The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter XVII: Mary Welcomes Her Son in Us"
WE HAVE SEEN that a close union with Mary helps us to join most perfectly in offering to the Eternal Father the great gift of the renewal of Calvary which is the Mass. In the same Mass, God's gift comes to us, the gift of the Body and Blood of His Son in Holy Communion. In order to receive Him most fittingly, and to gain the greatest fruit from that reception, lee us ask the help of Mary who shared in earning all these graces for us. But now, in order to deepen our understanding of what we need to do in receiving Holy Communion, we are going to examine a few special principles.
We are all familiar with the teaching that morally good actions, when the proper conditions for merit are present, earn for us an increase of sanctifying grace. For practical purposes this increase means an increase of the love of God, for the two rise and fall together. Hence it is obvious that we can grow in the love of God by performing meritorious actions.1 Now the question may be raised regarding these meritorious actions: When do we receive the increase in love that is earned by a meritorious act? It is clear that if the act is performed generously, fervently, the increase is both earned and obtained immediately. But can we say the same if the act is performed in a weak or remiss fashion, or if it is somewhat deficient in generosity? Now, although we cannot really measure virtues in mathematical units, yet, for the sake of clarity, let us use the following loose comparison: Suppose a man has five degrees of love of God, but acts as though he had only two degrees. Will he obtain the increase at once? or will the actual increase be delayed until later? Some theologians think he will obtain the increase at once, but others, St. Thomas Aquinas among them, disagree. St. Thomas says:
It is obvious that this principle is of the greatest importance for spiritual growth. It opens up the possibility that a man living a good life, but doing his good works only in a remiss fashion, might not receive the increases in grace for a long time. Now since the grace we already possess at the time of a good action is one of the notable factors that determine how much additional grace we may derive from that action, it is clear that remiss actions may bring our rate of progress almost, if not entirely, to a halt. Let us use again the (strictly speaking) inapplicable but convenient numbers. Suppose a man having five degrees of love lives a life almost entirely devoid of fervor for twenty years Although he may earn many increases of grace, to be received sometime later,3 he is obtaining but slight actual increase. If he had acted fervently, each increase would have been received at once, and therefore each subsequent fervent action would have a value proportioned to the increased capital of grace. By acting fervency, he might have risen to, let us say, two hundred degrees after the twenty years. But, since he almost always acts remissly, he has grown only from five to seven degrees. It is clear that our growth may be enormously more rapid if we are fervent than if we are remiss.
And now another difficulty raises its head: Does this principle of disposition apply also to growth through the sacraments? St. Thomas does not ask or answer the question, and modern theologians are divided.4
Those who maintain that the principle does not apply to the sacraments are moved by the fact that the Council of Trent tells us that the sacraments produce grace ex opere operato,5 that is, from the mere fact that the sacred rite is duly performed by the proper minister (even though the minister be unworthy) provided that the recipient toes not put an obstacle in the way of the grace. Hence, it is argued, if we state that the increase in grace is delayed, we violate the principle laid down by the Council, and reduce the sacraments to the same level as that of any good work.
How can the theologians who hold that the reception of grace is delayed in those whose dispositions are insufficient be in agreement with the Council? The difficulty is not insuperable, for, even though the reception of the grace is postponed, yet it is still true that the sacrament has the ex opere operato effect of giving that grace to the recipient. He will obtain the grace, and obtain it by virtue of the sacrament-but it is only sometime later that he will actually receive it. Furthermore, did not the Council state that grace is produced only in chose who put no obstacle in the way? Now it is dear that mortal sin is an obstacle such as to nullify completely the effects of chose sacraments that require the state of grace for their reception. Lack of contrition nullifies the effects of the sacrament of penance. May we not say that lack of dispositions in a smaller way is capable of merely postponing the reception of grace? Thus it seems that this group also is safely within the wording laid down by the Council.
Which of these two views is the correct one? We do not know, but, in practice, the answer is not needed, for both answers amount to almost the same thing. For even those who hold that the sacraments do confer grace immediately even on the remiss will admit that the measure of grace given is exceedingly slight. Hence someone might receive Holy Communion daily for a period of years, but almost always carelessly, as a mere matter of routine. His spiritual growth will be, according to both schools, but slight. Holy Communion received fervently is a marvelous means of growth, for the grace given is proportioned chiefly to the graces already possessed, and to the fervor of the one who receives. If each day we received fervently, we would greatly increase our capital of grace, so that on the next day, our increase would be much greater. This multiplication, in practically a geometric series, can go on indefinitely.
