Chapter Four of Forming Intentional Disciples begins with a great quote: ‘Grace is grace, not magic’. In this chapter, Weddell seeks to underline the importance of what I described in the last post as an integrated Christian life. In other words, the importance of a life that does not stop with sacramental preparation and reception, but that begins there and is refreshed there, as a means to sanctification and salvation – as the means to becoming a saint.
I have often tried to reiterate the point made by Tertullian and others, that the sacrament of penance, for example, is not simply about the absolution of confessed sin, but also the means to the recovery of the grace given in baptism (cf. CCC §1446). Our reception of the sacraments effects the outcome of the sacrament, but it also pours into our hearts the grace we require for holiness. Making our confession and receiving absolution is not simply a matter of dealing with past sin, but an opportunity to grow in the life of grace in the future! Grace is given to us in order to strengthen us for the journey to heaven.
In speaking of this, Weddell points to St Thomas’s famous maxim, Grace perfects nature, and rephrases it in a beautiful way: ‘Grace heals the soul by helping us recognise the good while empowering us to desire the good, do the good, persevere in the good, and reach glory’ (p.98). This is important, because we too often lose sight of the necessity of virtue as the seedbed in which grace can grow. The integrated Christian life – a life founded on virtuous action – prepares the ground for the fruitful reception of the sacraments. The decision to live an intentional Christian life, an integrated life in Christ, then, is not simply – as we have noted – the choice to be particularly devout or pious, or to exercise a particular ministry of evangelisation. Rather, the decision to live as a disciple of the Lord Jesus is a matter upon which our salvation depends.
Following a similar line of thought, at the end of this chapter Weddell highlights an often misunderstood and misused phrase: ‘The Sacrament will take care of it’. This, she notes, is often taken to mean that the grace of the sacrament will make good those areas of Christian formation that are lacking in the life of a candidate for the sacraments, but this is incorrect and misleading.
Faith as a gift (virtus fidei) and faith as a lived-out action (actus fidei) are both essential elements of the Christian life. The capacity for a life of faith (virtus fidei) is given us in the sacraments, but there must first be a desire in the recipient to live that faith, else the grace simply falls on shallow ground (cf. Mt. 13). The grace loses no objective efficacy in such a context (to suggest otherwise would be to reduce things to something akin to receptionism) but, as St Thomas says, ‘He receives more heat who approaches nearest to [the fire], although the fire, as it is concerned, sends forth its heat equally to all’ (ST., III, q69, a8). In other words, a baptised and confirmed (even ordained) person, can regularly attend the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion, but what difference does such an action make in their lives? How does the reception of God’s grace correspond to the daily life of the recipient? Before receiving the sacraments, the soul and disposition of the candidate must first be formed to receive God’s grace, to recognise grace for what it is, and to act on the gift of grace as the means of sanctification. This requires a knowledge of the faith, and an encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ. To suggest otherwise risks superstition and the suggestion that the reception of grace is tantamount to a curtailment of man’s free will (cf. CCC §2111).
Intentional discipleship, then, is also a call to an integrated life of faith in which the capacity for belief and the act of faith are lived as one. In liturgical terms we can understand this as the authentic call of the Liturgical Movement, and of Mediator Dei, and we can ask – in that spirit – how can we possibly go unto the altar of God, and leave again without being truly changed?