A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 3: The Spiritual Organism (cont)


We shall recall here: (1) the necessity of actual grace; (2) its divers forms; and (3) the general nature of fidelity to grace.


Even in the natural order, no created agent acts or operates without the cooperation of God, first Mover of bodies and spirits. In this sense, St. Paul says in his discourse on the Areopagus: "Although He (God) be not far from every one of us; for in Him we live and move and are." (1) With even greater reason in the supernatural order, that we may produce acts of the infused virtues and of the gifts, we need a divine motion, which is called actual grace. It is a truth of faith defined against the Pelagians and the Semi-Pelagians,(2) that, without this grace, we can neither dispose ourselves positively to conversion, nor persevere for a notable time in good, nor above all persevere until death. Without actual grace, we cannot produce the slightest salutary act, or, with even greater reason, reach perfection. This is what Christ meant when He said to His disciples: "Without Me you can do nothing." (3) St. Paul adds with regard to the order of salvation: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves," (4) and that "It is God who worketh in you both to will and to accomplish," (5) by actualizing our liberty without violating it. It is He who gives us to dispose ourselves to habitual grace and to act meritoriously. When He crowns our merits, it is still His gifts that He crowns, says St. Augustine. The Church has often recalled this idea in her councils.(6)

This explains why we must always pray. The necessity of prayer is founded on the necessity of actual grace. Except for the first grace, which is gratuitously given to us without our praying for it, since it is the very principle of prayer, it is a thoroughly established truth that prayer is the normal, efficacious, and universal means by which God wishes that we should obtain all the actual graces we need. This is why our Lord inculcates so often the necessity of prayer to obtain grace. He says: "Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened." (7) He recalls this necessity of prayer to obtain actual grace, especially when temptation is to be resisted: "Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (8) In prayer we ought to recognize that God is the Author of all good; and therefore all confidence not founded on prayer is presumptuous.(9)

Therefore the Council of Trent declares in St. Augustine's own words: "God never commands the impossible, but in commanding He tells us to do what we can, to ask for that which we are not able to do, and He helps us in order that we may be able." (10) By His actual grace He even helps us to pray. There are, consequently, actual graces which we can obtain only by prayer.(11)

We could not insist too strongly on this point, for many beginners, unwittingly impregnated with practical naturalism, as the Pelagians and the Semi-Pelagians were, imagine that everything can be attained with will and energy, even without actual grace. Experience soon shows them the profound truth of Christ's words: "Without Me you can do nothing," and also that of St. Paul's statement: "It is God who worketh in you both to will and to accomplish." Therefore we must ask Him for the actual grace ever more faithfully to keep the commandments, especially the supreme precept of the love of God and of our neighbor.


Actual grace, the necessity of which we have just recalled, presents itself under many forms which it is highly useful to know in the spiritual life. It will be well at this point to review the principles as clearly as possible, without failing to recognize the mystery they express. It is one of the most remarkable partly clear and partly obscure mysteries of Christian doctrine.

Actual grace is often given to us as a light or interior illumination. For example, while reading the Epistle or Gospel of the day at Mass, an interior light is given to us that we may better grasp its meaning. We are struck by these words of Christ to the Samaritan woman: "If thou didst know the gift of God," (12) or by those of St. Paul: "The Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself for me," (13) and we consider that He continues to offer Himself for us in the Mass and that, if we wish, He will give Himself to us, especially in Holy Communion. This light constitutes a grace of interior illumination.(14) It is followed by a grace of inspiration and attraction, for, in thinking of the generous and disinterested love of the Savior, we feel ourselves strongly led to return Him love for love. This is an actual grace which acts on the will and leads to love and to action. At times it even brings one to will to give oneself fully to God, to suffer, and if need be, to die for Him. Then it is not only a grace of attraction, but a grace of strength, which, though often received without our being at all aware of it, makes it possible for us in aridity to endure and to wait (15)

