Grace Does Not “Build On” Nature

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

This Monday is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Mary’s Birthday). It is a nice time to reflect on the adage, “grace perfects nature.”

The phrase is often incorrectly paraphrased, “grace builds on nature,” and understood to mean something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Someone might say, God will “perfect” your virtue, but “grace builds on nature,” so you need to take the first steps.


This understanding of “grace builds on nature” is a heresy, called semi-Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a British (or perhaps Irish) monk in the early 400s. He went to Rome, where he was known for his saintly life and theological writings. But sometimes a saintly life goes with bad ideas – because one’s saintliness is not as great as it appears, or because one’s practices are better than one’s description of them.

On the practical level, Pelagius argued that holiness was ours for the taking. God has done his part. You just need to “try harder!”

On the theological level, he argued that original sin is not really an infection, but more like a bad example. The Gospel, then, heals us only by teaching us how to try harder. We need a better example, but we don’t need our souls to be healed.


St. Augustine and others responded with concern – based on both better self-knowledge and better knowledge of Scripture.

We need more than good example. We need grace. Pelagianism became understood as the heresy of denying the need for grace.

But the controversy went on for several years, allowing the argument to become clearer, and giving the Church the chance to think through more carefully what Scripture and the Tradition really taught about grace.

“Semi-Pelagianism” refers to various attempts to modify the Pelagian account so that grace plays some role. But these attempts are called “semi-Pelagian” because they don’t take grace seriously enough to account for the Christian faith.

So the Pelagians said, “nature is grace!” Our ability to just try harder is grace – and then it’s up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Scripture is grace!” God gives us the gift of his teaching – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Plus, faith is grace!” Knowing that Scripture is the example we should follow is a gift – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that. This is all still “semi-Pelagianism.”

Grace does not “build on” nature. Grace is not something that God gives us to get us started, nor is grace something God gives us after we get ourselves started. Grace goes all the way through.


Grace does not “build on” nature, it perfects nature. To understand this, think of the birth of Mary. What are we celebrating here?

We are celebrating promise. This little child has the possibility of union with Christ. She has the potential for Christ to be conceived in her womb. – human nature is such that Christ can be united in it.

And she has the potential to be Queen of Heaven. Grace will not do away with this person, will not replace her with something else. It will perfect her. In this child we see the possibilities of human nature.

Here the “nature” in “grace perfects nature” is not Mary’s natural effort. It’s her self. To say that grace perfects nature is to say that it is she herself who will be fulfilled by grace: her human desires and potentialities.

To celebrate the baby Mary is to think that this creature, who has not yet done anything, is the kind of thing that can become Queen of Heaven. It is to see the promise built into human nature.


Celebrating the birth of Mary also points us backwards nine months, to the Immaculate Conception. We see that before she has made any effort at all, already God is at work in her, healing the wounds of original sin and leading her to the life of heaven.

Thus the birth of Mary points both backward, to the work of grace that precedes her natural effort, and forward, to the artwork that grace will bring about in her.

But it also points to the present: to Mary herself, as the human being in whom grace operates. The “nature” in “grace perfects nature” points to that reality: her, herself.

It is here that human effort comes in: not that our effort adds anything to God’s grace, but that it is precisely in our personal transformation, in our nature, that grace happens.

How could you better meditate on the awesome work of God’s grace?

The Sacramental Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Over the last several weeks we have considered how each of the seven sacraments can serve as a model for our spiritual life. Today in conclusion let us consider how our whole life can be sacramental.

The sacraments are sacred signs. They show Christ’s presence in all the key moments of life: birth, death, coming of age, community leadership, the most basic relationships of family, our daily struggle to love better, and, in the Eucharist, our daily life in communion with the God we worship.

The sacraments confer grace. They penetrate us with the life of Christ. But it would be too little to think that grace comes only “after” we receive them. It is grace that draws us toward them, grace that leads one to ask for Baptism, grace that leads the sinner to repent and go to Confession, grace that makes us long for the Eucharist, divine, sanctifying, transforming grace that leads us to consecrate our lives in marriage or the priesthood.

