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The Growth of the Life of Grace By Merit, Prayer and the Sacraments

"The Good Samaritan" by Jacopo Bassano Photo:
"The Good Samaritan" by Jacopo Bassano Photo:
"The Good Samaritan" by Jacopo Bassano Photo:

The basis and source of the interior life is a continual growth of sanctifying grace and charity. Salvation is impossible without charity, which Paul states is the greatest of all gifts. "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." (1) Not only is charity essential for salvation, but it should serve as an inspiration toward other virtues.

Garrigou-Lagrange (2) writes:

Moreover, it ought not to remain stationary, but should grow in us even until death. This point of doctrine can and should throw great light on the spiritual life since it is the basis of every exhortation to make progress with great humility and generosity by ardently desiring the full perfection of charity, intimate union with God, by striving to obtain it, and humbly asking for it.

The virtues of humility and magnanimity ought always to be united. We shall see, first of all, why charity ought ever to increase in us until death; then, how it should grow in three ways: by merit, prayer, and the sacraments.

Charity in beginners is usually still tainted with varying levels of egoism. This inordinate self-love restricts charity from expressing itself freely and to its greatest magnitude. Such limited degrees of charity fall between the state of mortal sin and perfect charity, hindered most often by habitual venial sins such as self-love, vanity, laziness, or injustice.

It is essential, for any progress to occur in the interior life, that such a low degree of charity expand and intensify. St. Paul often spoke in his letters of the need for increased charity.

But doing the truth in charity, we may in all things grow up in him who is the head, even Christ. (3)

And this I pray, that your charity may more and more abound in knowledge, and in all understanding. (4)

May the Lord multiply you, and make you abound in charity towards one another, and towards all men: as we do also towards you, to confirm your hearts without blame, in holiness, before God. (5)

John writes in the Book of the Apocalypse: “He that hurteth, let him hurt still: and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is just, let him be justified still: and he that is holy, let him be sanctified still." (6)

The Book of Proverbs states: “The path of the just as a shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to perfect day." (7)

St. Gregory described Christians as travelers who are spend their lives advancing in their journey toward God. Just like any traveler who takes one step at a time along the path to his destination, we make progress on our journey through "steps of love." Therefore, charity must continually increase, or the journey will come to an end." The way is intended for travelers," Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "not for those who stop en route and sleep."

This need for ever-increasing charity is not just for beginners and proficients; the perfect, while still on earth, should always draw nearer to God. In fact, their (the perfect's) advancement toward him should be at a much more rapid pace as—like a magnet—they are closer to God and his attraction is all the stronger.

St. Thomas writes on this subject when commenting on St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews: “Not forsaking our assembly, as some are accustomed; but comforting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.” (8)

Someone might ask why we should thus progress in faith and love. The answer is that the natural (or connatural) movement becomes so much the more rapid as it approaches its term, while it is the inverse for violent movement.

Now grace perfects and inclines to good according to the manner of nature. It follows that those who are in the state of grace ought so much the more to grow in charity as they draw near their last end (and are more attracted by it). (9)

What St. Thomas is describing here is the increasing intensification of the saints' spiritual life when they "rise to the zenith and no longer descend. For them, there is no twilight; only the body weakens with age." (10)

Garrigou-Lagrange compares the increase in charity to a heap of wheat. That charity which already loves God above all else and its neighbor, cannot "have a greater extension." In other words, it cannot sprout branches like a tree, for it is what it is. He calls this "growing by addition" like a heap of wheat; one can increase the size of a pile of wheat by adding more wheat to it.

Charity, rather, does not grow by addition, as that would be adding to quantity, not quality. True charity grows stronger and takes deeper root in our will, thereby withdrawing even more from evil.

As in the scholar learning becomes more profound, more penetrating, more certain, without always reaching out to new conclusions, so charity grows in us by making us love God more perfectly and more purely for Himself, and our neighbor for God.

If people had a better understanding of this doctrine, as St. Thomas expounds it, they would see more clearly the necessity of the passive purifications of the spirit, which St. John of the Cross speaks of. The purpose of these purifications is to free the highest virtues of all alloy, and to bring into powerful relief their formal objects: divine truth and divine goodness. Charity increases, therefore, like a quality, like heat, by becoming more intense, and that in several ways: by merit, prayer, and the sacraments. (11)

It is charity—or an inspired virtue enlivened by charity— that foments a meritorious act that is worthy of a supernatural reward, most particularly as an increase of grace and charity. Because charity is an infused virtue, (12) rather than acquired (which increases through the repetition of acts), only God can produce it in us "like a continuous production."

St. Paul says:

I have planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase. Therefore, neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth, and he that watereth, are one. And every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labour. For we are God's coadjutors: you are God's husbandry; you are God's building. (13)

Though acts of charity themselves, cannot increase that virtue in us (because of its infused nature) charitable acts produce "merit," which renders us deserving of a deeper infusion of it by God. These acts also, in a physical sense, prepare us to receive that infusion.