How does actual grace, which moves the will, influence it? It does this in two ways: either by proposing to it an object which attracts it, or by a motion or interior impulse which God alone can  give.(16) God can evidently incline our will toward good by proposing an object to it, for example, by the promise of eternal beatitude, or of progress in love. Thus a mother inclines the will of her child to good, either by proposing to him a sensible object which attracts him, or by persuading him to conduct himself in a becoming manner. Our guardian angels can do this also by suggesting good thoughts to us. What God alone can do, is to move our will to good by an interior motion or impulse, for He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He preserves in existence our soul and our faculties, of which He is the Author; and, without doing violence to them, He can move them from within according to their natural inclination by giving us a new energy. An example will help to make this understood: In order to teach her child to walk, a mother takes hold of him under his arms and helps him not only with her voice by showing him an object to attain, but by her gesture; by lifting him up. What the mother does thus in the corporeal order, God can do in the spiritual order. He can lift up, not only our body but our will itself, to lead it to good. He is the very Author of our will; He has given it its fundamental inclination to good, and in consequence He alone can move it from within according to this inclination. He acts thus in us, in the very inmost depths of our will, to make us will and act. The more urgently we ask Him to do this, the more strongly does He act to increase in us the love that we should have for Him.

Moreover, actual grace is called prevenient grace when it arouses a good thought or good feeling in us, when we have done nothing to exciJe it in ourselves. If we do not resist this grace, God adds to it a helping or concomitant grace, which will assist our will to produce the salutary act demanded and to realize our good designs. Thus, as St. Paul says: "God works in us both to will and to accomplish."

Finally, we must note that God sometimes moves us to act by deliberation according to the human mode, and at other times by special inspiration to act in a superior manner without deliberation on our part. The following is an example of the first case: I see that the habitual hour to recite the Rosary has come, and of my own accord I am led by deliberation to recite it. I do so under the influence of a common actual grace, called cooperating, for it cooperates in my action according to the human mode of deliberation.

The second mode may be illustrated by the following example: It may happen that in an unexpected way while doing absorbing work, I receive a special inspiration to say a short prayer, and I immediately do it. This special inspiration is called an operating grace, for it operates in us without deliberation on our part, not however without vital, free, and meritorious consent. (17) In the first manner, God generally moves us to act according to the human mode of the virtues; in the second manner, He moves us to act according to the superhuman mode of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Our ship then advances no longer solely by dint of rowing, but by the superior impulse of a favorable wind.

All that we have said about the different modes of divine motion may be summed up in the following table, which should be read upward.

and our

in the 





in the natural

  - above deliberation, by special inspiration to which the gifts of the Holy Ghost render us docile

- after deliberation, to will a definite act of a specific infused virtue, for example, of religion directed by prudence.

- before deliberation, to will efficaciously the supernatural last end

- above deliberation, by special inspiration, for example, in poetic order

- after deliberation, to will a definite act of a specified acquired virtue.

- before deliberation, to will good in general and happiness.

Under operating grace, we are more passive than active, and our activity consists especially in consenting freely to the operation of God, in allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Ghost, in promptly and generously following His inspirations.(19) But even under cooperating grace all our salutary action is from God as from the First Cause, and it is all from us as from the second cause.


Fidelity to grace is of the utmost importance, and especially so is increasing fidelity to the actual grace of the present moment, that we may correspond to the duty of that moment, which manifests the will of God in our regard. St. Augustine says: "God who created you without yourself, will not sanctify you without yourself." (20) Our consent is needed and likewise our obedience to the precepts. God's help is given us, he says again, not that our will should do nothing, but that it may act in a salutary and meritorious manner. Actual grace is constantly offered to us for the accomplishment of the duty of the present moment, just as air comes constantly into our lungs to permit us to breathe. As we must inhale in order to draw into our lungs the air which renews our blood, so we must will to receive with docility the grace which renews our spiritual energies in the journey toward God. A person who does not inhale will die of asphyxiation; he who does not receive grace with docility will eventually die of spiritual asphyxiation. This is why St. Paul says: "And we helping do exhort you that you receive not the grace of God in vain." (21) We must correspond with it and cooperate generously with it. Were this elementary truth put into practice daily, it would lead to sanctity.

Without a doubt, God takes the first step toward us by His prevenient grace, then He helps us to consent to it. He accompanies us in all our ways and difficulties, even to the moment of death. On our part, we should not forget that, instead of resisting His prevenient graces, we should be faithful to them. How can we do this? First of all, we can do so by joyfully welcoming the first illuminations of grace, then by following its inspirations with docility in spite of obstacles, and finally by putting these inspirations into practice no matter what the cost. Then we shall cooperate in the work of God, and our action will be the fruit of His grace and of our free will. It will be entirely from God as First Cause, and entirely from us as second cause.

