Being a convert and a chemist, I am a visual person. I need models and images to picture in my mind, much like a scaffolding, so I can build understanding of an abstract concept. This is what we do when we draw atoms with nuclei and whirling electrons; the model helps us figure out how to make new substances because we envision electrons orbiting in energy levels, some available for bonding and others too tightly bound. So when I tried to explain the Catholic Faith – faith, the substance of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1) – to myself and then to my children, I used the same approach. I constructed images in my mind. I was delighted to learn that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the use of metaphors raises our minds to the knowledge of divine truths (ST.I.1.9).
To explain grace, I imagined it like glasses of water that God sets down on the kitchen counter for us to drink in. Grace is abundant. As much as we think we need, indeed as much as God knows we need even if we don’t fully grasp the purpose of each event in our lives and how it fits into the greater plan, God will grant the glasses of grace. But we have to do our part. It is up to us to reach out and accept the glass of grace, put it to our lips, and drink Christ into our souls. Accepting grace is a total act of free will, never forced. The choice is always ours. We receive grace every time we say “yes” to God in prayer, in the sacraments, in striving to do good.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1997-1999) says that grace is “favor,” the free and unearned help that God provides so we can follow his will. When we accept grace, we participate in the life of God and are united into the intimacy of the Trinitarian life. We become adopted children in union with Christ, the only Son, and can call God “Father” because grace is infused by the Holy Spirit who breathes life and love into us. Grace in the people of God forms the Church. The adopted children become partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. A glass of water will sustain us for a time. Grace will bring us to Heaven forever.
But, like my children, I’m a doer. I want to know what to do with grace after I accept it. What happens? How do I know if it works? What does it feel like? Well, it’s kind of mysterious just like water. You could be the smartest person in the world and be utterly unable to ever determine exactly where all the H2O molecules go inside you. You feel the effects though. Your thirst is quenched, your temperature regulated. With grace, likewise, you receive the fruits of the Spirit. The tradition of the Church lists twelve of them: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity (CCC 1832). In moments of chaos, you feel supernatural joy and peace. You become patient and kind. You receive clarity in your mind and gentleness in your heart. You are more alive in everything you do.
The reception of grace can go wrong too. A person can pray for grace, and pick up a tall glass of it, but hold it high to show it off instead of drinking it in. “Look at me! Look how much grace I have!” A person can feel so ashamed of sin that he doubts the mercy of God, only touching his lips to the edge of the glass, afraid to go further. Some people choose to ignore the glasses altogether. In relationships, we may find that we pray for a loved one to receive grace, and we may pray so hard that we seem to stand for years with our arm outstretched holding the glass, waiting, and simultaneously trying to gulp grace with the other hand to keep from collapsing. The grace of marriage can be particularly fruitful in the most intimate of human bonds, but it can also be the most painful. A spouse may have the duty of praying a lifetime for a beloved who turns away. How beautiful it is, though, if a man is there with his dying wife to offer her the last sip before she passes on because he remained faithful to her even in suffering.
My children know that I have a hard time letting them go, and they know that the more I must let them go, the more I hold them close in my heart, praying for them daily that they are so surrounded by grace that it is always there when they need it, begging God to shower them every minute of their lives. For sure there have been times when I thought I would sit on them and pour the grace down their everloving throats, but of course, I cannot. All I can do is go back to my own countertop, ask God for another glass, sit down at the table with my husband, and sip quietly in prayer and in faith that God loves them more than we ever could, although I don’t know how that is possible. I even named one of my daughters Mercedes Grace. When she was a baby, I literally held onto my mercies and grace, and I kissed her and hugged her to my heart’s content. That’s what my Grace feels like.
Wherever you are in your journey of faith, I pray for you too, that you are satiated and filled with Christ’s grace, whatever joys and pains you are experiencing. In communion, please pray for me and my family in return.