Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Grace: Investing in Eternity

Frequently, the following question is asked of me when discussing grace, “So, can we store up grace for a rainy day?” The answer, always straight-forward is, “It depends.” In order to shed a little light on this question we need to define two terms before we discuss it. Hold on tight as we delve into the mystery of the love of Father…

Most Catholics remember two basic categories of grace: sacramental and actual. Fr. John Hardon, S.J., of happy memory, teaches us in the Modern Catholic Dictionary that sacramental or sanctifying grace produces,

the supernatural state of being infused by God, which permanently inheres in the soul. It is a vital principle of the supernatural life, as the rational soul is the vital principle of a human being’s natural life. It is not a substance but a real quality that becomes part of the soul’s substance. Although commonly associated with the possession of the virtue of charity, sanctifying grace is yet distinct from this virtue. Charity, rather, belongs to the will, whereas sanctifying grace belongs to the whole soul, mind, will, and affections. It is called sanctifying grace because it makes holy those who possess the gift by giving them a participation in the divine life. It is zoē (life), which Christ taught that he has in common with the Father and which those who are in the state of grace share.

In contrast, Fr. Hardon defines actual grace as the,

Temporary supernatural intervention by God to enlighten the mind or strengthen the will to perform supernatural actions that lead to heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) §2000 speaks to the differences between the two graces:

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.

Sanctifying grace remains in the soul as long as it is welcome by the individual. Meaning, as long as we do not commit a mortal sin sanctifying grace remains in perfecting the soul.

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God. (CCC§1861)

So in the case of sanctifying grace, yes, we “store” it up for a rainy day when we continue living the spirit-filled life in accordance to the Gospel and the precepts of the Church. Actual grace is a different story.

As we previously read in CCC §2000, actual grace is situational. It is for a specific moment, for a specific event, for a specific reason. We need and should pray for these graces since they inspire us to do the great works of God and are the proximate cause of those service gifts that St. Paul speaks on in 1 Corinthians 12-13, Romans 8 and Ephesians 4.

Individuals who ask this question are usually saying, “I did not respond to His grace today but I am planning to tomorrow.” Unfortunately, that actual grace is no longer there. Remember, they are for a specific moment, for a specific event, for a specific reason. Lesson:  we need to respond when the grace is given and when we do not, appeal to the mercy of the Living God.

I would be remiss if I did not briefly mention how we obtain these graces. The two sources of grace in the supernatural life are the Sacraments and prayer. Right off, a distinction needs to be made:

  • Sacraments produce grace
  • Prayer obtains grace

When speaking of the Sacraments and the sanctifying grace it produces, there are two phrases that the Council of Trent offers us that are very helpful in this discussion. The first is ex opere operato which literally means “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”. This means that as long as the matter and form and intention are validly and licitly celebrated, the grace is produced.  That does not guarantee that the recipient receives the grace or the full potency of the grace. This is the object of the second phrase, ex opere operantis.

Ex opere operantis literally means “from the work done”. It addresses the subjective ability of the individual to receive the grace that is imparted.  It is here where Sacraments and Prayer intersect.  We obtain the grace to prepare our hearts to receive the sanctifying grace dispensed by the sacraments through prayer, and the sacraments produce the grace obtained by prayer to expand our hearts through the sacraments. Both are equally important and necessary for growth.

As we continue to grow in wholeness and holiness, let us remember to storm heaven and secure that grace which is ours in Christ. So take advantage of the sacraments and love the Lord in prayer…

Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

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