Aquinas: On Grace

I would venture to say that both the strength and weakness of Aquinas can best be understood in light of how he believes knowledge is acquired about God and his creation, the body and soul, and the part that our grace plays through it all.

For Aquinas, much like Aristotle, much knowledge is gained by observing the world through our senses and compartmentalizing its importance by reason. Nevertheless, while there are subjects that we learn through reason, there are others that we understand only through divine revelation, and still yet concepts that require both.  When we look at the world in God’s creation we are able to see beauty, wisdom, being and goodness.This notion that our bodies are not evil but through our senses we are able to understand God’s creation and, in part, knowledge of the existence of our Creator is a strength for Aquinas. We look at creation and understand the material that comprises it (clay), and in what shape it is in (pot), understand something about the creator who made it (potter), and ultimately the purpose for which it was made.

However, although this allows us to know aspects of God, Aquinas concedes that human reason is still limited in fully comprehending God’s magnificence.  Aquinas noted that “while a philosopher can show that God exists, he doubted that reason can tell us much about God’s nature…only what He is not.” [1]  Aquinas consequently argues that human reason must be met with God’s revelation of himself simply to understand his existence.  Therefore, since they both come from God, reason and revelation do not oppose each other, but supplement each other [2] .

When it comes to understanding mankind, Aquinas makes a further distinction in his causality argument. Aquinas sees the soul as the form for the body, and although they can exist separately it is not humanity’s ultimate purpose. Rather, the ultimate goal would be at “Christ’s second coming and the general resurrection when we will exist as embodied souls”. [3] .This ultimate goal or union with God is not achieved, however, by our own reason or will but as an added salvific grace. “Moreover, the Incarnation holds up to man an ideal of that blessed union whereby the created intellect is joined, in an act of understanding to the uncreated Spirit…returns by a sort of circulatory  movement to his first beginning, being united by the work of the Incarnation to the very principle of all things”. [4]

Foremost, Aquinas saw that grace and nature complemented each other in mankind in an “indwelling of grace that elevates our nature and leads us to pursue happiness” [5]  Further, there are also virtues of faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, prudence that will bring us closer to God when matured. In cooperating with grace we are able to live moral lives and good works are seen. This is strength for Aquinas, because it helps us understand the search for virtue, meaning and happiness in those who have yet to experience God’s grace in conversion. [6] However ,what if one’s natural pursuit for happiness is more a product of society’s influence than of the moral law of our creator? Aquinas noted, that “ through sin the reason is obscured especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult, and concupiscence more impetuous”(Summa I-II, 85,3)

Further, Aquinas’ argument that some truths are only known by revelation from God, would also suggest that there are truths which will not be understood by those who do not believe in God. Hence, “the way in which we understand the substance of a thing determines the way in which we know what belongs to it” (Contra Gentiles 3, 3, 3) Those who do not believe in God, therefore will not accept divine truth and will look to society to explain the truths in the world. Thus, a salvific grace is “added to those of nature in such a way that it does not destroy the latter but perfects” [7] . On this idea of grace and the remission of guilt Aquinas notes, “Now the effect of the divine love in us which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby a man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive of the remission of guilt without the infusion of grace” (Summa Theologica II, 113, 3). Rather, because of sin, we cannot grow closer to God without the added grace to know and love God.

Without this God given grace, mankind could not achieve ultimate union with God which is the ultimate purpose of our creation.  Aquinas notes that through Christ humanity is restored, so that “henceforth men might serve God no longer out of fear of death…but out of love of charity”. The weakness in this concept of an added quantity of salvific grace is, I believe, that it does not adequately address the grace presently working in our continued relationship with God.  Here the ” ‘movement of the soul’ towards God is nothing more than faith”. [8]

It is important to recognize that the saints, much like you and I, were working out just who God is and how we come to know God in their own lives. Each one of us is invited to do the same, which in some ways unique to just who God created us to be. 

Reflect:

Who is God in my life today? What do I find moves my soul closer to God? What place does reconciliation play in my journey with God?


[1] Placher, William. (1983) A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. (First Edition). Westminster John Knox Press. p.152.
[2] Placher, p.153.
[3] Placher, p.155.
[4]Kerr, Hugh.  (1990) Readings in Christian Thought (Second Edition).  Abingdon Press. p. 119.
[5] Russell, (2012) Christian Doctrine Trinitarian Controversies, [Power point presentation]. Loyola University, Chicago, IL.
[6] Placher, p. 153.
[7] Ibid.
[8]Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. (2010) Holy Spirit and Salvation, Westminster John Knox Press, p.148.

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Worth Revisiting: Grace & Circumstance

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We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

— from Pope Francis and our Call to Joy

It’s a balmy 40 degrees outside today, yet even this isn’t meant to stay for very long. Temps will be dropping along with continual rain for the next few days. With a supply of hand and feet warmers and aluminum blanket in hand I prayed “Dear Lord help me to find who these warm essentials are meant for. Help them to know that they are thought of and loved.”

Walking up I recognize one woman who I know to be apprehensive of human connection, keeping to herself even among her fellow homeless. This is as close as she gets and thus I nod her way but continue walking towards the group huddled in the bus terminal hub. “John” smiles as I approach and his eyes widen as he notices I come bearing gifts. His full but weathered face reveals the harshness of the life he has led but his kind demeanor bursts forth immediately. While he is one who is able to stay in the local winter shelter for the nights, he joyfully accepts these to pass on to a friend who sleeps outside. As I have yet to meet “Bose”, having only seen his blankets and limited belongings resting under the awning of our parish center, I am thankful to finally find a way to help. Placing these on the bench beside him, John chooses to then generously share with me that he has found a job, the first one in awhile. What a blessing it is to know that not only will it give him a source of income, but will keep him out of the elements during the days.