The sacraments, we could say, confer grace “in both directions.” They “go before us,” drawing us on, pulling ourselves to them, just as the people of his time were drawn by the magnetism of grace to Jesus. Grace does not leave us as we were before; grace makes us want to do something, to come to Jesus. Grace makes us want to express our new life through the sacraments. All of our life, the Holy Spirit is driving us to the sacraments.

In the sacraments we consummate that grace, we live it out in its fullest way. In Confession, we become no longer just sort of penitent, but true, sacramental penitents; no longer just vaguely thinking of Jesus, but uniting our sufferings to his in the Anointing of the Sick, etc. The sacraments show what grace does in us. And when we come to those perfect moments in the life of grace, when we act like graced people by truly participating in the sacraments, the sacramental life of grace is fulfilled and renewed in us, and so the sacraments drive us forward, as well.


St. Patrick’s fabulous prayer, “the Breast Plate,” sums up the sacramental life admirably. Toward the end, it says

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left

To live the life of the sacraments is always to be running to Christ, and to know that it is Christ himself who has given you the grace to run to him. Christ before me, Christ behind me.


At the heart of the sacraments is the Eucharist. They all revolve around the Eucharist as around the sun.

We receive Christ in communion. On the one hand, our life is profoundly united to him. He comes to dwell in us, and draws us to dwell in him. Our whole life is consecrated by union with Jesus.

On the other hand, we receive this union as a gift – purchased at a price we did not pay. We know that union with God is not something we can grasp at, but something he freely offers to us. We express this everytime we come running to communion – every time, even in prayer and at a distance, we long to come running to communion.

We offer Christ on the altar. He is the priest, offering perfect thanksgiving to the Father – and we unite ourselves to his perfect prayer. He is the victim, the sign we offer of how precious the Father is to us. He is the altar, upon which we offer ourselves. By joining our worship to his, we not only accept him as the perfect worship, but say that we want to give our life as fully to the Father as he did.


To live the sacramental life is to be all Eucharistic. It is to love this sign, this culmination and fulfillment, this source and summit of our perfect prayer and perfect self-offering in love. And it is to love that culmination of the life of grace in such a way that it penetrates all of our life. To be all Eucharistic.

The other sacraments show our whole life ordered to the Eucharist. Our new birth is our entrance to the Eucharistic Church, our coming of age is our commission to preach this perfect union. Even our marriages are calls to show the true, interpersonal love that is Jesus, and to order all our lives to helping others to love him better.


What parts of your life seem the least sacramental, the least Eucharistic? What would it mean to let them be filled with sacramental, Eucharistic grace?

First Sunday in Lent: The Trust of the New Adam


The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7; PS 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5:12-19; MT 4:1-11

The readings for Lent take us on a tour through salvation history. This week we have Adam, next week Abraham, then Moses, then Samuel and David.

Our reading from Romans compares Jesus and Adam: Jesus is the New Adam, Adam is “the type of the one who was to come,” the pattern that Jesus will fulfill.

Romans points to the theme of obedience, and even specifies that those who die without the Law suffer the consequences of sin, death, but not “after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,” because where there is no commandment, there is no disobedience.


The reading from Genesis actually focuses on Eve (which is why the early Church Fathers thought Mary was also interesting as the partner of the New Adam). On the one hand, God has given Adam and Eve not only a garden – “various trees . . . that were delightful to look at and good for food” – but also the breath of life itself. But he has also given a command. Perhaps the arbitrariness of the command – don’t eat from this tree – emphasizes the theme of obedience. It is purely a matter of trusting God.

Satan, the serpent, tells Eve not to trust God. Notice the parallel to what we just saw, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” Like all the other trees, it was “good for food” and “pleasing to the eyes.”

Though actually, the second expression is slightly different. What it says of all the trees is that they were beautiful and worthy of contemplation; but this tree made the physical eyes burn with desire.

And unlike the other trees, this one is “desirable for gaining wisdom.”

