Dear Donagh,

…. Our priest is always talking about grace.  In every single sermon he’s sure to mention it.  I asked him once what it meant and he quoted the catechism, reminding me that I should have learned that in school.  But when I asked him what the words meant, he just said they mean what they mean and what's the problem?  I'd like to follow it up and to know what's being said.  I'm retired now and I have time to be thinking about these things.  Can you throw any light on it for me…?  John

Dear John,

You have a good instinct to go for the central theme of the faith.  It’s the heart of the matter, and like the heart in your body, it keeps everything else alive. 

I'm not surprised that the catechism answer didn't satisfy you.  “Grace is a supernatural gift,” it said, “bestowed on us by God for our salvation.”  What kind of gift?  What is it?  That definition must have been even less useful to the children who had to memorise it.  Everyone knows what a gift is, especially children.  But what does the word ‘supernatural’ do to it?  It puts it right out of our reach.  It was well meant, but ‘supernatural’ must have conveyed a feeling that it was about some other world, not this world, not our life, not us.  Young people today would probably think it means paranormal or magic; to them it would suggest Harry Potter rather than Jesus.  

That happens when you commodify grace, or anything else in the faith.  We begin by thinking of it as a thing, and then we stay in that rut – as did the catechism, for the very next question was: “How many kinds of grace are there?”  The controlling mechanisms for dispensing this commodity are the sacraments: “What is a sacrament?  A sacrament is a sensible or outward sign instituted by Christ to signify grace and confer it on our souls.”  To confer ‘it’….  What is this ‘it’?  This was your legitimate question.  Whatever this commodity is, we had better make sure we have it, because it is “necessary for salvation,” the catechism said, “for without it we are the enemies of God and have not a right to the Kingdom of heaven.” 

Your Christian instinct tells you that this language, this manner of thinking, is a bad fit for the subject.  But this is no surprise, because all language tends this way.  We also turn the weather, for example, into an ‘it’.  “It is raining,” we say.  But there’s no ‘it’ in that case – or in myriads of other cases: What is the mind?  What is life?  What is the soul…?  But there is no ‘what’.  There is no ‘it’.  There is no ‘thing’.

But if there is no ‘thing’, is there just nothing?  No, there’s the whole world of actions.  God has been described as ‘actus purus’ – pure act (in the sense of action or actuality).  And you can think of everything in the world as actions: a tree is an action that began long ago and will continue even when the tree dies.  Every living thing is an action.  Even inanimate things are actions: mountains and rocks look solid enough and permanent, and we usually think of them as things, but they too are involved in a continuous but slow process of change.  You yourself are an action.  It’s usually not a problem that we think of everything in the world as things – just as we have no problem about taking still photographs.  But only a video will capture actions.  Nouns are alright for convenience and for easy reference, but life is a verb.  Half the confusion of the world arises because our verbs don’t fit into our nouns; being alive, they often spill over.  Think of God, too, as a verb.  In French the word ‘mot’ means ‘word’ – like a word in print.  But a spoken word – a word in action – is ‘parole’.  “In the beginning was the Word,” we say in English (without indicating which kind of word we mean), but French leaves no ambiguity, “Au commencement était la Parole.”  Sometimes at Mass you see a celebrant or reader raise up the book we call the Lectionary, and announce: ‘This is the word of the Lord.’  But the word of the Lord is not ink on paper; it is a word spoken to a community of believers.  It is a word of hope and promise living in the hearts of people who are trying to live the Beatitudes.  It is not a book on a shelf or a lectern.  In Norwegian they don’t say, ‘This is the word of the Lord;’ they say ‘Slik lyder Herrens ord,’ (‘Thus sounds the word of the Lord’)…. God's Voice resounds in us; it does not lie lifeless on the page.  St Jerome (+420) said that the Pharisees had the Word of God only in the way that a shelf has it.  The same can be said for the catechism. 

Ancient theologians spoke of ‘uncreated grace’ (God), but also of ‘created grace’.  ‘What’ would that be?   If I understood them right, it is the effect that intimacy with God has on you.  That effect is not some kind of commodity in the soul (like ‘supernatural money’ in a bank), but a change in the way you live.  What kind of change might that be?  Your life becomes a little more like the life of the Trinity: untrammelled giving and receiving.  (In ordinary usage, the word ‘grace’ (from the Latin ‘gratia’, as in ‘free, gratis, and for nothing’) suggests ease of movement.)  If hitherto you had your head stuck in the till, like Matthew, you can now look up and follow the one who gives and receives everything.  Later in his gospel the same Matthew will tell about Jesus, who “entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves” (Mt 21:12).  Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) commented, “This temple… is the human soul, which God has made exactly like himself.”  There is to be no buying and selling in the human soul, only giving and receiving.  In buying and selling, the eye is on the goods, the commodities, and possibly their cash value; but in giving and receiving, the eye is on the Giver. 


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