In finishing up our conversation, we are joined by two other regulars “Chris” and “Nicole”. Despite her substantially layered frame, you can tell Nicole’s thin body is not able to tolerate the cold as many of the others. She is visibly cold, and her lips even are somewhat frozen as she struggles to say hello and reach for the hand warmers. Looking in her eyes I see what it is to suffer. Aware of a bit of her journey, Nicole is a victim of abuse leading to a life of alcoholism and subsequent life on the streets.  Her addiction has, on several occasions, even brought her inside the sacristy in her desire to numb her pain. Today, I am here to simply reach out to that part of her that she can offer.

What sets any one of us apart from anyone else? What is our common thread despite our condition in life? Grace and circumstance. Our choices do factor into the situations we find ourselves in, and the shape our lives take. Yet, I cannot help but recognize how easily an unexpected tragedy, circumstance or mental illness could make its demands on each one of us as well. This is love. This is what it is to walk briefly beside those who so often are our greatest teachers of mercy.

Peace,

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Worth Revisiting: The Grace We Need

If she could stand, she would undoubtedly comprise all of 5 feet. Slowly, age and physical limitations have taken her ability to walk, then stand and the wheelchair that she once could move can no longer be done on her own. Yet on the inside “Grace” towers, a living witness to a profound spirituality, her inspiring reverence and appreciation for the Eucharist is faithfully compelling.  In her suffering, she has shared not only of her struggle but of the gift and essentialness of communion and community.

It was about 6 years ago in the beginning of our Eucharistic Ministry to the nursing homes, that my husband and I first met Grace. My husband, having left Harvard when our economy took a major downturn was initially unsure of this assignment but more than ready to feel of use again. While he was certain that he could impart a bit of company and joy to those he visited in fulfilling this ministry, he was not prepared for what he would receive in return. His week spent researching the classifieds and applying for new jobs, would prove relentless with the exception of Sunday. Always faithful, but at times lukewarm in intensity, Sunday was the day he reserved for God. Little did he know that God had so much more in store for him, by this simple step forward in faith.

While wanting to go with him in these first few visits, I prayerfully held back, feeling God was preparing John for something special. So, with pyx in hand and a head full of concerns I watched as John hurriedly left the house, unquestionably working on the following day’s to-do list. However, no matter how he left the house, one could not help but notice that he never returned the same. In its place, peace and joy had consumed his countenance and he practically overflowed with a renewed strength. For, during this otherwise incredibly stressful time, God had opened a window.

After a bit of time, of observing all of this, the day came when with hopeful expectation he suddenly  asked,  “Would you like to go with me today? There is someone I would like you to meet.”   This was the moment I had patiently waited for.  “Of course, lead the way!”.  Though he carried a handwritten list of names and rooms, with notes beside each, it would be completely unnecessary. He knew each one, and wasted no time in introducing me as we entered with a rap at the door.

As we neared the last room he paused, grabbed my hand and a huge smile overtook his face. This was the one he so eagerly had wanted to share, the one that had inspired the transformation that I witnessed.

“Hi Grace!”, it’s John from St. Peter’s, “I brought my lovely wife Elizabeth with me today..”
“It is really SO good to see you, thank you for coming and making time for me..I cannot tell you what this means”, she exclaimed.
Then chatting for a few min about our families, health and week, John asked Grace, would you like to receive communion?”
“Oh, Yes! I REALLY need that!” , with hands clasped and eyes closing immediately in prayer.
“We all do Grace, we all do..” he answered without hesitation.

Have you ever considered Eucharistic ministry? Be prepared, the life transformed by Christ today, might be your own!

Grace and Circumstance

 :

We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

— from Pope Francis and our Call to Joy

It’s a balmy 40 degrees outside today, yet even this isn’t meant to stay for very long. Temps will be dropping along with continual rain for the next few days. With a supply of hand and feet warmers and aluminum blanket in hand I prayed “Dear Lord help me to find who these warm essentials are meant for. Help them to know that they are thought of and loved.”

Walking up I recognize one woman who I know to be apprehensive of human connection, keeping to herself even among her fellow homeless. This is as close as she gets and thus I nod her way but continue walking towards the group huddled in the bus terminal hub. “John” smiles as I approach and his eyes widen as he notices I come bearing gifts. His full but weathered face reveals the harshness of the life he has led but his kind demeanor bursts forth immediately. While he is one who is able to stay in the local winter shelter for the nights, he joyfully accepts these to pass on to a friend who sleeps outside. As I have yet to meet “Bose”, having only seen his blankets and limited belongings resting under the awning of our parish center, I am thankful to finally find a way to help. Placing these on the bench beside him, John chooses to then generously share with me that he has found a job, the first one in awhile. What a blessing it is to know that not only will it give him a source of income, but will keep him out of the elements during the days.

In finishing up our conversation, we are joined by two other regulars “Chris” and “Nicole”. Despite her substantially layered frame, you can tell Nicole’s thin body is not able to tolerate the cold as many of the others. She is visibly cold, and her lips even are somewhat frozen as she struggles to say hello and reach for the hand warmers. Looking in her eyes I see what it is to suffer. Aware of a bit of her journey, Nicole is a victim of abuse leading to a life of alcoholism and subsequent life on the streets.  Her addiction has, on several occasions, even brought her inside the sacristy in her desire to numb her pain. Today, I am here to simply reach out to that part of her that she can offer.

What sets any one of us apart from anyone else? What is our common thread despite our condition in life? Grace and circumstance. Our choices do factor into the situations we find ourselves in, and the shape our lives take. Yet, I cannot help but recognize how easily an unexpected tragedy, circumstance or mental illness could make its demands on each one of us as well. This is love. This is what it is to walk briefly beside those who so often are our greatest teachers of mercy.

Peace,

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