Something like the principle of gravity applies in the spiritual life: the closer a falling object approaches to the ground, the greater its increases in speed So also our rate of growth should be ever more and more rapid.6 Hence it is staggering to imagine the increase of grace in Mary's soul with each Holy Communion she received from the hands of St. John during the time before her own Assumption.7
When we speak of receiving Holy Communion fervently, we do not mean that emotion must necessarily be present. This point has already been covered sufficiently in chapter X. But there is also a danger that someone may misunderstand this teaching on emotion: it must not be taken to mean that one can receive in a merely routine fashion, making no very special effort, and still gain all possible profit from each Holy Communion. No, there is a fervor of the will which is non-emotional. It consists in doing our very best, in trying to shake off the fog that so easily comes in the morning, in arousing ourselves to a realization of what we are doing: in other words, in putting genuine, vigorous effort into what we are doing.
In receiving any of the sacraments let us call on Mary to help us to receive them well, in the dispositions that will bring us the greatest profit. Let us not forget that even the graces of the sacraments come through her, that she shared in earning all of them for us. But it is especially in our thanksgiving after Holy Communion, the greatest of the sacraments, that her help is of priceless worth.
When Our Lord was born, He, unlike other children, was able to choose all the circumstances of His birth. For, insofar as He is God, He planned in advance to be born in the stable in Bethlehem. We notice that He deliberately chose the worst of almost everything-His surroundings were poorer than those into which even poor children were ordinarily born. He wished to impress forcibly upon us that earthly things are of small account: if they were really worth while He would have provided them for Himself and His Mother. Although He wanted almost all things poor, however, He did make up for the general poverty in another way: what more than made up to Him for the squalor was the fervor of the love of His Mother.
There can be a great deal of similarity to Bethlehem in our reception of Holy Communion. The hearts of even the fervent are little, if any, better than a stable for Him. For even the best of us have sometimes sinned, and most of us are by no means free from all attachment to earthly things, or even to venial sin. Now since the slightest moral stain is immeasurably worse than any physical squalor, it may be literally true that our hearts are poorer places than the stable. But the more closely we are united to Mary, by our generosity in giving to her everything we are and have, the more closely we can duplicate the beauty of the scene at Bethlehem. We can invite Mary to come and help us welcome her Son.8 And if we have given everything we are and have to her,9 we thereby enter as it were into a partnership with her: we have a kind of claim on her merits. In the proportion in which we have done this, she will offer her own spotless merits and love along with our poor prayers.
Therefore, in addition to using suitable prepared prayers of thanksgiving (those which the Church puts in the missal for the use of the priest after Mass are most suitable), we should also pray informally in our own words. And specifically in this informal prayer we should ask Mary to offer her love to make up for the poverty of our love, to adore Jesus with us and for us, since we are unworthy, to help us to realize who it is that we have received. We ask her to help us thank Him for the priceless privilege of Mass and Holy Communion, for giving us the true faith, for the forgiveness of our sins, for various other favors we have received-including the great gift that God has made to us of Mary herself! We call on her to aid us in expressing sorrow for our past sins, for our present poor state. We ask her help in obtaining every grace that we need for ourselves and for those for whom we ought to pray: grace to overcome all temptations, especially the temptations of the coming day, grace for the duties of our state of life, the grace of final perseverance and a happy death, and also the graces we need most to serve God well. Indeed, we probably do not know all the things we actually need, but we ask Mary to obtain for us what she knows we need. It is an aid to our memory to group our prayers around love and the four ends of sacrifice: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication (A C T S). These four should, of course, culminate in and be motivated by love.
But we should not do all the talking during our thanksgiving. We should also listen. Not that we expect Our Lord to appear or to speak audibly-no, but He may wish to send us graces of light, to lead us to see better what He wants of us,10 to remind us of some failing, or to urge us on to some good work.
By way of summary let us read one of the prayers contained in the official thanksgiving after Mass in the missal-a prayer that expresses the same thoughts about asking Mary's help as those we have just explained: