The Holy Spirit and Grace

Many people have a pretty good idea of what goes on inside our bodies. But not so many have a clear idea as to what goes on inside our souls. We talk rather easily of grace – actual grace and sanctifying grace – and of supernatural life and of growth in holiness. The question is, what do these words mean?

To answer that question adequately, we need first to know the place of the Holy Spirit in the divine scheme of things and understand the part that the Holy Spirit plays in the sanctification that goes on within the human soul.

We know that the Holy Spirit is the infinite love flowing eternally between God the Father and God the Son. He is love in person, a living love. Since it is God’s love for us that has led him to make us sharers in his own divine life, it is quite natural for us to ascribe to the Holy Spirit the operations of grace in our souls.

However, we have to keep in mind that the three divine Persons are inseparable. Where one is, all are. We might say (in human terms) that none of the divine Persons does anything separately or alone outside their one divine nature. Within that one divine nature each Person has his own particular activity, his own particular relationship, one to the other. God the Father is God knowing or seeing himself, God the Son is God’s knowledge or living image of himself, and God the Holy Spirit is the result of God’s love for himself. That is why we say, in the Nicene Creed, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In the same creed we also profess our faith in the Holy Spirit as "the Lord, the giver of life".

This is the Blessed Trinity – three divine Persons in one God having one divine nature – a Triune God.

Here is a little illustration that may make somewhat clearer the relationship that exists between the three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Suppose you look at yourself in a full-length mirror. You see there an image of yourself; it is just a reflection in the glass. But if that image were to step out of the mirror and stand beside you, living and breathing like yourself – then it would be a perfect image indeed. There would not be two of you. There would be just one you, one human nature. There would be two persons, but only one mind and one will, sharing the same knowledge and the same thoughts.

Then, since self-love is natural to an intelligent being, there would flow between you and your image an ardent love, one for the other. Now think of this love as being so much a part of yourself, so deeply rooted in your very nature, as to be a living, breathing reproduction of yourself. This love would be a third person (still only one you, one human nature), standing between you and your image; the three of you linked hand in hand, three persons in one human nature.

Perhaps this flight of imagination may help you toward a faint understanding of the relationship that exists between the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity: God the Father looking at himself in his divine mind and beholding there the image of himself that is so infinitely perfect that it is a living image - God the Son; and God the Father and God the Son loving the divine nature that they posses in common as a living love - God the Holy Spirit. Three divine Persons, one divine nature.

Even though, as we have noted, outside the divine nature no Person does anything by himself, certain roles seem more appropriate to one Person than to another. Theologians use the word appropriate to describe the way the work of the Blessed Trinity is divided up among the three divine Persons.

The role of Creator has been appropriated to God the Father. The role of Redeemer has been appropriated to God the Son. Finally, since the work of sanctifying souls is preeminently a work of divine love, this role has been appropriated to God the Holy Spirit. Actually it is the Blessed Trinity who sanctifies us and who dwells within our souls (and also who created and redeemed us), but we appropriate the action of grace to the Holy Spirit.

What is grace? You can find many meanings of the word grace in a dictionary, but when associated with theology, grace has a very definite and restricted meaning. It means a gift from God. Not just any kind of gift, but a very special sort of gift. The word grace is used to describe those gifts to which we are not even remotely entitled, not even by our nature as human beings. The word grace is used to identify those gifts that are above human nature. So we take the Latin word super, which means above and we say that grace is a supernatural gift of God.

There are many supernatural gifts that are sometimes referred to as graces, but we are concerned here with the grace that was bestowed on us through the merits of Christ Jesus for our own salvation. We call this supernatural gift sanctifying grace.

When we are baptized we receive sanctifying grace for the first time. God makes himself present within us. We are made living temples of the Blessed Trinity. By his presence God imparts to our soul that supernatural quality that makes it possible for him to see himself in us and therefore to love us. And, because this supernatural quality was purchased for us by Christ Jesus, we are bound by it to Christ, we share it with Christ, and God the Father consequently sees us as he sees his Son - we become children of God.

