The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 2: Sons of God"
A human father, in the merely natural order, deserves his honorable title for two reasons: first, because he has been a cause of life to a new being; second, because he provides for and takes care of that child so long as the child still needs care, and so long as the father is willing and able to give it. Our Father in heaven, (Eph 3:15) "from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named," deserves to be called our Father in a much fuller, higher, and even more literal sense than do our earthly fathers.
We need to take special care at this point, because most people are in the habit of making a sort of mental discount when they hear striking spiritual truths: they assume that the writer or speaker is exaggerating, or is allowing for loss in transmission. Let us have it understood that throughout this entire book we will never indulge in any exaggeration whatsoever-and so in turn we hope readers will take care not to make such discounts.
It is of the greatest importance for us to try to realize how strictly and truly He is our Father, for it will be a great aid to our growth in love and reverence for Him. So let us compare His Fatherhood to the two functions of an earthly father.
First, a father should be in some way a cause of a new life. An earthly father can be called a cause of the life of his child only in a restricted sense. Although he does cooperate in the production of new life, yet he is only a cooperator, not the sole, self-sufficient cause, nor even the chief cause. His very ability to cooperate is a gift of our Father in heaven. In fact, even in the very use of the gift that he has received, the earthly father is in constant need of an influx of power from our Father in heaven, in whom (Acts 17:28) "we live and move and have our being." Further, although an earthly parent is rightly said to be the father of a person, not just of a body, yet the soul does not in any way come from him. He merely has a share in the process by which a body is made that is fit for and calls for the infusion of a soul. But the soul itself is the direct creation of the heavenly Father alone.
It is obvious that in this respect, that of being the cause of a new life, our heavenly Father is far more fully and literally our Father than is our earthly parent.
We belong to our heavenly Father more really and fully than we do to our parents on earth. A comparison may help us to realize this. Suppose someone decides to make a model airplane. He takes the necessary materials, balsa wood, cloth, glue and other requisites, and, after much painstaking work, fashions them into an attractive little plane. If he has done his work well, it will be able to fly. Perhaps he even adds a small motor. The maker of the plane then feels-and rightly so-that this little plane is his in a very special way, more completely so than if he had merely bought such a plane ready-made in a store. For he is its maker. Yet he has not made the wood itself, nor the cloth, nor the other materials. But our Father in heaven has done far more: every fibre of our being is produced by Him, not out of some previously existing material, but out of absolute nothing. Surely, we belong to Him far more fully and literally than does a plane to its maker, or a child to its human parents.
We said the second function of a father is the care he takes of the child as long as the child needs his help, and as long as he is willing and able to provide it.
Not all human fathers do well in this part of their role: some are unable to care for their children, some die while the child is yet young. Some few are even lazy or unwilling to provide. And at best, a time surely comes when the normal child no longer requires his father's care.
Not so our Father in heaven, the best of all Fathers. He is never unable to care for His children: He is all-powerful. Nor is He ever unwilling: as St. John tells us, He not only has love for us; rather (1 Jn 4:8): "God is love." But neither can a time come when we no longer need His care. If an earthly father dies while his child is young, that child is still able to live without him, and though he will miss his father's care, is nevertheless apt to enjoy even a long life without him. But we not only could not live or act without our Father in heaven: we could not even exist for a single instant without Him. Life is a moment to moment gift from Him in whom (Acts 17:28) "we live and move and have our being." (Chapter 18 will show the deep reason for this moment to moment dependence.)
Again, suppose we put a signet ring into water: the water takes the shape of the carved design, but only so long as the ring is there. Similarly, we need the constant impress of the power of our Father in heaven.
It is difficult for us to realize how completely we depend on our Father for everything. Another comparison may help. When we see movies, the images on the screen seem very real: they appear to have color, life, and to speak and move about. They seem so real that we readily become absorbed in the drama, and forget that it is only an empty image on the screen. But if the technician up in the projection booth should throw the switch, the images on the screen would no longer exist: they would fall back into complete nothingness.
Our dependence on the constant inflow of power from our Father is much like that of the images on the screen, but with this important difference: no technician can make an image that is able to defy his will. But the omnipotence of our Father does precisely that: He is able to make us free to disobey Him, and in His unthinkable goodness He actually does give us that ability, as a means of making us-the other side of the coin-capable of receiving unimaginably great gifts from Him, if only we refrain from resisting His generosity.1 How true are the words of His Divine Son (Lk 12:7): "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered."
Our Father's attitude to us is best described as a supreme desire to lavish His gifts on us. St. John of the Cross, a great Doctor of the Church, who knew so well the ways of our Father by His own personal experience of Him in the highest forms of mystical contemplation, compares our Father to the sun. If only we do our small part,2 St. John tells us, "it is impossible that God would fail to do His part, in communicating Himself, at least in secret and silence. . . . Just as the sun gets up early to enter your house if you open the window, so God . . . will enter into the soul that is emptied and fill it with divine goods."3
It is important to notice that the mystical Doctor is speaking in this passage not just of the more usual sort of graces, but of the exalted and relatively rare gift of infused contemplation.4 In his mind, if a soul fails to receive so great a favor, it could not possibly be due to any lack of generosity on the part of our Father. It is solely due to the soul's failing to "open the window," i.e., to not place obstacles in itself. For God is like the sun, which cannot help but come in if the shades are not shut. Similarly, another Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, wrote: "God would never want to do other than give if He found souls to whom He could give."5
When God gives us His love in this life, it really means He sends His Holy Spirit within us, that Spirit which is the love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father. To have that Spirit within our soul is to have what St. Paul calls (Eph 1:14) "the pledge of our inheritance." A pledge is a sort of downpayment, to assure the recipient that the rest will follow. What we have as a pledge is God Himself, the Holy Spirit, really within our souls. It is only the fact that we are hampered by the veil of flesh that prevents us from seeing Him as He is. Once that veil is removed by death, the vision will take place, if, of course, we are sufficiently purified. If not, our needs are mercifully met by purgatory. Of course, a soul that has cast out the Holy Spirit by mortal sin could be correctly said to have, instead, a pledge of hell, that is, of the loss of God. If the veil lifts on him in that state, the loss will be everlasting.6
By means of this presence of the Holy Spirit, as St. John tells us, (1 Jn 3:1): "We are called and are the Sons of God," in the supernatural order, just as we are His children in the natural order since He gave us life, keeps us in existence, and cares for us.
