace not merely to those who are well-disposed (i.e. the good soil), but even to the wicked (i.e. the poor soil) – witnesses to the infinite riches of the Divine Mercy.
Still, we must consider how it comes about that some soil is well prepared while other soil is poor. If it is God who sows the seed of grace, who prepares and disposes the soil of the human soul to receive that grace?
In responding to this question, St. Thomas Aquinas’ own position grew and developed – in this theological question, as in so many others, the Common Doctor rises above all his contemporaries and soars ahead as the greatest Master. The thought of the Angelic Doctor has become a light to the whole Church. We shall here consider (briefly, and in simple terms) the key points of the debate and the change in St. Thomas’ thought which led to a significant development in Catholic theology generally.
Can man prepare or dispose himself to receive the first gift of grace?

The debate about the preparation for grace
In the middle ages, there was great debate among the theologians about how man participates with grace. The semi-Pelagian heretics (from much earlier) had taught that the first act was of man, but that the rest was then grace. However, this position caused serious problems, since it must be clear that God saves us – hence, the first movement of salvation must be from God.
Thus, in the scholastic period, the debate centered more around the question of whether a man can dispose himself for grace without grace. Can a man, by his own natural powers, prepare himself to receive the first grace? The scholastics (including St. Thomas, in his earlier years) taught that, without grace, man cannot actually merit the first grace, nor can he do any positive action of moving toward grace, but they did hold that man could at least prepare himself for grace.
Hence, the schoolmen held that, while God sows the seed, man prepared the soil for the reception of grace. It was in this point that the brilliance of St. Thomas shines forth.
The development of St. Thomas’ thought
St. Thomas recognized that even the scholastic opinion – that man, of himself, can prepare himself for grace – was a form of semi-Pelagianism. The Angel of the Schools soars above his contemporaries (and all theologians) when he tells us that man cannot prepare himself for grace by his own natural powers.
The teaching of St. Thomas (which has been adopted by the Church) is that man cannot prepare himself for habitual grace without actual grace – habitual grace being the indwelling of the Holy Trinity and actual grace being the particular movements of grace which are not stable realities in the soul but are rather particular acts. Man can in no way dispose himself either for habitual or for actual grace by his natural powers alone.
The proof of this argument is that the act of every agent corresponds to the order of his end, therefore the disposition toward a supernatural end cannot be produced except by God, the supernatural agent. Man, then, prepares himself for grace only insofar as he is aided by the supernatural help of God who moves him by grace.
This is our point: It is God who sows the seed, and it is also God who prepares the soil in which the seed is sown. God gives the grace, and he also prepares the soul for the worthy reception of that grace.
“The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.” (CCC 2001)
But if grace must precede grace, how do we avoid an infinite regress
St. Thomas gives us a further insight when he explains how his doctrine avoids an infinite regress. First, we point out the objection: If grace must prepare man for grace, then another grace would be needed to prepare for that first grace. But this would lead to an infinite regress.
The Angelic Doctor answers this objection by pointing out that only habitual grace requires preparation, not actual grace. Hence, while habitual grace requires that actual grace precede it and prepare the way (excepting in the case of infant baptism), actual grace does not require any preceding grace. Rather, actual grace itself prepares the soul for its own reception.
Hence, if we ask: Who prepares the soil for the seed of grace? We answer that there is no preparation necessary for actual grace excepting the gift of grace itself. No prior work (neither a grace prior in time nor in causal order) is needed – the seed itself prepares the ground in which it is sown!
What this doctrine means for our spiritual life
The teaching that it is God himself who prepares and disposes man for grace (by his very gift of grace), should offer us a great deal of consolation. The spiritual life is not a matter of man pulling himself up by his boot straps. We do not need to clear away the vices in our soul and get ourselves perfect before turning to the Lord.
Rather, because the gift of actual grace needs no prior preparation in the soul, even the most wretched of sinners is capable of being redeemed by God. It is not that we move part way and then God stoops to bring us along to perfection. Rather, even in our lowliness, God descends upon us through his gift of grace (we mean actual grace) and it is this grace itself which prepares us for the further gift of grace which is the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity (we mean sanctifying habitual grace).
The cooperation of man in the workings of salvation
We conclude with a helpful word from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2002): “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man.”
This is the great insight of the Thomistic synthesis: That grace and free-will are not opposed one to the other. For a work to be of God’s grace does not require that it not be of man. Likewise, for a work to proceed from man’s free will does not require that it not be of grace. Rather, when prepared by grace and filled with grace, man is able to act in true freedom and according to his highest dignity.