The first grace of light, which efficaciously produces a good thought in us, is sufficient in relation to a voluntary good consent, in this sense, that it gives us, not this act, but the power to produce it. However, if we resist this good thought, we deprive ourselves of the actual grace which would have efficaciously led us to a good consent. Resistance falls on sufficient grace like hail on a tree in bloom which promised much fruit; the flowers are destroyed and the fruit will not form. Efficacious grace is offered us in sufficient grace, as the fruit is in the flower; moreover, the flower must not be destroyed if the fruit is to be given to us. If we do not resist sufficient grace, actual efficacious grace is given us, and by it we advance surely in the way of salvation. Sufficient grace thus leaves us without excuse before God, and efficacious grace does not allow us to glory in ourselves; with it we advance humbly and generously.(22)

We should not resist the divine prevenient graces of Him who has given us sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, the gifts, and who daily draws us to Himself. We should not be content with living a mediocre life and with producing only imperfect fruits, since our Savior came that we "may have life, and may have it more abundantly," (23) and that from within us "shall flow rivers of living water," (24) that we may eternally enjoy His beatitude. God is magnanimous; let us, too, be so.

This fidelity is required, first of all, that we may preserve the life of grace by avoiding mortal sin. The life of grace is incomparably more precious than that of the body, than the power to perform miracles; it is of such worth that our Savior delivered Himself up to death in order to restore it to us. If were given to us to contemplate unveiled the amazing splendor of sanctifying grace, we should be ravished. Moreover, fidelity is required to merit and obtain the increase of the life of grace, which ought to grow until our entrance into heaven, since we are travelers on the road to eternity and since we advance toward our goal by growing in the love of God. Thence comes the necessity of sanctifying each and every one of our acts, even the most ordinary, by accomplishing them with purity of intention, for a supernatural motive, and in union with our Lord. If we were thus faithful from morning until evening, each of our days would contain hundreds of meritorious acts, hundreds of acts of love of God and of neighbor, made on every pleasant or painful occasion, and when evening came, our union with God would be more intimate and much stronger. It has often been said that to sanctify ourselves there is no more practical and more efficacious means that is more within the reach of all, than thus to supernaturalize each of our acts by offering them in union with our Lord, to God for His glory and the good of souls.(25)



1. Acts 17:27f.

2.  Cf. The Council of Orange (Denzinger, Enchiridion, nos. 176-200) and also St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.109.

3. John 15:5.

4. See II Cor. 3:5.

5. Phil. 3:13.

6. Denzinger, nos. 182-200 and 141.

7. Matt. 7:7 f.

8. Ibid., 26:41.

9. Summa, IIa IIae, q.83, a.2, c. and ad 3um.

10. Session VI, chap. II (Denzinger,804)

11. Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part IV, chap. I, no. 3.

12 John 4: 10.

13 Gal. 2:20.

14. Sometimes a very elevated luminous grace gives the impression of obscurity: the obscurity is transluminous, like the excessively strong light of the sun which dazzles the weak eyes of an owl.

15. Many of these graces are not felt at all when received; they are of an entirely spiritual and supernatural order and consequently surpass our natural means of knowledge. Some of them are felt by reason of the repercussion they have on our sensibility, for example, under the form of sensible consolations. Of others, which do not have this repercussion, we may, nevertheless, be conscious, in the sense that God, especially by the gift of wisdom, makes Himself spiritually felt by us as the principle of the filial love for Him which He inspires in us. Cf. St. Thomas, In Ep. ad Rom., 8: 16.

16. See Ia, q.105, a.4; Ia IIae, q.9, a.6; q.10, a.4; q.109, a.2,3,4,10.

17. See Ia IIae, q. III, a.2. Under cooperating grace, the will moves itself deliberately in virtue of an anterior act. It is thus that, already willing the end, it is led to the choice of means; whereas under operating grace it is moved not by virtue of an anterior act, but of a special inspiration.