Sanctifying grace is sometimes called habitual grace, because it is intended to be a habitual or permanent condition of the soul. Once we are united with God in Baptism, it is intended that we remain united with him forever.

Through sanctifying grace our soul is constantly receiving from God its supernatural life just as our body was constantly receiving vital sustenance from our mother when, as a pre-born baby, it dwelled in her. Thus our supernatural life is a living organism and it requires constant nourishment.

After our natural birth our life became somewhat dependent on our own actions. For example, we could choose to refuse the food that was provided for the nourishment of our body. If we did so to the extreme, our life would perish. Likewise, the life of our soul will perish if it is not nourished by a continual presence of sanctifying grace.

God cannot dwell in a soul void of grace. If we go into eternity deprived of sanctifying grace, then we have lost God forever. Therefore, once we have received sanctifying grace in Baptism, it then becomes a matter of life-and-death importance that we preserve this supernatural gift throughout our entire life.

It is also important that we increase sanctifying grace within our soul.

These, then, are our three needs with regard to sanctifying grace: firstly, that we preserve it permanently; secondly, that we recover it immediately if we have lost it by mortal sin; thirdly, that we seek to grow in sanctifying grace with an eagerness that sees the sky as the limit.

Now none of these three things is easy to do. In fact, by our human wisdom and strength alone, none of these three things is even possible. That is why sanctifying grace is preceded by and accompanied by a whole train of special helps from God. We call these special helps actual graces. An actual grace is a momentary, transient impulse, a spurt of spiritual energy with which God touches the soul. They are divine impulses that move us to judge what is right and to do what is good.

Without God’s help we cannot succeed in getting to heaven. The story of grace is as simple as that. Without sanctifying grace we are not capable of the beatific vision. Without actual grace we are not capable of receiving sanctifying grace in the first place. Without actual grace we are not capable of remaining for any long period in the state of sanctifying grace. Without actual grace we cannot recover sanctifying grace if we should lose it.

In view of the absolute necessity of grace, it is comforting to know another great truth. That is the fact that God gives to every soul he creates sufficient grace to get to heaven. No one will lose heaven except through his own fault, through his own failure to use God’s grace.

For it is possible to reject grace. God’s grace works in and through our human will. God’s grace does not destroy our freedom of choice. It is true that grace does most of the work, but God requires of us our cooperation. At the very least, our part is to place no obstacle to the operation of grace in our soul.

There are two sources of divine grace: prayer and the sacraments. Once we have received sanctifying grace through Baptism, then it is by means of prayer and the other six sacraments that sanctifying grace is increased in the soul.

If we lose sanctifying grace through mortal sin, then it is by means of prayer and the sacrament of Penance that sanctifying grace is restored to the soul. Though forgiveness and restoration of grace is indeed the primary purpose of the sacrament of Penance, it would be wrong to suppose that the sacrament is to be reserved only for the forgiveness of mortal sin. It also has a secondary purpose. For the soul that already is in the state of sanctifying grace, Penance is an increaser of life. That is why those who aim at more than mediocrity in their spiritual lives love to receive the sacrament of Penance frequently.

Above all other sacraments, it is the Holy Eucharist that enriches and intensifies the life of grace within us. There is no other sacrament that unites us so directly and so intimately with God.

The majority of this text was extracted from The Faith Explained by Leo J. Trese, Scepter Publishers

The Faith Explained is an all-in-one handbook to help you understand, explain, and defend the great truths of the Catholic Faith. In easily readable chapters, it explains the purpose of human existence, God and his perfections, the creation and fall of man, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the sacraments, sacramentals, prayer, the importance of the Bible, and much more. Perfect for RCIA classes, this book is also a magnificent refresher course on the Faith for Catholics and an illuminating resource for non-Catholics with questions about the Church.