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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2013

A Moment of Grace

(My Grace is Sufficient for Thee)

by Mary Jo Anderson

Catholic author Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964) wrote short stories that are pure shockers. No one who reads a Flannery story is left without some unease, as she makes it a point to afflict her characters with a moment of grace that was unbidden, and is never gentle.  She wrote, “I have found, in short, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”

A favorite story is “Revelation.”  The major character, Mrs. Turpin, is described as lacking humility for her shortcomings.  She always misses the beam in her own eye. Mrs. Turpin takes great satisfaction in her own sense of propriety. Armed with her grand illusion, she marches self righteously through life “smiting the Philistines hip and thigh.”

When she enters a doctor’s waiting room, filled with a cross section of humanity, her moment of grace is delivered. Mrs. Turpin glances around at her fellow human beings and finds that all fall short of her exalted standards.  However, a teenage girl named Mary Grace is the instrument of Mrs. Turpin’s “Ah Ha!” moment.  Sick of Mrs. Turpin’s evident distaste for everyone, Mary Grace throws a book at Mrs. Turpin’s head and sneers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” 

We may laugh, but we ought not, for many of us need just such a moment of grace — that moment of recognition that we ourselves are far short of God’s perfection.

The Divine Indwelling

Christians often remark, “By the grace of God…”  Most have a general recollection of the definition of grace as “a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation” (Baltimore Catechism 456). We have no intrinsic right to grace as part of our creation. It is a gift from beyond the created order of things, the indwelling of God in the soul, a sharing in the life of the Trinity.  Where this divine life is at work in the soul, the Church teaches that such a soul has not lost the affection of God and is “in a state of grace.”

The meaning and action of grace in the soul is taught in scripture, reflected in our prayers, defined in the catechism, and examples are drawn from the lives of the saints and literature. How can we know that grace is at work in our own daily lives? Too often it is assumed that when things are troubling, when life is difficult, that God must be far from us. Not so, if the lives of the saints are any indication.

A good place to begin is with Saint Paul, who wrote something about grace in each of his epistles.  “My grace is sufficient for thee.” This citation is found II Corinthians 12:7-9, “There-fore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

The background is Saint Paul’s admission that he has had revelations from God, and, that if he didn’t guard himself he might grow conceited and boast of his status. The “thorn” that God permitted Saint Paul to endure keeps the apostle’s feet on the ground, no lofty flights of self importance.  This thorn is a source of great discomfort. He tells us three times that he had asked the Lord to remove it. We don’t know what this “thorn” was, whether it was a physical ailment, a persistent temptation, or even a persecutor. Whatever his “thorn” may have been, Saint Paul was deeply distressed. But, what of God’s response to Saint Paul’s distress?  It seems harsh:  My grace is sufficient.   

Essentially, God tells Saint Paul to live with it, quit stewing, offer it up, and know that “my grace is sufficient” to get you through it — not to remove it, but the grace to endure.  So often, when we pray for a specific situation, we want God to “fix it” — today, fix it now. The answer we are not looking for is that we may need to endure it. 

Still, suppose one did not endure — what if one gave up or gave in? Is that to God’s glory? Does giving in lead to eternal life?

When viewed from that perspective, the grace to endure is a tremendous gift, a grace.  Christians and the Church were never promised an easy path — it’s a fallen world and Christians are not exempt from the consequences of Original Sin. In the Stations of the Cross we recognize that the invitation to “take up your cross and follow Me” is not an invitation to a picnic on a sunny day. 

There are crosses to bear. It is grace that sustains the desire to carry our cross for the sake of the Kingdom, then to actually accomplish that work in reality. Those two things — desiring and accomplishing — are not automatic cause and effect.  

We accomplish nothing without first willing it.  A caution here: It is possible to desire something, yet fall short of accomplishing it.  One might earnestly desire to run a marathon, but somehow never make time enough for that level of training, and thus fail to follow through.

The epistles of Saint Paul record how he desired to accomplish the work of building up the early Church.  He understood that “thorn” as an impediment, a cross that was heavy. When Paul cries out to God, it echoes Jesus’ lament in the Garden at Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Saint Paul also asked to be spared suffering, but, like Christ, he was not spared, yet he did triumph because, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

How do we obtain grace?

There are two essential kinds of grace, sanctifying grace (habitual grace) and actual grace. Sanctifying grace remains — that is, dwells — within us as long as we are free of mortal sin.  Actual grace is a burst of divine energy to push through to the finish line; to forgive injury, to defend the faith, to show compassion, or to avoid a great temptation — in short, to battle what Saint Paul calls “the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”  It is a temporary, supernatural aid given by God to enlighten the mind or strengthen the will. Actual grace comes to us when we need immediate help in doing (or avoiding) an action. It remains with us just until the action is complete. 

Actual grace may be unsought, but heaven offers us a moment of internal thunder, not unlike Mrs. Turpin, in which we come nose to nose with the truth of our condition — and in that moment we see ourselves as heaven does.  The great drama of these salvific moments is how we respond. We can accept or reject God’s grace — the offer of grace does not overwhelm our free will. (“How often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings ... and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34).

Frequently, we ourselves know we need actual grace: We bow our heads and pray for the grace to endure or accomplish a specific task, and somehow, “through the grace of God” we manage.  Everyone is given sufficient grace to cooperate in the salvation of his soul.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (CCC 989). “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996).

Sanctifying grace is imparted in the Sacrament of Baptism; the soul begins to participate in the grace of Christ (CCC 1997).  At baptism grace is infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it (CCC 1998). 

There is a charming retort given by Saint Joan of Arc at her trial when she was grilled by her judges. Asked if she knew if she was in God’s grace, Joan replied: “If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.”   Saint Joan understood her total reliance upon the gift of God’s grace.

Grace isn’t something that our human senses can detect. It belongs to the supernatural order (above and beyond human nature). Our first parents lost that precious grace, and mortality entered the world.  From here, on earth, there is absolutely no way of attaining divine life. Adam and Eve could not regain their — and our — lost life.  Nothing in the natural order is a pathway to divine life. There was no way home to heaven.  The offense of Original Sin was so great that only a perfect sacrifice could restore the divine life — and of course, that sacrifice is the shed blood of Jesus, the Son of God. Without Christ’s death and resurrection, heaven would remain closed to mankind. 

Clearly, our divine filiation, our adoption as a child of God, depends upon grace. Where, then, after baptism do we receive grace?

There is an outpouring of grace in the Mass and in valid and fruitful reception of the sacraments.  And while the opportunities to receive grace are many, we can lose sanctifying grace — a terrifying thought!

Loss of sanctifying grace is caused by mortal sin.  “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?; unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Corinthians 13:5). What if I am disqualified? What if I have offended God so deeply that He no longer makes His home in me?  

Grace through the other sacraments

We may regain our intimacy with God through the sacrament of penance. Frequent confession brings the grace to persevere in God’s friendship and accomplish the purpose for which He called us into being.

Grace is also received at Confirmation, our own Pentecost; the grace to profess our faith openly, with fervor and to practice it fearlessly. Thereby, we become the stalwart warriors in spiritual combat for Christ and His Church. 

Grace is conferred in the anointing of the sick. We often hear the phrase, “the grace of a happy death.” When Thérèse of Lisieux’s older sister, Sister Genevieve, told Cardinal Pacelli that she was praying that he might be elected pope, the future pope replied, “I’d much rather you prayed for me to have the grace of a happy death. That’s far more precious to me.”   

In 1 Peter 5:10, Saint Peter comforts those who persevere in faith: “God of all grace, who has called us unto His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little, will Himself perfect you and confirm you and establish you.” And Saint Paul says, “I am confident that He who hath begun a good work in you will perfect it unto the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

This “happy death” is very simply dying in a state of grace, not separated from the Divine life by serious sin. It is a great charity to attend to the sick and dying — to urge confession and the anointing of the sick for those in danger of death. And here too we have the sweet intercession of the Blessed Virgin, herself “full of grace”: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Grace is offered to us so that we may fight the good fight and complete our race as Saint Paul did. And yet, there is nothing certain about it the use of that grace. Grace is offered, but it remains to us to accept it, to cooperate with God’s gift. We must do our own part — the struggle to do the work of becoming holy. 

Saint Paul teaches us, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).


Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband, Frank. She speaks and writes on Catholic issues and is a frequent guest on EWTN television and radio. She is a member of the US bishops’ National Advisory Council. Mary Jo blogs sporadically at Properly

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