18. Here there is certainly deliberation. It is not, however, by virtue of deliberation and of an anterior act that the sinner, at the moment of his conversion, is moved efficaciously to will the supernatural last end, for every anterior act is inferior to this efficacious will, and can only dispose to it. Consequently a special operating grace is necessary here. This grace is not required when, already efficaciously willing the end, we are led of ourselves to will the means. Then, only cooperating grace is required.

19. We treated this subject at greater length in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 285-310; "The special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and common actual grace." According to a number of texts from St. Thomas, and following several great Thomists, in particular Father del Prado, we showed in that article that God moves the will, either before deliberation (when He leads it to will beatitude in general, or also the supernatural last end), or after deliberation, or with it (when He moves it to determine by discursive deliberation to will the means in view of the previously willed end), or above deliberation (by special inspiration, in particular by that to which the gifts of the Holy Ghost render us docile).

St. Thomas enumerates these three modes of motion in various passages: Ia IIae, q.9, a.6 ad 3 um; q.68, a.2 f.; q.109, a.1, 2, 6, 9; q.III, a.2; De veritate, q.24,a.15.

It suffices here to quote the classic text of Ia IIae, q. III, a. 2, on the distinction between operating and cooperating grace: "The operation of an effect is not attributed to the thing moved but to the mover. Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of operating grace. But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved (virtute prioris actus), the operation is attributed not only to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference 'to this that we peak of cooperating grace." The operating grace may, however, present itself under several forms: (1) it may be only exciting, leading to a salutary good thought, which, as a matter of fact, remains sterile; (2) it may lead even to a salutary act of faith or hope, without there being the influence of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, as happens in the believer in the state of mortal sinl; (3) it may lead even to a salutary and meritorious act of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. In this last case particularly, there is a special inspiration, not
only before deliberation but above it. We can either be moved, or we can move ourselves to an act of faith (although it may be simple and not discursive), whereas we cannot of ourselves move ourselves to an act of the gifts.

20. Sermon 15, chap. I.

21. See II Cor. 6: I.

22. Herein lies the great mystery of grace; its two aspects, which are to be harmonized, may be expressed in the following manner: this mystery contains a striking light and shade: the light is expressed in two principles; the shade is their intimate harmonization. On the one hand, God never commands the impossible (that would be neither just nor merciful); but out of love, He makes the duties to be performed really possible for all. No adult is deprived of the grace necessary for salvation unless he refuses it by resisting the divine call, as did the bad thief dying beside the Savior. On the other hand, "since the love of God for us is the cause of all good, no one would be better than another if he were not more greatly loved by God," as St. Thomas says (Ia, q.20, a.3). In this sense, Christ said: "Without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5); and in speaking of the elect, He added: "No one can snatch them out of the hand of the Father" (John 10:29). St. Paul also asks: "For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?" (I Cor. 4:7.) What more profound lesson in humility could be taught?

As a council of the Middle Ages states: "If some are saved, it is by the gift of the Savior; if others are lost, it is through their own fault." (Denzinger, Enchiridion, no. 318.) Resistance to grace is an evil which can come only from us; non-resistance is a good which springs from the Source of all good. These formulas reconcile the two aspects of the mystery, and the principles that we have just recalled are incontestable. Each of these two principles ta en separately is absolutely certain. That salvation is possible to all is a principle as certain as that "no one would be better than another if he were not more loved by God." "What have we that we have not received?" But how can these two incontestable principles be intimately reconciled? No created intellect can see this harmony before receiving the beatific vision. In fact, were we to see it, we would see how infinite mercy, infinite justice, an.d sovereign liberty harmonize in the eminence of the Deity. We explained this problem in its relations to the spiritual life at greater length in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 80-113; Providence (English translation), pp. 334-40; Predestination (English translation), pp. 221 ff., 335 ff.

23. John 10: 10.

24. Ibid., 7:38.

25. Some have thought that the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost diminishes the liberty of our act and that the act immediately caused by it, is not meritorious. This special inspiration no more diminishes our liberty than the absolute impeccability of Christ diminished His perfect liberty of obedience to the precepts of His Father. He could not disobey; He obeyed infallibly, but freely, the precept to die, for He preserved the indifference of judgment and of choice in the face of the painful death of the cross, which did not invincibly attract His will, as did the immediate vision of the divine goodness. We have explained this at length elsewhere (Le Sauveur, pp. 204-18).