We speak of grace as a divine adoption, but here too our language is very inadequate to bring out the greatness of the reality. For adoption makes us think of human adoption, in which, through the generosity of a human pair, some orphaned child is taken into their home, and, by a legal fiction, acquires the same rights as a natural child, and receives the same loving care as if he really shared in the blood and genes of those parents. Yet, we must admit, however much this generous pair may love their adopted child, he is not really flesh of their flesh; and though he may be called, for example, a Smith, yet there is no trace of Smith genes or blood in him.
If this human pair were able to do more for their adopted child, doubtless they would do it. But our Father in heaven does not suffer from any limitation; He, in His almighty power, is able, and, in His infinite Goodness, He wills to do that of which no creature could dream: He actually makes us, as St. Peter teaches (2 Pt 1:4), "sharers in the divine nature."
We cannot, of course, make even a good beginning of realizing what this means, for we shall be able to understand fully only in the life to come, in that vision of which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared (cf. 1 Cor 2:9). Yet, if we do not lose sight of the fact that our words must fall far short of the reality, we can make the attempt to gain some slight beginning of realization.
Within the most Blessed Trinity, as we indicated in the preceding chapter, there flows among the divine Persons an infinite stream of infinite, indescribable knowledge. It is precisely the one word (cf. Jn 1:1) which the Father speaks that fully expresses Himself, that fully gives Himself, that is His Divine Son, the perfect image of Himself, who is one with Him. Again, between Father and Son, from this infinite knowledge, arises similarly infinite Love, which again is a Divine Person, the Holy Spirit.
To share or join in directly in this infinite knowledge and infinite love in this way is the very nature of God. Yet by grace, we are given in this life that ability, in seed as it were. The seed, when we reach our Father's house, will blossom into knowing and loving the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as directly-though not as infinitely-as they know and love each other. Only someone with a divine nature is capable of such a thing.
Although nothing in our experience can give us anything even approaching a satisfactory realization of what this is like, yet a comparison may help a little with one aspect of it. When in this life we know things, for example a flower, we say we know it directly. But yet there is a certain indirectness in our knowledge, for we do not actually take the flower itself into our mind. Rather, we form an image of it within us. Now in the case of a flower or any other creature, however wonderful the creature may be, an image is able to give us complete knowledge. But when we arrive in our Father's house to have what St. Paul calls a face to face vision (1 Cor 13:12), no image could possibly let us know Him as He is, for any image is a created thing, a finite thing-but He is infinite, uncreated Goodness.
Hence there must be a direct union of God with the soul, with no image coming in between, as Pope Benedict XII defined.7 St. Thomas boldly drew the inescapable conclusion: God Himself takes the place of the image!8 Thus we, made partly divine, take part in the streams of infinite Knowledge, infinite Love. So Arendzen was obviously right with his imagery of the butterfly trying to take in the vastness of the ocean; this beatific vision is ever new, eternally inexhaustible. Only a God who is Love could conceive, and will to carry out, such a plan. How insignificant is the dignity of any king, president, or ruler of this earth compared to that of a son of God, a partaker in the divine nature itself!
The full effect of grace will be attained only when we enter the mansions of our Father. But even here the soul in grace becomes a wonderful thing. St. Basil the Great wrote:
St. Cyril of Alexandria, speaking of the same Holy Spirit, said: "He who is God and proceeds from God imprints Himself invisibly in the hearts of those who receive Him, like a seal in wax . . . restoring the image of God to man."10 St. Cyril of Jerusalem says the Holy Spirit transforms the soul as iron is transformed into fire in a forge: at first it is cold and black, but then warms up, begins to glow, and finally the iron seems to have been changed into fire.11
This transformation is the result of the promise given by Our Lord Himself the night before He died (Jn 14:23): "If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up our dwelling with him." And St. Paul adds (1 Cor 3:16): "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?" The soul in the state of grace has, literally, all three Divine Persons dwelling within it. We rightly reverence the tabernacle, or the chalice even when they are empty, because they have contained the Body and Blood of Christ. But yet, though the tabernacle and the chalice do deserve respect, still the divine presence in them has not changed their nature. But our souls, as we have seen, are changed by grace, by the Three Divine Persons dwelling within them, making our souls into something superhuman, something sharing in the very nature of divinity.
Such, then, is our tremendous dignity. But also rightly does the liturgy place on our lips these words before we say the Our Father: "Jesus taught us to call God our Father, and so we have the courage to say. . . ."