"Merit is a right to a recompense," Garrigou-Lagrange writes. "It does not produce this reward, it obtains it." (14) Acts of charity dispose the soul physically to receive it. They open our faculties in order that we may receive more, deepening them to allow more intense penetration and an elevation of the grace as the acts are purified.

Intense or very fervent acts of charity merit a great increase of charity, disposing the soul to receive it immediately, almost as if raising it to a higher level. This enables the soul to view things of God more clearly and raises it to a new pulse. "He who had two talents thus immediately obtains one or two more, perhaps an even greater number, and, as St. Thomas says, the Holy Ghost is then sent anew to us, for He becomes present in us in a new, more intimate, and more radiating manner." (15)

Quality, Garrigou-Lagrange continues, is superior to quantity. One single act of charity of ten talents glorifies God more than many acts of charity by those who are mediocre or tepid. The example he uses is comparing the value of only one diamond to that of many less-precious stones.

Besides meritorious acts of charity, prayer can also produce an increase in the infused virtues. A soul who is no longer in sanctifying grace cannot merit, however he can pray for conversion and, if petitioned humbly and confidently, he will receive it. The difference, then, between merit and prayer is that merit is the right to a reward through divine justice. Prayer, however, calls on God's mercy, often without any merit on the part of the soul.

From the depths of the abyss into which it has fallen and where it can no longer merit, the most wretched soul may utter that cry to the divine mercy, which is prayer. The abyss of wretchedness calls to that of mercy, abyssus abyssum invocat, and if the sinner puts his whole heart into this appeal, he will be heard. His soul will be lifted up, and God will be glorified, as was the case with Magdalen. The impetrating power of prayer does not presuppose the state of grace, whereas merit does. (16)

There are certain graces that the just soul may obtain through prayer—such as perseverance—that cannot be obtained through merit. Perseverance cannot be merited for in essence, it is basically the continuation of a state of grace. The second part of the Hail Mary ("pray for us now and at the hour of our death") surpasses merit as it addresses itself not to divine justice, but to infinite mercy.

It is possible to pray for the grace to know God more intimately through infused contemplation.

Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me: And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her. Neither did I compare unto her any precious stone: for all gold in comparison of her, is as a little sand, and silver in respect to her shall be counted as clay. (17)

Thus, through God's infinite mercy, prayer manifestly exceeds merit because the sinner who is incapable of meriting can still obtain the grace of conversion and other efficacious graces, which cannot be merited.

The sacraments are a vital conduit through which the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost continue to grow, most notably through absolution and the Eucharist. Merit and prayers reap God's gifts ex opere operantis in response to the faith, piety, and charity of he who merits them. The sacraments, however, produce grace ex opere operato in those to whom no obstacle exists. In other words, graces are received automatically because God intended the receipt of such graces when he instituted the sacraments.

The receipt of these graces is also independent of whoever confers the sacrament or who is receiving it. This is why, Garrigou-Lagrange explains, the state of the priest's soul does not affect the efficacy of the sacrament, as long as the proper intention (along with form and matter), exists.

The quantity of graces received through the sacraments, however, is directly proportional to the fervor of he who receives it. The Council of Trent states that each of us receives justice “according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills and according to each one’s disposition.” (18)

St. Thomas used the metaphor of an open fire to explain this relationship, explaining that the benefits derived from the fire, is proportional to the distance from it. This is particularly true with regard to absolution. The degree of repentance determines the degree of grace recovered before the sin.

It may be that a Christian who had five talents and who loses them by mortal sin has afterward a contrition equal to only two talents; he then recovers grace in a degree notably inferior to that which he had previously.

On the contrary, he may by reason of profound repentance recover grace in a more elevated degree, as was doubtless the case with St. Peter when he wept bitterly immediately after denying Christ.

This teaching is of great importance in the spiritual life for those who fall in the middle of their ascent; they can rise immediately and fervently and continue their ascent from where they left off. But it is also possible that they may rise only tardily and listlessly; they then remain midway instead of continuing the ascent. (19)

The same principle follows with Communion. One fervent Communion is worth much more than many tepid Communions. Therefore, each Communion should serve to increase charity in us by way of an increased fervor, thereby disposing us to received God the next day with an even superior fervor of will than the day before.

Next: The True Nature of Christian Perfection


(1) 1Corinthians 13:13
(2) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989, p129
(3) Ephesians 4:15
(4) Philippians 1:9
(5) 1Thessalonians 3:12
(6) Apocalypse 22:11
(7) Proverbs 4:18
(8) Hebrews 10:25
(9) See IIIa, q.89, a. 2.
(10) Garrigou-LaGrange, pp131-132
(11) Ibid., p133
(13) I Cor. 3: 6-9
(14) Garrigou-Lagrange p134
(15) Ibid., pp134-5
(16) Ibid., p138-9
(17) Wisdom 7:7-9
(18) Sess. VI, chap. 7.
(19) Garrigou-Lagrange p142-3