Grace – The Reward to Him That Works is Not Reckoned of Grace, But of Debt
My previous explanation of prayer may help to illustrate the concept of grace. We say that we receive God’s grace in prayer, in the sacraments, or in our daily lives. What does this mean? What does grace do for us, and how do we obtain it? Why is it important for us to recognize our opportunities to receive grace?
Grace by definition is not a thing that we earn. It is something that we receive, or at least have available to us, by virtue of the generosity of the giver, not the merit of the receiver. As has already been noted, God should not be confused with a petty human monarch, who dispenses favors to those that please him and punishments to those who go against his will. God loves everyone and gives everyone a chance to use their free will to find their way to divine bliss. God’s grace is offered freely to all who will take it. It is not denied because a person has sinned, or held back until the proper ritual is performed using the right magic words. A loving parent would not deprive her child of helpful advice just because the child had been irritating, nor would she withhold it until the child said “pretty please”, but rather gives it as a grace simply because she loves her child, and will continue to give it even if her child turns away from her for a time. If the child will receive the advice, it will be freely given, whatever the circumstances. God is no less generous or loving. If a person is willing to receive grace, it will be given.
However, as any parent who has offered advice to a child well knows, merely offering a grace is no guarantee that it will be accepted, no matter how valuable it may be. While God can offer grace, if a person’s mind and heart are closed to the gift it will do them no good. We must recognize and desire grace or we cannot receive it.
Of what, then, does God’s grace consist? It is assistance in achieving alignment with God. In the discussion of prayer I explained that the things we properly pray for are things that God has already made available to us; prayer is the vehicle by which we receive and use the gift that has already been given. That gift, in its various forms, is part of the grace of God. Through it we find bliss in virtue. To understand how this works, or fails to work, it may be helpful to walk through a number of the common opportunities to receive grace, and clarify how the grace is transmitted to a willing recipient.
Let’s begin with marriage. In the sacrament of marriage we commit ourselves to lifelong, unselfish love of another person. A person who takes the marriage vows is promising to attend to the happiness and well-being of his new spouse, come thick or thin. In practice, however, brides and bridegrooms can generally be sorted into two categories with regard to the significance that they attach to this vow. To one group, it means: “This person has a lot of attractive features, and so I promise to stick with her in a monogamous relationship for so long as I continue to find her attractive and find marriage to be compatible with the things that I want out of life. However, if I ever feel that my marriage is constraining me and keeping me from doing things that I think would make me happier, then I can always get divorced.” To the other group (which, unfortunately, no longer appears to be a majority) it means: “I vow to do whatever I can to help my spouse to be happy, and I have faith that my own path to happiness lies in keeping true to this vow and understanding that happiness does not lie on the other side of the fence, but rather here in our home, together. I have faith that I can never increase my own happiness by chasing ambition, freedom from duties, or a younger and prettier face, but must find happiness in my own heart and the heart of the person who loves me. I have faith that I cannot improve my happiness in marriage by asking my spouse to give me more, but that I may continue to increase my wedded bliss if I offer to give her more every day, for her happiness will be my happiness, and her sorrows my sorrows, tomorrow as today, forever.”
A bridegroom in the second category participates in the sacrament with full understanding, faith and love. In so doing, he achieves, with respect to one other person, the state of divine bliss in which he will receive pleasure from the very act of trying to please and help his bride. That gift of marital bliss, which most are offered but many fail to accept, is part of the grace of God, a chance to participate in a significant way in the full glory of the love that is God. It is not a self-maintaining gift. The bridegroom will need faith in the importance and value of the grace in order to resist the temptation to chase other, inferior goals that would interfere with marital bliss. He will also need some luck in his choice of a bride, for it takes two to make a marriage. If the spouse becomes extremely selfish and abusive, or is led astray by some worldly ambition that cannot coexist with the continuation of the marriage, or becomes so preoccupied that the love offered by her spouse no longer produces joy, then the sacrament will fail despite the faith and efforts of the bridegroom. Where a marriage begins in love and faith, though, the power of worldly temptations will be weak, for each partner will know the height of joy that love brings. The gilding on the worldly distraction would need to be very shiny indeed to unfasten the gaze of a true lover from the joy that he possesses in his spouse.
Couples living together without the benefit of marriage often ask “what difference can a ceremony and a piece of paper make to two people who love each other?” The sacrament of marriage is not just a ceremony. It is a vow, the heartfelt vow of the bride and bridegroom in the second category. Without that heartfelt vow a marriage ceremony does not make much difference – there is no sacrament, just a hollow ritual followed by a nice party. Where the vow is truly present, on the other hand, the sacrament exists no matter how it is administered or what form of words is used, or even with no ceremony at all, but it is difficult to imagine that such a couple would not want to celebrate their joy with a marriage ceremony attended by the people they care about, the people who will help them through any difficult times ahead.
A bridegroom in the first category, in contrast, will not receive grace through the sacrament of marriage, no matter how elaborate the ceremony. He views marriage as a bargain, “I’ll love you if you’ll love me, but I can break the contract and pay money damages if a new opportunity comes along that makes it seem worth it.” He sees value in being loved, but fails to understand the value of giving love. He lacks faith that loving his wife is more important than anything else in his life, and by lacking that faith he fails to feel the unassailable bliss that such a conviction would give. He feels he must weigh his options, pay attention to other opportunities, wonder if he has done the right thing. If his wife has a bad day and is crabby, he will wonder “why do I have to put up with this?” instead of thinking “the poor dear, what can I do to cheer her up?” If he finds himself without time to pursue the recreations of his idle youth he will wonder “why don’t I get a chance to have fun anymore?” instead of thinking “I love just being with her – when we were dating I would have dropped anything for a chance to be with her, and that feeling just keeps growing stronger.” If the demands of parenthood cause her to slip a bit in maintaining her appearance, he will think “gee, why doesn’t my wife look like that film star?” instead of “gee, I’m glad I’m not married to someone whose whole shallow life is her looks, like that film star – my wife is far more beautiful to me than a plastic doll like that could ever be.” In thinking such thoughts he plants the seeds of his own suffering. He loses his chance for bliss, a chance offered but not taken. We would pity the lottery winner who, misreading his ticket, throws it away thinking it is worthless and loses his fortune. Far more pitiful is the person who wins the greater prize of love, and lets it slip away because he fails to recognize the significance of the gift.
How can a person fail to accept this grace? Why would he be so blind that he fails to see the value of giving love? When mankind has devoted so much of its art, literature and music to expressing the joys of love, how can people be so lacking in faith that they demand constant tangible rewards of marriage, at the cost of losing its true value? In part it is a matter of ignorance. How often have you heard a sermon in church that really pointed out the joys of loving your spouse? Did you ever have a Sunday school class where the topic was “some day, you may be lucky enough to have the chance to devote yourself to loving someone with all your heart, to pouring yourself into their happiness, and the joy that it will bring you will be heaven on earth, for you will then feel the joyous love that is God, and it will transport you above all the petty concerns of daily life. It is wonderful to be loved, but when you find that chance to love in return seize it, for it is a prize without equal in the world”? Despite the art and the poetry, the plays and the songs all celebrating the joys of love, we are not well schooled to recognize the grace when it is offered. This ignorance leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable to distractions that may blind us to God’s grace.
The siren songs of the material world can be a very powerful distraction. In a “winning is everything” culture, nothing is seen as having intrinsic value. Everything is just a counter keeping score in the game of life. Is your spouse as good looking, as rich, as smart, as famous as someone else’s? If not, can you trade in for a higher-status spouse? In an advertising-centered culture of manufactured desires, we are constantly assaulted by commercial demons luring us towards dissatisfaction. They tell us that we cannot possibly be happy if we are not spending our time earning enough money to buy an ever-growing list of amazing objects that we never knew we desperately needed, or if we are not spending any leftover time pursuing extreme sports or other new recreations. They use beautiful models to convince us that we should want some beer or cola, and in the process sell us on the idea that we should want the beautiful models. We would find it pleasant to look at beautiful models without any help from the advertising agencies, of course, but would the mindset of the average person be different if products were sold with ordinary-looking models made beautiful by the warm smile of a loving disposition? There are in fact actresses who are very attractive despite having less than ideal anatomical features, so it’s not such a ridiculous idea. The great power of advertising is that it can induce us not only to believe that we can get what we want by buying their product, but to urgently want something that would otherwise have been of minor interest. In practice, advertising convinces us to covet the kind of beauty that is immediately apparent in a ten-second shot in a television ad or in a billboard photograph.
