Getting Graces

A number of months ago, I met a nice Catholic boy and… I freaked out.

Not because he was (and presumably still is) a nice Catholic boy but because he told me I could get more graces by praying. Yes, graces with an s. Plural graces. And I was all, “WHAAAT??”

All of which is to point out that Catholic grace is different from Protestant grace.

Fra Bartolommeo, God the Father, Saint Mary Magdalene, and Saint Catherine of Siena, 1509 (Museo e Pinacoteca Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, Lucca)

This is probably something I should have gotten a handle on a while on. Probably before I converted; but in the whole OhMyCommunionMaryPapacyCatechismSaintsMassTraditionArgh thing, somehow I missed getting it.

I assumed that when Catholics spoke of grace, they meant the same as Protestants. And for the most part, that’s right. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that grace is an unmerited gift. The Catechism states that,

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

But as a Protestant, I primarily understood grace as God’s attitude to me and not the gift itself. I focused on Him as the Generous Giver and me as the Undeserving Receiver. This meant that grace never changed. God is always generously giving and I am always undeserving receiving. Simple.

So when that nice Catholic told me I could get more graces, I naturally freaked. What? Is God more gracious to me when I do good stuff? Does he like me more?? Or am I even more undeserving than usual? Did I catch some extra depravity?? And hang on, graces? Graces with an s? WHAAAT??

Of course, I didn’t say any of this to the nice Catholic boy. It seemed rude to interrupt his prayers. I just nodded and began puzzling it over in my head.

Botticelli, Venus and the Graces offering gifts to a young girl, 1486 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

If grace primarily describes God’s attitude to something, then increases and decreases – and even graces – make no sense. But if grace also describes the content of something – if it refers to the gift itself and not just the generosity of the Giver – then it does make sense.

It’s like the way we use the word favour. (After all, grace is favour.)

You can favour me in the sense of preferring me; or you can do me a favour in sense of doing something specific for me. (There’s another kind, in the sense of bearing a family resemblance, but I’ll come to that!) Favour refers both to the attitude of the Giver and the gift itself.

The two are intimately linked. Favour leads to favours, favours flow from Favour. The same with God’s grace.

When Catholics talk about “getting” graces, we are not talking about earning God’s unmerited favour (an impossibility if there ever was one). Instead, we are talking about specific favours – which flow from His Favour.

So will God like me more if I pray? No.

I have His favour and He is gracious to me – today and everyday.

But will God give me greater graces if I pray? Will He make me more like His Son, more humble and loving and brave, more able and willing to take up my Cross and follow Him? Will He give me special graces through the Sacraments and for the sake of the Body of Christ?

Absolutely. Not because it’s a formula or superstition or works-righteousness but because He is my Father. That’s just what daddies do; they give good gifts to their children.

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

– Luke 11:9-10

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

– 1 John 5:14

This is what Catholics mean when we talk about getting graces. And I finally get it.*

* Confession: I don’t actually get it really. There’s so much more about the differences between Catholic and Protestant grace that I still don’t get: graces and the Holy Spirit, different types of graces, sacramental graces, actual graces, habitual and sanctifying graces, that grace is a participation in the Trinitarian life of God, states of grace and graces of states… But for the moment, I understand it a tiny bit more and that makes me happy.

And that best part is, because graces come from God by His grace, they alone are capable of making us more like Him.

Or to put it another way, the only way we children can favour [i.e. take after] our Father, is by His favour [i.e. unmerited generosity] in granting us His favours [i.e helping gifts].

Geddit?

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