For further reading, cf.:
Summa Theologica I-II, q.109, a.6: Can man prepare for grace without grace?
Summa Theologica I-II, q.112,a.2: Is any preparation or disposition for grace required on the part of man?
Super Sent. II, d.28, q.1, a.4: Whether a man is able to prepare himself for grace without any grace?


Anonymous said...

Father, does the Holy Trinity dwell in a soul that is in mortal sin?


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The indwelling of the Trinity is the reality of habitual sanctifying grace.
Therefore, the soul in the state of mortal sin does not have the indwelling of the Trinity (since it does not have sanctifying grace).

However, the Trinity is still in that soul (as in all things) by essence, power, and presence.

Here, consider the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, from chapter 135 of the Compendium of Theology: "Corresponding to these three immediate modes of influence, God is said to be in everything by essence, power, and presence. He is in everything by His essence inasmuch as the existence of each thing is a certain participation in the divine essence; the divine essence is present to every existing thing, to the extent that it has existence, as a cause is present to its proper effect. God is in all things by His power, inasmuch as all things operate in virtue of Him. And God is in all things by His presence, inasmuch as He directly regulates and disposes all things."

The soul in mortal sin does not have the presence of the Trinity as "indwelling", but still does have it according to the modes by which God is present to all beings.

Anonymous said...

Another question then, Father, and please excuse my stupidity. I don't mean to try your patience. I can only so much with the intellect God gave me.

What's the essential difference between the Blessed Trinity "indwelling" in a soul in sanctifying grace and what St. Thomas wrote about - essence, power and presence?

Thank you.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a good question!
The essential difference between Trinitarian indwelling and God's presence in creature by "essence, power and presence" is not in God but in the creatures themselves.

It is the difference between created nature and created grace.
When God is in a man or a rock or angel by essence, power, and presence, the creature is in a natural relation to his Creator.
When God is present in a man or angel by Trinitarian indwelling, the creature is in a supernatural relation to his Creator.

So, to be without grace is not to be utterly without God (since, without God we would not exist).
But, to be without grace is to be utterly deprived of supernatural life -- i.e. salvation.

This is the essential difference between the two: One is saving, the other is not.
For angels and men, it is the difference between heaven and hell.

Indeed, the difference between nature and grace is second only to the difference between being and non-being.

Peace to you, and thanks for the thought-provoking questions! +

Anonymous said...

I understand now, Father. Thank you!


Deborah said...

Dear Father,

I am a Catholic who accepts all that the Catholic Church teaches, but this question has always puzzled me:

If it is God who gives the grace that saves us, then how can we explain the fact that God seems to give more and greater graces to some people than to others? To some, he gives such overpowering graces that they are almost forced to convert (for example, St. Paul on the road to Tarsus), while to others, he seems to give only "ordinary" graces which allow them to ignore him and continue in their sins. I know that God offers the grace of conversion to all of us--some of us simply choose to reject it-but why does it seem like some people get "special graces" for no apparent reason? It's almost like God is playing favorites.

How do we explain this? Does God play favorites?

Thank you,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You ask a good question, one which the saints and theologians have struggled with for thousands of years!

I would point you to St. Therese of Lisieux's masterpiece, "Story of a Soul". This is the principal question of her autobiography: Why are some flowers bigger than others, in the Lord's garden? and Why did God choose me and preserve me in such a special manner?

We know that God gives all sufficient grace -- no one is lost due to God's not loving them enough.

On the other hand, we know that God does love some more than others: in the Scriptures, we point to David (who was clearly favored by God) and John the Beloved (there is a reason he is called "the disciple whom Jesus loved" -- Peter loved more, but John was loved more).
Also, I don't think we should be to surprised to find that God has a special love for our Lady.

So, God loves us all infinitely beyond what we deserve. And he does love some more than others. But this does no injustice, for he already loves each of us far beyond any demands of justice.

[in any case, do take a look at the opening 2 or 3 pages of "Story of a Soul"]

Mark Harden said...

Regarding faith and grace:

" God does not say: 'If you change, I will love you.'
We discover that God loves us
and then we change and want to respond to God's love."

