Building the Future Priest: Man of the Supernatural

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“The Glory of God is Man Alive!”

God’s plan for man surpasses the powers of achievement of human nature because it involves becoming nothing less than a divinized man, participating in the very perfection and life of God himself with an undying perfect happiness: a destiny that is super-natural.

Therefore contrary to what Enlightenment educationalists assert, moral virtue is not the summit of man’s perfection but a plateau on the way upwards. Something greater is in store, something beyond man’s imagination.

“In setting up “a good life” as our final goal, we have missed the very point of our existence. Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.” (C.S. Lewis, “Man or Rabbit?” in God in the Dock)

“We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear ‒ the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.” (C.S.Lewis, “Man or Rabbit?” in God in the Dock)

The Practical “Must Have”: Grace

As St. Thomas Aquinas states:

“Because such happiness goes beyond the reach of human nature, the inborn resources by which we are able to act well according to our capacity are not adequate to direct us to it. And so, to be sent to this supernatural happiness, we have to be divinely endowed with some additional sources of activity; their role is like that of our native capabilities…” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part 2, Section 1, Question 62)

These “additional sources of activity” are the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice which are infused to the soul with the divine life (sanctifying grace). Here lies the key to all things Catholic:

“It was by the study of St. Paul and St. John that I first came to understand the fundamental unity of Catholic theology and the Catholic life. I realized that the Incarnation, the sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal working of sanctifying grace were all parts of one organic unity, a living tree, whose roots are in the divine nature and whose fruit is the perfection of the saints. Thus the life of the saints is not, as the eclectic student of mysticism believes, the independent achievement of a few highly gifted individuals, but the perfect manifestation of the supernatural life which exists in every individual Christian, the first fruits of that new humanity which it is the work of the Church to create” (Christopher Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic”, The Catholic Times, May 21, 1926)

Therefore, grace is a practical “must have” for the pilgrim’s journey homeward:  grace is the balm for his wounded soul which so often groans like St. Paul:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:15, 18b-24)

Grace is the light for his understanding and the energy for his will to resist the temptations alluring him to stray from the “narrow path” onto exits for wider – and dangerous roads.

Relying on grace is simply taking Him at His word: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I  in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”(Jn 15:5), allowing the Christian  to joyfully conclude with St. Paul: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24b-25a)

“To achieve our connatural end [ a man of virtue], we require divine assistance to support our natural principles, while to achieve our supernatural end [ a divinized man  united to God forever in Heaven], we require divine assistance to supplement our natural principles so that they can transcend their limits. The point about their need for support is conveyed in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress through a parable. A man attempts to sweep a parlor, but all his sweeping merely drives the dust into the air; the room is as dirty as before. After a maid has sprinkled the dust with water, he is able to gather the dust into a pile and get rid of it. Moral discipline is like the broom; divine grace is like the sprinkling of water. Bunyan himself, committed to an un-Thomistic antithesis between Law and Grace, intended the parable to convey the point that the broom is useless. But the parable is better than he knew. What actually happens is that although the broom is necessary, the sprinkling is also necessary so that the broom can achieve its end. That, I believe, is how St. Thomas would see it. (J. BUDZISZEWSKI, “The Natural, the connatural and the unnatural”)

We can have a real and sincere determination to fling our vices to the winds but from past experience we know that the contrary winds of our own disordered tendency to pleasure, the forces of decadent society and the prince of darkness will drive them back in our direction unless we allow the winds of grace free movement through our mental atmosphere.

Grace is real: not psychological

Grace is a permanent supernatural quality of the soul whereby you really participate in God’s own life.  Grace therefore is real and comes from outside your psyche: it does not originate in your thinking or feeling anymore than your biological life does. Grace is quintessentially beyond nature’s furthest reach. Originating in an act of God who grants it to you in baptism, intensifies it through Holy Communion and the other sacraments, restores it if necessary through the Sacrament of Confession, God makes it grow in intensity through actual graces.

Stay alert therefore to false or fuzzy theological ideas on grace – “supernatural existential” etc – with which some theologians deny or at least confuse the concept of grace leading Catholics to consider it as something merely psychological.  Let your guide be the Tradition of the Church and the saints, especially the only theologian-saint the Church recognizes in Canon Law as guide: St. Thomas Aquinas.

The “Earthy” and the “Spiritual” Catholic

The Catholic who accepts the Church’s teachings on grace as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a rather “earthy” and robust individual, sort of “down-to-earth” and “matter-of-fact” in his way of living the Faith.

His eyes are directed outwards, towards “things” especially the sacraments to which he gives priority importance.  

Mass, Holy Communion and Confession are of the utmost importance for him; “little things” like holy water, medals, statues and crucifixes (the sacramentals) he treasures; priests, bishops and the Pope he respects because they have the sacramental character and are the guardians of the sacraments: because all of these realities channel, give growth to, guard and restore sanctifying grace, the most important reality of his life.

He is not therefore a “spiritual man” in the way so many good and well-intentioned non-Catholics (and Catholics who do not know the truths of the Faith or have adopted non-Catholic “spiritualities”) are.

He is not always defining his faith in terms of sentiments, relationships, “love” (but rarely truth).  

You’ll find  he’s not too concerned about his own personal idiosyncratic ideas on God and man’s relationship to God because he relies on the hard and visible roads of the sacraments and dogmatic facts of the Church’s teachings.

Nor will you find him in a dilemma placing his own conscience up against the Church’s teachings: rather he wants to know whether or not he is acting according to the mind of the Church.  

If he gravely sins, he neither despairs nor excuses himself but goes to kneel in the confessional.  

Even in prayer, he’s not so much concerned about his own thoughts and progress as with the truths of the Faith and having convictions about acting morally and living with the virtues of Christ. 

On the whole, the “earthy” Catholic is rather a light-hearted fellow who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Something of this “earthiness” is clearly perceived by converts like Evelyn Waugh:

“I was not at all attracted by the splendor of her great ceremonies — which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love”. (MARTIN D’ARCY, SJ “The Religion of Evelyn Waugh,” in David Price-Jones (ed.), Evelyn Waugh amid His World)

Light-hearted except as regards one thing: grace. In this he has a soldier’s grim alertness, guarding grace with a very practical attitude of “no messing around” and ready to become quite belligerent with anyone or anything threatening “the pearl of great price”, the “unum necessarium”.  In a matter-of-fact way  he realizes that it’s quite easy to lose grace by abandoning the battle of self-conquest, giving in to occasions of sin, flirting with temptations.  So he doesn’t.

 His counterpart, the “spiritual” man, doesn’t see things quite so clearly. His own individual ideas, gathered eclectically, matter a great deal to him; his own conscience and feelings he speaks about a lot; he emphasizes discerning his own states of soul. Grace, whether explicitly or implicitly, is a psychological reality connected intrinsically to his own thoughts, intentions, desires, “fundamental option”.  The words “losing grace” and “recovering grace” are not part of his vocabulary and indeed “mortal sin” may be something that he regards as almost impossible to fall into.

It shows in his behavior: he frequently walks in that “twilight zone” of the occasions of sin not viewing them with the same sense of danger as his “earthy” counterpart.  The Church as a visible institution, the magisterium, priests are viewed all too humanly as “conservative” or “liberal” and not  according to the standards of  the supernatural reality of the Church, truth and error.  If you were to label his paradigm on Christian life, it would be to call it an “intellectual” view:  the Christian life is mainly about ideas  and therefore “liturgy” (rites and rituals),  reading “spiritual” books and having “spiritual” conversations are important to him but not so self-conquest, daily systematic mental prayer and  frequent intense reception of the sacraments especially confession.

Yet the “spiritual” Catholic may also have a curious emphasis on emotions in his spirituality, a characteristic esteemed in the lands of the “Dictatorship of Relativism”. In a subtle or not so subtle way, he gives more importance to feelings than to ideas, an indirect consequence of the denial of the supernatural by some theologians. If you want proof of that notice how brilliant and sharp minds can become suddenly fuzzy and blunted in their logic when discussing morality – especially sexual morality.