Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Father William Most Collection

Extraordinary grace

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

It surely take a lot more to move some souls than others. We think of the case of St. Augustine, hardened until about age 30, by constant sin. His Mother prayed and did penance literally for years to get his conversion.

And in general, when a Saint goes out to get some soul that is hardened or blind, the Saint usually gets the result. When more ordinary souls try it, there is often little or no result.

We must ask why? Clearly, some are hardened or blind. This can go so far as the sin against the Holy Spirit of which Our Lord Himself said that it would never be forgiven.

What about this blindness or hardness? Clearly a figure of speech, but a solid reality is behind it. We get help by starting with Matthew 6. 21: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." In the narrow sense, that would mean a box of coins buried under the floor for safe keeping. If a man has such a stash, of course he likes to think of it: It is like a magnet pulling his thoughts and heart. But we see easily that one can put his treasure not only in a box of coins, but in all sorts of things: in huge meals, in gourmet meals, in sex, in travel, in study, even in the study of Scripture. All these are, of course, lower than God Himself, some much lower than others. So that is a first factor.

There is a second factor: How much does the soul let itself be caught in the pulls of these creatures? The least would be pulls that lead only to imperfection, less than a venial sin. The next level would be occasional venial sin - then habitual venial sin -then occasional mortal sin - then habitual mortal sin.

The lower the creature, and the more a soul lets itself be pulled, the harder it is for its thoughts and heart to rise to the divine level. As Our Lord Himself said, this can go so far that the soul cannot be forgiven at all. That would not mean that God is ever unwilling to forgive - of course not, but it means that the soul makes itself simply incapable of registering the coming of an actual grace, that is, the kind sent to lead and enable one to do a particular good thing here and now.

A supplementary comparison will help. We think of a galvanometer, which is simply a compass needle on its pivot, with a coil of wire around it. We send in a current into the coil, and the needle swings the right direction, and the right amount, measuring the current.

Now the needle should read correctly, provided there is no competition from outside pulls. It might be near a 33, 000 volt power line or a lot of magnetic steel. Then there are two forces hitting the needle: the current in the coil, and the outside pulls. If the outside pulls are very powerful, and the current in the coil is gentle, the current in the coil may be swamped, overwhelmed, unable to make any impression on the needle.

The meter is my mind. The current in the coil is grace. Grace is always gentile in that it respects my freedom - the outside pulls, if one lets himself be heavily enmeshed, take away freedom.

Then the poor soul cannot perceive even the first thing a grace needs to do, namely, the grace should put into the man's mind what God is trying to lead it to do.

If grace cannot do the first thing, of course it will not do any further things. So the man is blind, hardened.

Is there any hope for such a man? Yes, if someone else should do heroic work in penance and prayer, an extraordinary grace could be given. Such a grace would need to as it were cut through the resistance.

Can this be done without taking away the freedom of the man? Yes, God is transcendent, that is, He is above and beyond all our categories. He can move a soul in such a way that resistance either never develops, or He can cut through the resistance, without taking away free will.

St. Thomas has two passages that can help us to see our way in this difficulty. In Contra gentiles 3. 159 Thomas wrote: "Since this is in the power of free will [namely] to impede or not to impede the reception of grace, not wrongly is it charged as a fault against him who sets up an impediment to the reception of grace. For God, so far as is in Him, is ready to give grace to all... but they alone are deprived of grace who set up an impediment to grace in themselves."

We gather something of capital importance: God - not strange, for He can do anything He wills - can send a grace such that He leaves the man capable of resisting, or not resisting the grace.

If the man does not resist, then the grace moves ahead in its course, and brings him to do good.

But Thomas also sees another possibility, the one we indicated above. In Summa I II 112. 3 he says: "If it is the intention of God who moves, that the man, whose heart He is moving, should receive grace, he infallibly receives it." We notice two things. He says in such a case the man "infallibly" receives it. We also notice that Thomas says, "if it is the intention of God", this happens, that is, the man infallibly receives grace.

Can this fit with what the same Thomas said above in Contra gentiles 3. 159? Of course. So, there must be two situations, or two kinds of graces: 1) In one situation or with one kind of grace, God moves the man in such a way that the man really can impede or not impede the grace. 2) In the other situation, God so moves that regardless of anything else, the man infallibly receives the grace. But Thomas specifies that this happens only if, God intends to move that way.

