Does Responding to God's Grace Get Easier the More One Responds?

June 16th, 2014

Does responding to God's grace get easier the more one responds?

The poet Dante thought so, for one. We see this in the second installment of his Divine Comedy, The Purgatorio. In Canto IV, Dante is guided by Virgil as they laboriously climb — an ascent made famous anew by Thomas Merton, Dante imagined purgatory as a Seven Storey Mountain — finally arriving on the first ledge. Their climb is a metaphor for the post-mortem purification that cleanses the sinner for heaven. Dante says, "There we sat, facing eastward, to survey / the trail we had just climbed; for oftentimes / a backward look comforts one on the way." Yet as Dante looks backward and sees the base of the mountain below them, he also looks upward, and is dismayed. He asks Virgil how far they have yet to climb, for "the peak soars / higher to Heaven than my eye can go."

Virgil responds: "Such is this mount that when a soul / begins the lower slopes it most must labor; / then less and less the more it nears its goal."

The spiritual value of reading a poem like The Purgatorio is that as one contemplates the purification a soul needs in order to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt. 5:48), one may put one's life in order and grow in sanctification here below. And it is Dante's view that, while the first steps of response to grace are rather agonizing, one begins to gain momentum as one goes up the mountain. This expresses the truth that the more one responds to grace, the more one relies on grace and is, as it were, borne aloft by grace with increasing effortlessness. With practice, the will gets more used to choosing the Good (who is God, Lk. 8:19).

Dante's conception reflects the scholastic Christian metaphysical tradition vigorous in his time (through the growing university system and the influence of such luminaries as St. Thomas Aquinas). This tradition is an effort to synthesize all truth, from whatever source (pagan, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, from the natural study of nature or from divine revelation), within an overarching philosophical framework governed by Christian theology's divinely revealed knowledge of the Trinity and salvation through Jesus Christ. One important influence on the medieval scholastics was a writer who calls himself Dionysius, formerly thought to be the Dionysius of Acts 17, but now called Pseudo-Dionysius. Dante's understanding of the way responding to grace gets easier as one goes reflects a truth of Pseudo-Dionysian metaphysics (from The Divine Names chapter 4):

The Good is described as the light of the mind because... it drives from souls the ignorance and the error squatting there. It clears away the fog of ignorance from the eyes of the mind and it stirs and unwraps those covered over by the burden of darkness. At first it deals out the light in small amounts and then, as the wish and the longing for light begin to grow, it gives more and more of itself, shining ever more abundantly on them because they "loved much" (Lk. 7:47), and always it keeps urging them onward and upward as their capacity permits.

God, then, gives more light and grace as we grow in capacity to receive these things. The goodness that God increases in us more and more makes it easier to choose the ultimate Good who is God.

From these writers, it seems it ought to grow easier to respond to grace the more one responds.

Does this contradict with the truth that sometimes the saints and mystics undergo great spiritual sufferings, and sometimes disciples of Jesus meet with martyrdom literally? Is it easier to choose the grace of confessing Jesus when it means ostracism or execution than it is to initially give one's heart to Jesus, put oneself forward for baptism, repent of an intransigent sin, or confess the faith of the Church? The answer to this difficulty, I think, is that choosing God's grace does not necessarily make the outward circumstances of life easier — sometimes the opposite. The courageous face fears cowards never encounter. But it is precisely the increasingly habitual response to grace over months and years of worship and discipleship that enables a Christian to respond to grace when sufferings come. The road to heaven is paved by small responses to grace. The Lord says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30).

May we not be indolent in choosing the Good. May we climb the mountain of this life as a purgatory — may we be lifted until we soar.

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