Deborah said...

"Story of a Soul" was helpful... thank you. I guess God's varying levels of love for us is part of the human drama... just like the different talents he gives us at birth, and the different ministries we are called to. Too much sameness would make the world less colorful.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes! And remember that He loves each of us in just the way we need to be loved!
Peace. +

yan said...

Fr., great topic but I am still a bit befuddled. Can you explain a little bit more what 'actual grace' is compared to 'habitual grace'? Do we have the ability to discern the difference between the two types of graces in our soul, in our selves? If so, how do we distinguish them?

I think i understand that habitual grace theologically means sanctifying grace. Please correct me if I misunderstand. This is the special grace that comes to us through the sacraments and which gives us salvation, right?

Ok. And i suppose actual grace affects those movements of the soul which dispose us to be inclined to receive those habitual graces, correct?

If i understand you aright, the actual graces are also graces in their own right in that they are the work of God. 1st question: is this a supernatural ongoing work, or, is this something that God has graced us with because we are all made in His image?

2nd question: if actual graces are a supernatural work that is ongoing, does God give them to every soul?

3rd question: if God gives them to every soul, is this the level about which we say that man has the ability to resist the grace of God?

4th question: would this be the answer to the Reformed teaching about grace, i.e., that grace is not irresistible?

5th question: when we pray for final perseverance, are we praying for an actual grace, or a habitual grace?

Thank you!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yan, I'll try to answer simply and directly...
Actual graces are the particular movements of grace that help us to make particular good actions.
Habitual grace is a stable reality which dwells in the soul and makes us to be good (rather than simply to have good actions, WE are good).

1) Actual graces are ongoing ... we need them for every good action.
2) Yes, God gives some to all at all times -- though some are stronger than others.
3) Yes, man can resist certain actual graces (what are called "merely sufficient graces").
4) The reformers were wrong ... they were exaggerating the opinion of St. Augustine.
5) Final perseverance is an actual grace and we can gain it only through prayer (as you mention) ... How important it is to pray daily for this grace (and especially right after receiving communion)!

Peace to you! +

yan said...

Fr. that was very helpful, thank you.

1-If a reformer were to respond that the impulse to pray for actual grace is in itself a grace, and that therefore everything depends upon grace, and not upon human effort, and that therefore this is proof that God chooses some to be saved by giving them actual grace, and leaves others to the condemnation of Adam, what would you say?

2-why do you say, 'some are stronger than others', in reference to the disbursement of actual graces? Also, since man is created in the image of God, why isn't that sufficient for us to be endowed with actual graces naturally, and not supernaturally? {Does the answer have to do with original sin?] Does being baptized change the production of natural graces in the soul? I.e. are baptized people more receptive to actual graces than unbaptized people, or are we all at least theoretically equal in respect to actual graces?

Thanks again Fr. These kinds of questions have been in my mind for many years. I and surely many here are grateful for your work.


yan said...

Fr. I imagine you must be busy but I have a couple more questions.

1-we are told to look for Christ in every person. This has always troubled me because not every person has Christ in them by virtue of the Holy Spirit. Are we supposed to look for Christ in them by virtue of God's being present in the person by His 'essence, power and presence', 'naturally' as you say above? Or in some other way? Potentially or by virtue of the fact that He became a man and so was united to all men?

2-you distinguish actual grace from habitual grace by saying that the former causes us to be able to have good actions, and the latter makes us good.

What exactly does it mean to be good? When we act well by virtue of actual grace, are we not to that extent well? Is being good by virtue of habitual grace a special gift? I confess that is how I conceive of it.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yan (to your 3:52 comment),
1) I would answer that the actual graces needed for prayer are given to all the living at all times. And, if we cooperate and pray, then more graces will be given (both actual and, eventual, habitual).
2) The reason why actual graces must be given supernaturally is because grace itself is a supernatural reality which elevates man and directs him toward God in a new way which is above his nature. Even before the Fall, man needed grace (and this grace, both habitual and actual graces, was given him).
Some graces are stronger than others in the sense that the actual grace which effected St. Paul's conversion was stronger than that which moved me to say my morning prayers today.

Great questions! Peace to you. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Yan (11:57pm)
1) Yes, God is present to every person on a natural level through holding them in existence. Hence, if God loves them enough to keep them, we also should love them more too!
However, Christ is particularly present in the baptized (who are united to him by faith and love) and also in the poor (as he himself has said).