But what kind of “wisdom”? The immediate result is a change in their way of looking at each other: and they need to put clothes on. This “knowledge of good and evil” seems to emphasize evil, so that you don’t want a person with that knowledge to see you naked anymore. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “wisdom” here has to do with trickiness. Breaking trust with the Giver of Good Gifts, they have exchanged beauty for domination.


Our Gospel takes us to Jesus’s own encounter with Satan, where it goes exactly opposite. To Satan’s threefold provocation, Jesus responds that he lives on “every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” that he will not put “God to the test,” and that “him alone shall you serve” and worship.

With Romans we can use the shorthand of obedience, and say that where Adam (and Eve) were disobedient, Jesus (and Mary) were obedient. But more deeply, we can say that Adam did not trust God to provide for him. Jesus trusted God as the only true provider, so that even starving in the desert, his food is whatever word God speaks. What Jesus restores is the relationship of trust. And that flows even into how we look at the world, and one another. It takes us back to the wisdom of beauty, instead of the cunningness of lust.


We should follow Jesus’ example of trust in the Good God. But Romans urges that this is more than just an example. It is more like an infection.

Somehow – Paul doesn’t try to say how – Adam has infected all of us, so that distrust is our “new normal.” Even those who have not directly disobeyed – and here, Paul says that those outside the Law have not been directly disobedient – are still wounded by this broken relationship. Not naughty, wounded.

And somehow, Jesus, the new Adam, not only personally acts opposite to Adam, but also similarly has the possibility of “infecting” us – or healing us – with his trust. Paul uses the word grace, and it is the key word of the entire Bible.

“The grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” “Those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Through his “one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all.” The translation in church will say “acquittal,” but the real word is “being made righteous.”

This is the Good News of Lent. Not that we had better try really hard or God will punish us, but that God provides. He provided in the Garden and he provided in the Desert. But even more, he provides a new heart. Through our union with him – in faith, in love, and in the sacraments – he makes our hearts like unto his. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. Jesus shares with us his heart, heart of love and heart of trust. Trust in him.


Have you experienced Jesus changing your heart?

The Third Sunday of Advent: Awaiting the Redeemer

our lady of millenium

IS 35:1-6a, 10; PS 145:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11.

This Sunday we come to one of the days of “rose” (pink) vestments: Gaudete Sunday. Like Laetare Sunday in Lent, Gaudete is a pause in a preparatory season, a moment of joy (gaudete and laetare both more or less mean “rejoice”) in the midst of a season of repentance, a moment of “rose” among the purple.

It’s a nice reminder, in general, of what they call the “already-not yet” of Christianity. In fact, our fundamental posture is waiting. To be a Christian is to live in the “not yet”: this isn’t it. We live in darkness; we don’t see Jesus; we don’t see God. We wait for the final, ultimate feast.

And yet already there is rejoicing, already there is a foretaste. Even in this valley of tears, we have our feast days, our anticipations of the joy of heaven.


Our reading from James discusses the posture of waiting: like farmers, patiently waiting for “the precious fruit of the earth.”

He describes how we “farmers” ought to wait. True patience also means not complaining about one another. If we know that our ultimate joy is “not yet,” then we don’t need to be so tough on one another. Relax!

Yet on the other hand, “take as an example of hardship and patience the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Looking forward means preparing the way, actually looking forward. Patience does not mean getting comfortable here. It means living ourselves like we await something better – and calling others to look forward, too: like the prophets.


The reading from Isaiah gives an important illustration of what St. Thomas means by “grace perfects nature.” “Grace perfects nature” does NOT mean “God helps those who help themselves.” What it means is that the work God does for us in grace is the work we would naturally want to do for ourselves, if we could.

“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. . . . Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The point is: this is what is supposed to happen. Eyes are supposed to see, ears are supposed to hear. Parched land is, in a sense, not natural: flowers are normal, the way it’s supposed to be. Our Redeemer is our Creator. He doesn’t come along and do something completely bizarre. He restores nature to its pristine dignity.

And so Isaiah can even say God “comes with vindication.” He drives away the oppressor, restores our original freedom and dignity.

And ultimately, this is the way to understand what it means for us to “see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” To “enter Zion singing” is to be “crowned with everlasting joy”: because we were made for this. Jesus restores our humanity, brings us back to ourselves. The Gospel is “joy and gladness” (the Latin says gaudium et laetitiam: the two rose Sundays) because it is what we are made for. Grace restores nature.


And so we understand the figure of John the Baptist, in the reading from Matthew. John is in prison – because he stands for the moral law. John, remember, told the King that his sexual practices were immoral.

But here we see John looking for the Restorer, the Redeemer. “Are you the one we seek?” he asks Jesus. “Go and tell John what you see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk” – nature is restored. That’s what John longed for.

Jesus then describes John: a prophet, out in the desert. Our desert references come together nicely. John goes to the natural place that awaits redemption to proclaim that we await redemption: that human society is not alright, that we desperately need Jesus to set things right.

Jesus says this is the true way of the prophet. This is the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus. Only when we realize we are in the desert can we really long for the Messiah.

This is the greatest we can do: “among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” Nothing is more human than acknowledging that our situation is not human: we are in a dry land, blind and lame, not in the land of rejoicing and the vision of God.

“Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Because ultimately, there is restoration. This waiting, this longing, is not what it’s all about. We look forward to something so much greater.


How do you experience humanity’s desperate need for the Savior?

The 31st Sunday in Ordinary time: The Power of Grace

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, Novmber 3, 2013.  For last week’s reflection, click here.

WIS 11:22-12:2; PS 145: 1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 THES 1:11-2:2; LK 19: 1-10

This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the story of Zacchaeus, the short, wealthy tax collector who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus called him down, and asked him to eat in his house. When the people saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus repented of his sins – extorting taxes from the poor. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

Zacchaeus is a wonderful story of the working of grace. The first move seems to be Zacchaeus’s: he climbs the tree. And yet the detail of him climbing the tree just emphasizes that something miraculous is happening in Zacchaeus’s soul. He was not a good man. What made him climb the tree? The attraction of Jesus – the power of grace, moving in his soul. The first move is not Zacchaeus’s. It is Jesus who comes to seek and to save.

Similarly, though Zacchaeus repents, and repents powerfully – “half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” – the power of that repentance itself emphasizes the miraculous attraction of Jesus. This doesn’t just happen! It is precisely the presence of Jesus that transforms Zacchaeus’s heart.


The same dynamic explains intercessory prayer, the theme of the reading from Second Thessalonians. “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” This is a remarkable statement. It is God who makes us worthy. It is God who transforms our hearts. Conversion is a kind of miracle.

That is precisely why we can pray for people. We don’t just pray that a dozen eggs will appear at their front door. We can also pray for the conversion of their hearts. Because the God who created their hearts can convert their hearts. In fact, only God is powerful enough to overcome our selfishness.

Paul concludes with a nice formula. “That the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.” Which one is it? As with Zacchaeus, so with every conversion: it is God who turns us, and we who turn. Zacchaeus really does repent: he repays the people he has cheated, he climbs the tree, he sets out on the way of faith. But it is Jesus who makes that happen in him. We mustn’t have false dichotomies, where a work either belongs to God or to us. It is God who works in us. The result of God’s grace is that Zacchaeus converts.

Jesus is glorified in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is glorified in Jesus. Do not separate the two! This is the work of grace


The Old Testament reading, from the Book of Wisdom, takes us to the heart of the theology of grace. “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.”

God is merciful because God is powerful. On the one hand, our sin doesn’t hurt God: all of creation is like nothing next to him. Sin hurts me, not him. God can overlook sin because it doesn’t hurt him.

But in another sense, he can’t, and doesn’t overlook sin. For my heart to be turned away from God is bad for me. It’s not a question of whether he “minds.” Sin hurts me. God’s mercy is not to ignore my sin. In fact, God’s mercy is precisely that he does not overlook sin: he heals us. He comes to seek and save the lost. And he is powerful enough to do it.

“You love all things that are . . . for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” God created us because he loves us. He has absolute power over us – but precisely that power shows forth his love: he only made us because he wanted us to exist. Jesus made Zacchaeus – so it is no surprise that he comes to save him.

“Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!” Not for his sake, but for ours. He made us for happiness, and wants to bring us to his perfect happiness. Repentance is a gift.


How have you come to realize that sin hurts you? And how have you come to realize that it is God who has come to heal you, not you who heal yourself?

“Full of grace”

Hail Mary ImagePart 2 in our series on the Hail Mary.

Today we continue our journey through the Hail Mary, with the most important part of all.

The phrase is from the Angel, who addresses her, “Hail, full of grace: kecharitomene.” It is a strange greeting. According to St. Luke, “and at his word she was troubled, and cast about in her mind what manner of salutation this might be” (Luke 1:29). The Greek is quite nice: it is at his word (logos) that she is troubled – Greek lets you put that forward and emphasize it in a strong way – and her grappling is die-logiz-eto: “dialoging,” but more to the point, bumping around this logos, grappling with the strange word that he uses. Why has he called her this?

This is the name he gives her. He doesn’t say, “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” He says, “Greetings Highly-Favored,” or “Full-of-Grace,” as if it is her name. At Lourdes Mary told St. Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  This is similarly bizarre language: not “I was immaculately conceived,” but I AM the Immaculate Conception. It’s who I am, what I am. Our Lady of Lourdes was just glossing this strange greeting of the Angel.

Luke’s narrative is nicely crafted – sometime we can explore this at length – with parallels between Mary and Zechariah, in order to show how they are alike and how they are different. It’s interesting to compare here: Mary struggled with the word he used, but “when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.” The difference is intentional – just as when Zechariah is struck dumb, but Mary’s mouth is opened in the Magnificat. Mary isn’t scared, she’s just overwhelmed at this magnificent name she has been given: kecharitomene.


“Full of grace,” gratia plena, is St. Jerome’s lovely attempt to translate this loaded Greek term. Isn’t gratia plena just about the most beautiful phrase you’ve ever heard?

Let’s break down the Greek ke-charit-o-men-e – Greek lets you cram all sorts of information into a single word. The central concept is charis (the ending changes to a –t in most of its grammatical forms): grace. We will have to talk about what that means in a minute. The -o- indicates that something has happened to the subject. She is “be-graced” or just “graced”: there’s something that has happened to her. Ke- and -men- indicate the grammatical tense called “perfect.” That doesn’t mean (by itself) that she’s perfect. It means that the action is completed. Not “on the way to being begraced,” or “half way begraced” but “all the way begraced.” And, just a small nice note, the -e is a feminine ending. Because Mary is feminine.

Not easy to translate, but you see how nice St. Jerome’s option is. Fully graced. Full-graced. But gratia plena is so much more beautiful. And you see how insufficient is the Protestant translation, “Highly favored.” Well, sure, but that does not signify (a) that this is a personal transformation, that has happened to her; (b) that it is complete (try “totally favored”!); (c) that it is given to her as a personal name, or title (maybe “Highly-Favored”?); or (d) that we are talking about grace, the core concept of the whole New Testament.


So what is grace? Well, in fact, that’s what everything about Mary is meant to reveal – what the rest of the Hail Mary helps to reveal. But the core concept (the Protestant translation does get this right) is “favor.”

Interesting, though: “favor” indicates two things, and they are both operative in the understanding of grace. In one sense, “favor” indicates what someone thinks of you. She is “in” God’s favor, he likes her. But in another sense, “favor” indicates what someone does for you: God has given her a favor. In fact, God, who is Creator, and who makes everything to be what it is, is the source of what makes Mary favorable. She is likeable to him (in his favor) because of what he has done in her (by giving her a favor).

When God finds favor, it is not because he has changed his standards, but because he has changed us. The path to heaven is to be transformed by his grace, to become a new creation. He makes us new, just as he made Mary new – totally, completely, transformed by his grace.

Everything else in the theology of Mary, in fact, ultimately hinges on this magnificent revelation from the Angel: Mary is Gratia-Plena, kecharitomene.

And our hope is that God will favor us, too.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.