In a society where traditions are swept away by dramatic change, we learn of life and love through television rather than from the happily married couples in our village. Television teaches us the rules of a world that has been transformed since the days when our parents were our age; it is the mirror and the propagator of an ever-shifting culture that derives its unity and substance from mass communication. A stable and happy marriage does not make for exciting television, and so we tend to grow up with role models who love for a season and then move on. We see proof on the screen that the people who bail out of a relationship and bounce right on to the next one succeed and are happy. When people stay stubbornly married, one of them is bound to be shot dead in the last episode of the season, the inevitable result of a placid lifestyle. Confused by these images, unprotected by significant efforts by parents or church to point out the importance of a relationship in which one has the privilege of giving love, it is easy to be blind to grace. We see love as in a mirror, pale reflections of the brilliant substance. Now it requires a degree of luck to be one of those who turn around by chance and become transfixed by the beauty of the real thing. Helping a child to turn and behold this grace, to recognize and pursue it when it the chance appears, is one of the great services that a parent can do. Helping Johnny to understand trigonometry so that he can get admitted to a good college will have far less effect on Johnny’s future happiness than would helping him to understand the value of loving.
I said above that marital bliss is a gift that most are offered. Sadly, it is not offered to all. There are those who fully understand the value of loving, yet who never find love, or love hopelessly. This does not mean that they are not offered the grace that flows from the sacrament, for the grace at its core consists of having the power to love. They have this power, and may exercise it, but under circumstances that bring the pain of longing together with the pleasure of loving. Why is fate so cruel to them? How can they bear such a precious gift, yet fail to find someone to receive it?
It is not that the human heart is unduly particular about specific criteria for its target. We are not all waiting for Mr. or Miss Perfection to come along. Indeed, while many of us find a true soul mate who thinks and reacts to the world as we do, it is interesting to note that a study of identical twins – who tend to have very similar personalities – found that their chosen spouses are not significantly more similar in personality than are the spouses of randomly selected unrelated people. Further, for the most part the twins did not find their co-twin’s spouse to be notably attractive. Even in the case of conjoined (“Siamese”) twins, one of the pair will find a partner who loves her alone, not the co-twin. Cupid aims his arrows by his own rules, not by a matchmaking service checklist of compatibility factors, and love may be found in unexpected places. It is not thwarted by superficial matters.
I would suggest instead that forlorn love is a product of the general failure of society to teach the value of love. One who knows the value of love and wishes to give his or her heart completely will not be drawn by someone who is obviously superficial and self-centered (or if he is, then the love may end in sadness anyway). When society does not foster true love, the task of sifting through the shallow sands of ego and materialism for the gem of affection becomes more difficult. Thus the deserving are thwarted by the multiplication of the undeserving, and love’s labor is made more difficult by the scarcity of lovers. Because of this, by teaching one person the value of loving it may be possible to bring joy to two souls, the newly wise and his previously unmatched loving companion. This two-for-one offer on the multiplication of grace gives special value to educating one’s children on the merit of giving love, beginning with providing them with an instructive example of parents who show their love for each other every day, in every word.
 True friends or the bride or groom will be deeply supportive of the marriage, checking to see if there are indicia of a bad and abusive relationship, but if there are no such indicia then providing support to find a way forward.
 Okay, this has nothing to do with religion, but the new habit of altering models’ photos to enlarge their eyes and so forth seems to be creating a sense of beauty that only space aliens could meet, which seems very strange to me, and rather disturbing.
God offers his grace to all, not just to the most outwardly churchy or those who say the right words.
Grace is an opportunity to advance your alignment with God.
The grace of marriage lies in having someone that you can focus on loving unselfishly, and experience the joy that such divine-expired love brings. Those who view marriage as a contract do not experience this grace.
Conversation starters in popular culture:
As discussed above, this is one where movies tend not to provide great examples, because pure mutual love in itself is not very dramatic. While there are plenty of romances, the movie tends to focus on the drama that the lovers overcome rather than on their ongoing relationship. In my humble opinion, one of the best screen romances is that of Castle and Beckett on Castle. The series takes time to make it clear not only that these two would die for each other, but that they take real and enduring pleasure in making each other happy. Beckett cures Castle of his worst habits because he knows he has found what makes his life truly worthwhile, and Castle cures Beckett of her psychological wounds and leads her back to joy. Screen representations of bad, selfish and ineffective marriages are too common to mention.