What does grace mean to you?
For some, it means simply the classic definition of the word: “pleasing,’ “elegant” or “refined.”
For Catholics, however, grace is something that God gives us in many ways.
When I was a child, I thought of grace as something falling from the sky, slowly and, well, gracefully. Like a cleansing rain in summer or snow on the crocuses in spring. And then, that snowy grace would sparkle like ice crystals and everything became shiny, crisp and fresh.
Grace makes us pleasing to God, so the springtime image has some value, because it is a pleasing image. As the “Baltimore Catechism” — what many of our grandparents and parents grew up with — said, grace “makes the soul holy and pleasing to God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that grace is how “divine life is dispensed to us” (n. 1131). Through grace, we become made, more and more perfectly, into the image of God.
Rain is perhaps a better analogy to use than snow in thinking about grace, because grace is God’s gift of love and friendship poured lavishly out upon us, like a warm, summer shower. Grace is given freely by God. There is nothing we do to deserve grace and nothing we can do to make God offer it more generously. God’s grace rains down upon all of us, calling us to turn toward God, just as a plant opens its flowers and leaves toward life-giving rain.
Two types of grace
In the teaching of the church, there are two types of grace: sanctifying and actual.
“Sanctifying” grace comes from the same Latin word from which we get the word for “saints.” God places sanctifying grace within us to make us more like God.
- Sanctifying grace is permanent and something that God gave us from the very start — at our baptism — through the saving act of Christ. Sanctifying grace makes us children of God. Sanctifying grace is always present to us; it is what stays in our soul and gives it life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls sanctifying grace “an habitual gift” (n. 2000). This is why sanctifying grace is also called “habitual grace.” It is given by God to help us live with God and act out of God’s divine love.
However, that does not mean we can’t lose sanctifying grace. We can, by our own free choice and by actions, turn away from God’s grace. Just as sanctifying grace assures us of eternal life — just as the saints live in eternal life with God — the loss of sanctifying grace means the loss of eternal life.
From creatures to friends
In the 16th century, the Council of Trent explained that — through the action of sanctifying grace — our relationship with God as creatures became transformed into a relationship of friendship. We are God’s friends through grace. And, just as we can turn away from our friends, we can turn away from God.
That is why God also gives us actual grace.
- Actual grace is not permanent like sanctifying grace. Actual grace comes in the form of temporary help and guidance (actions), sent to us by God, our loving friend. The catechism explains actual grace as “God’s interventions.”
When we are in a state of grace — whether we have committed venial sin or not — we are open to these interventions by God. Think of the times when you “just know” you’re supposed to do something nice for someone. Or you get “that sense” that someone you know needs a note or a card of encouragement. Or, in a tough situation, you realize that you are the one who can step up and “smooth things over.”
These instances can be moments of actual grace. Think of them as a friendly nudge from God, or like a friend pushing you from behind and saying, “Go on, you know you can do it.”
Actual grace, of course, is not just a nudge; it’s God’s own power offering you the grace to do what God is inspiring you to do at that moment. If you act upon that inspiration, the grace (God’s own life) is there to help you. If you don’t act on it — because we do have free will to act or not to act — that instance of actual grace disappears. Once there is no longer a need for it, it’s gone.
The two together
Life is hard and many obstacles get in our way toward union with God at the end of earthly life. This is why actual grace is always offered to us — through the merits of Christ — so that we always have the inspiration and the power to turn toward God. It is actual grace that leads us to prayer, to thanksgiving and to contrition. And those refresh the sanctifying grace within us.
When we have sinned, it is actual grace that leads us to confession, where the fullness of sanctifying grace is renewed in us.
This is also why the church teaches us to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist often — each time we choose to go to Mass, we are responding to actual grace. When we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, we grow stronger in sanctifying grace.
Being strong in sanctifying grace predisposes us to be ever more attuned to the call of our friend, God. Grace makes us more aware of the presence of a multitude of actual graces pouring down on us as rain pours down on the flowers of a garden. We just have to put out our leaves to receive it and grow.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Catholic Answers at catholic.com; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The New Dictionary of Theology”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia”; and “The Catholic Answer” at osv.com