So we get hack to something we said earlier: There are ordinary graces, and there are extraordinary graces.

We can begin to see that the ordinary graces are enough if the man is not blinded or hardened: if he is hardened or blind, something more, something extraordinary is needed.

In what sense should we call the one kind of grace extraordinary? In the sense that it can cut through resistance, and yet leave the man free. How? Only divine Transcendence could do the two things at once, for they seem to be contradictory.

But all things are possible to Divine Omnipotence.

How could we visualize the process? We saw that Thomas says a man can impede or not impede. He did not say - we need to notice this - that the man can positively make a decision to accept the grace. Why not? St. Paul in Phil. 2. 13 says: "It is God who works, that is, produces in you both the will and the doing." So we will not actually make a good decision unless He so moves us.

So we look at the start of the process: God sends a grace. The first thing it needs to do, of course, is to put into the man's mind the good thought of what God wants to lead him to do. We get this from 2 Cor 3. 5 (if we translate following the definition (in DS 377) of the Second Council of Orange): "We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves: our sufficiency is from God." That is: We cannot get a good thought without Him. Our Lord said: "Without me you can do nothing".

So the work starts when God puts into the man's mind the good thought. At that point the man could impede or not impede, as Thomas puts it. If the man merely does not impede, that is, does nothing against the grace - no decision at all - then the grace moves ahead in its course, and, to paraphrase Phil 2. 13, works in him both the will and the doing. At the same instant, we are cooperating, by power being received at the same instant from that grace.

This, then, is the process when God sends a grace such that the man could either impede or not impede, as Contra gentiles 3. 159 says.

But suppose the grace encounters a block, the man's resistance. Then God may simply allow the man to resist. As Thomas said, the man can impede or not impede. But if God in spite of that wills that the man should receive grace - as Thomas said in I-II 112. 3 - then it can be done, and the man will receive it.

But we need to notice a great difference here. In the ordinary case, in which God lets the man free to impede or not, the first decision on the outcome is the man's. So St. Paul could write in 2 Cor 6. 1: "We urge you not to receive the grace of

God in vain." And all over Scripture we find the same sort of thing: "Repent, return to God."

But we turn to the extraordinary case, that in which God so intends that the man receive grace that the man is no longer permitted to impede. Yet as Thomas says, even then God can -working in a transcendent way - cause that man to receive grace in spite of the resistance. Does this mean that God is canceling out freedom? No, we said God works in a transcendent way, namely, He can do two things at once, which seem incompatible: He can leave the man free, and can yet infallibly move the man.

But now a vital difference. We said that in the ordinary mode, the first decision comes from man, in line with St. Paul, 2 Cor 6. 1: "We urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain." But in the extraordinary mode, St. Paul's words would not apply, for the man can be caused to receive grace in spite of his own resistance. This we must say is not taking freedom away, but reducing it so that the first decision on whether or not grace comes in vain, is god's, not man's.

But, of course, it is not always that the first decision is God's: it is extraordinary. If we said that always God would make the first decision, that is, if He would always move a man infallibly, then the first decision on when and whether and what kind of evil or sin would be done would be simply God's. To say that would be blasphemous, to say God decided on all sins!

So this is why some graces need to be called extraordinary: they do not let the ordinary process operate. Instead, God by transcendence overcomes resistance, and does so in such a way that the man retains freedom. But the freedom now is reduced. We might call it secondary instead of primary. the first decision now comes from god, not from the man.

This helps to explain many things. We see now how it is that Saints can bring back even hardened sinners. Their heroic penance and prayer makes it suitable for God to work outside the ordinary way, to give even an extraordinary grace (They as it were put an extraordinary weight into the scales of the objective moral order, calling for an extraordinary grace). It explains too how Our Lady is said to have told the Fatima children to pray and make sacrifices, for there are some who would be lost if someone else did not do that for them. These souls are hard or blind. Only an extraordinary grace can rescue them. To give that, God in good order (cf. Summa I. 19. 5. c), needs to have the special reason of an extraordinary weight in the scales, as it were.

What a need there is today for souls to do penance, to pray, and to accept sufferings that come to them to obtain extraordinary graces, for which Our Lady of Fatima pleaded, for hardened sinners!



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