2) Actual grace helps us to do particular good things ... even a bad person can do a good thing every so often (though it is not meritorious for him).
Habitual grace is a reality that exists in the essence of the soul and makes the soul to be simply good -- habitual grace (i.e. sanctifying grace) is the indwelling of the Holy Trinity! So, yes, it is a very "special gift" indeed! :-)


yan said...

Hello Fr. @9:08,

1-Is cooperation with actual grace an actual grace, or free will? If you answer free will, isn't the creation of that soul in the foreknowledge of God that he will accept grace, a grace of some kind? And if you answer instead that acceptance of actual grace comes by actual grace, then how in either case can we avoid the conclusions of Calvin [namely that God foreordains before the foundation of the world who will and will not be saved?]

2-makes sense! thanks! I'll mull it...

@fr. 9:12 am:

2-why isn't free cooperation with an actual grace by a person not in habitual grace not meritorious for him? isn't the free cooperation with actual grace the path that leads the unsaved to accept the Faith? Isn't acting on such actual grace 'meritorious' to the person in that sense?

perhaps meritorious is the wrong word. certainly as a priest or just as a human being you must have seen this process occur in people. i have seen it countless times. what would be the theologically correct way to describe what happens when a person's cooperation with actual graces leads him to the water of life?

Marco da Vinha said...

Fr., what was St. John Cassian's teaching on this? I have oft heard him being accused of being a semi-Pelagian, but no one ever seems to back those acusations up. Could you clarify?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mark of the V.,
I am not an expert on Cassian ... however this is a line or two from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Yet Cassian did not himself escape the suspicion of erroneous teaching; he is in fact regarded as the originator of what, since the Middle Ages, has been known as Semipelagianism. Views of this character attributed to him are found in his third and fifth, but especially in his thirteenth, "Conference". Preoccupied as he was with moral questions he exaggerated the rôle of free will by claiming that the initial steps to salvation were in the power of each individual, unaided by grace. The teaching of Cassian on this point was a reaction against what he regarded as the exaggerations of St. Augustine in his treatise "De correptione et gratia" as to the irresistible power of grace and predestination.

The error of Cassian was to regard a purely natural act, proceeding from the exercise of free will, as the first step to salvation.


As you can see from the NTM article above ... what exactly constituted semi-Pelagianism was not settled really until after St. Thomas.
While I myself am a bit suspicious of Cassian, it is very good to remember that St. Thomas Aquinas is said to have read and re-read the "Conferences" of Cassian many many times throughout his life -- they were, apparently, one of his favorite spiritual works.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The reason why we have to have habitual grace before we are able to merit is that we merit through our friendship with God and not through strict justice.
In other words, God does not owe us anything absolutely, but because we are united to him through grace, and are in real friendship with, he regards our good acts and allows them to have merit before him (we call this congruous merit).

Thus, one who is not in the state of grace (i.e. lacking habitual grace) is not in a friendly relation which God and therefore cannot merit.
But actual grace prepares man to receive habitual grace, and then he can start meriting an increase in grace and glory.

peace. +

yan said...

Thanks Fr., I think I understand so far.

1-Is the conversion of the heart an act of free will in response to actual grace? [what exactly IS conversion? is it a turning of the heart to faith hope and love?]

2-I am confused about the grace that leads to faith also. We are told that faith is a gift, which I understand to be a grace. Is the faith by which we believe in God one thing, and the virtue of faith that we pray for in the rosary another? Are these faiths a result of actual or habitual grace?

3-can a habitual grace come from anything other than a sacrament?

4-Fr. are you familiar with Francis Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven? Link:

The poem describes in an existential way the relentless pursuit of God out of love for the human soul. Would all the poetic descriptions refer to actual graces?

Bottom line: the knowledge that we are recipients of actual grace should not be a comfort in the sense that it would be an indication that our salvation has been secured and that we may not lose it, correct?


Alan R said...

Dear Father Ryan,
In addition to what was said in the blog post about God preparing the soil and sowing the seed, is it acceptable to say that the preparation of the soil is the work of the Church by proclaiming the Gospel, protecting it from error, removing stumbling blocks of false teaching, witnessing of Christ's mercy in one's own life, adminstering the sacraments, prayer? Or is this redundant to what was stated in the blog post?
Thank you,

Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.