Weakness and Grace: Holiness for Sinners

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
October 26, 2018
Weakness And Grace

An All Saints Day article could be titled, “Virtue and Grace.”  Right?  Saints had saintly virtues – charity, care for the poor, missionary zeal, mystical prayer, gentleness, chastity, courage, wisdom, biblical insight, virtuous living, noble causes, martyrdom, heroic generosity and so on.  We should imitate them.  Or should we?  Here’s the problem: holiness is not monkey-see-monkey-do.  If we should imitate saints, we should imitate this: they’re penitents.  There’s a romantic idea that grace and holiness are the finishing touches of virtue, like icing on the cake of a pious life.  Do this; you’ll get that.  We assume God tosses holiness like doggy treats to dogs that sit up straight.  Tense virtues, even tense generosity, are occupational hazards of Christianity.  Of course, “virtue” – “the habit of doing good” – is part of a journey to holiness.  But that’s only because cultivating virtue is part of every sane and civilized person’s journey, whether they seek holiness or not.  Virtue is needed for everything from potty training to making a living.  However, grace makes its best moves through weakness, not strength.  Therefore, this article is called, “Weakness and Grace.” 

Virtue may or may not be about holiness or life after death.  Some people are virtuous precisely because they think there’s no life after death – like Epicureans.  We’re moral and decent, they say, because it’s the best, kindest and most pleasant way to live.  They’re also good at many things – from careers to wine selecting – because life is short.  Some Christians say that if non-believers put such effort into earthly excellence, so much more should we Christians.  Let’s apply worldly standards of excellence, say some Christians, to building up the Church, to becoming holy and getting to heaven.  Stop excusing mediocrity in the name of Christian forbearance, they say.  I agree.  They have a point.

But they could be missing the Point.  There’s insidious danger in this, like a snake in the garden.  Pursuing excellence in the name of “holiness” can get in the way of holiness.  Even the definition of holiness – the perfection of Love (see Matthew 5:28 and 27:37) – can be misleading.  The Church’s vocabulary explaining “holiness” can throw us off.  For example, the Church says, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 40).  Likewise, English Bibles translate a saying of Christ like this: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:8).  I’m not parsing out Greek.  Suffice it to say, the word “perfect” could be a foil.  What Christ and the Church imply by “perfect” is not what you may think.  It doesn’t mean we perfect holiness and virtue by racking our nerves (and everyone else’s) and pushing ourselves to our limits.  Holiness is not about being uptight.  Rather, Christian “perfection” is something the Holy Spirit does in us, if we let him (that’s the hard part).  If we cooperate (that’s the other hard part).  The “hard part” is breaking down our willfulness.  Here’s the paradox: the Holy Spirit perfects us through our weaknesses.

There’s a kind of virtue that cannot connect with God’s grace.  It’s willful, tense, anxious, correct, self-righteous and critical – even when it tries to be charitable.  Its standards are high.  It’s a moral perfectionism.  It tries to get everything right.  And it holds everyone else to that standard.  It can be tyrannical.  Or, at least annoying.  “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).  On the other hand, there’s another kind of virtue that only comes from grace.  Christians are indeed called to holinessthe perfection of Love of God and neighbor.  It requires sacrifice and even suffering.  But it’s a grace!  A gift.  It’s God’s initiative, not our accomplishment.  God’s initiative – choosing us – is our Baptism.  If you’re baptized, you’ve got it.  Just make yourself available to the Holy Spirit through prayer, penance and humility. Humility gives life, pride death.

Respond to God, and virtues will grow like blossoms in springtime – (super) naturally.  You’ll be painfully purified and set free.  There’s nothing calculated or self-conscience about Christian virtues.  They flow (super) naturally from within, from the “Lord and giver of life” received at Baptism and Confirmation.  Real virtues are fruits of Love.  St. Therese wrote this in her autobiography: “I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE.  I understood that it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACES ALL TIMES AND PLACES, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!”  St. Therese says that “preaching” and “martyrdom” – or any Christian endeavor – flow from the Love that comes from Christ through his Sacraments.  A supernatural impulse drives the Christian.

Secular virtue is pure willpower.  Christian virtue isn’t.  So what’s the difference between the experience of Christian virtue and secular virtue?  Secular virtue is felt as sheer and intense effort – perhaps brutal effort.  It’s exhausting and frustrating.  It obeys human directives and standards.  It tries to control outcomes.  Psychologically, it’s our “super-ego” – our “inner policeman.”  It’s tyrannical yet effective.  On the other hand, Christian virtue is a grace – a free impulse coming from the Holy Spirit within (via Baptism and Confirmation) – even when it demands effort.  It’s free because it likes “to give and not count the cost” (St. Ignatius of Loyola).  It doesn’t dominate the outcomes of good actions.  It says: toss the seeds and let the pigeons peck.  Worry and anxiety are useless.  “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life” (Luke 12:25)?

It’s not hard to see why Christian virtues can be upstaged by secular virtues.  We’re using the same language to describe totally different experiences.  Catechisms and saints talk about “virtue” and “making progress” in the spiritual life.  But what do they mean by that?  In secular matters, we say things like: Little Johnny is “making progress” in math.  Technology has “made” lots of “progress.”  Uncle Joe is “making progress” in getting his cholesterol down.  When we talk like this about grace, we might assume that spiritual “progress” comes from self-discipline or techniques.

That’s the opposite of what Jesus teaches.  Rather, he says: "Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).  He also says, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?  Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest” (Luke 12:25)?  Humility is being in touch with weakness, but without anxiety.  Facing weakness before Jesus is liberating.  It connects with grace.  Accomplishments and virtues may be good, but they may rival God’s good.  Anxiety is a telltale sign of this.  Forcing progress in holiness is a deception.  Such “progress” is from the “self,” not Jesus.  It’s the Pharisee getting in the back door.  Perfectionism is not penitence.  There’s another danger: the Pharisee is a perfectionist who demands that everyone else be a perfectionist.  Rather than becoming agents of peace, we become agents of worry, anxiety and tension – three enemies of the soul.  Marks of the devil.

The Christian is a penitent who encounters God’s Mercy in weakness.  Weakness – not strength – is the means by which God’s peace takes over.  Only in Jesus – and no other – can we discover this path.  It’s exclusively Christian, not found in any other religion.  Only in humbling ourselves before Jesus can we experience the miracle of grace and of being chosen by God.  "You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in my name He may give to you” (John 15:16).  The way of humility and surrender to Jesus is the only Way.

In conclusion, I quote Father Andre Louf, the late Abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Mont-des-Cats, France: “Especially in periods of spiritual decline there is a great danger that certain forms of committed faith – for example, the monastic life and all forms of militancy – will be seriously infected by [legalistic perfection], although one does not immediately realize [it]…Obedience, self-discipline, even prayer – these can all be directed away from the living God and become subordinated to an ideal of perfection that in essence barely differs from a secular ethic.  It then turns into merely human effort, a fortress into which one retreats in order to have a position of strength in relation to others and sometimes even in relation to God.  If in such a system of righteousness there is still room for repentance, it becomes just one more exercise among many.  But then repentance is no longer the miracle of grace that transforms a human being from tip to toe, the threshold one must cross in order to start a new existence and to become totally free and open to the magnetism of the Holy Spirit” (Andre Louf, Tuning into Grace).

And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.  Power is perfected in weakness.’  Therefore, I gladly boast of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Recommended reading: “Andre Louf, Tuning into Grace: The Quest for God,” Cistercian Publications.

Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor