1. The Holy Ghost influences our lives by enlightening the mind and strengthening the will. Such passing influence of the Holy Spirit is called “actual grace.”
Before Pentecost the apostles were still ignorant; “slow of heart,” as Our Lord expressed it (Luke xxiv. 25); the Holy Ghost in descending upon them enlightened their understanding and strengthened their will; the fear which had caused them to keep in concealment was now changed into undaunted courage. The fiery tongues symbolized the enlightenment of their minds, the whirlwind the strength which they received. The Holy Ghost is like the sun, giving light and warmth. When the sun begins to shine, the stars which were visible before begin to wane, and we see nothing in the firmament but the. sun. When the Holy Ghost enlightens our souls we despise all earthly objects which formerly attracted our love, such as eating, drinking, playing, etc., and all our thoughts are turned towards God. Moreover the light of the sun reveals to us the true form of objects, the stones which we have gathered, the various roads before us. The light of the Holy Ghost shows us the true value of earthly things, our own sins, and the true goal of life. When the sun comes the ice begins to melt and the plants to blossom. So, too, the Holy Ghost warms our hearts, stirring them with the love of God and of our neighbor, and helps us to do actions deserving of heaven. The Holy Ghost is therefore a light, descending from the Father of light ( Jas. i. 17); as St. Augustine says: “Actual grace is a light which enlightens and moves the sinner.”
There are many and various channels through which the Holy Ghost makes His influence act; for instance, sermons, the reading of good books, illness and death, the good example of others, religious pictures, the advice of superiors and friends, etc.
The people were moved by the Holy Ghost at Pentecost when they heard the preaching of the apostles; so too St. Anthony the Hermit (356), on hearing a sermon on the rich young man; St. Ignatius of Loyola (1556), by the reading of the lives of the saints; St. Francis of Assisi (1226) during an illness; St. Francis Borgia (1572) on seeing the dead body of the Queen Isabella; St. Norbert (1134) on seeing a death by lightning, etc., etc. In all these cases there was a sudden interior change, which the Holy Ghost took occasion of to speak to their hearts. All of them might have said with St. Cyprian: “When the Holy Ghost came into my heart, He changed me into another man.” Often God sends us suffering, before the Holy Ghost speaks to us. Just as wax must be subjected to the flame and the stamp before receiving an impression, so the heart of man must be softened by suffering in order to receive the impress of the Holy Spirit. Before paper can be used for writing, it must be prepared and finished; in a similar manner man must be purified from his evil desires before he is fit for the working of the Holy Ghost in his soul.
2. The action of the Holy Spirit sometimes makes itself perceptible to the senses.
For example, the appearance of the dove and the voice from heaven at the baptism of Christ, the fiery tongues and the rushing as of wind on Pentecost. We might reflect also how Christ instituted the Sacraments with forms appealing to the senses.
3. The Holy Ghost does not force us, but leaves us in perfect possession of our free will.
The Holy Ghost is, as it were, a guide Whom men may follow or not as they list. He is the light proceeding from God, to which man can, if he will, close his eyes; as St. Augustine says: “To obey the voice of God or not is left to a man’s free will.” God does not act upon us as if we were inanimate objects without intellect or free will. Man’s freedom is very sacred to God, nor will lie deprive him of it even when he uses it to his own perdition. In the words of St. Gertrude: “As God would not allow our great enemy to deprive us of our freedom, so neither would He take it from us Himself.”
Man can co-operate with actual grace or reject it (Ps. xciv. 8).
Saul of Tarsus co-operated with grace, the rich young man (Luke xviii. 18-25) rejected it. The people who on Pentecost reviled the apostles rejected grace (Acts ii. 13), as also those who mocked at St. Paul when he spoke to them on the Areopagus of the Gospel and the resurrection of the dead (Acts xvii. 32). Herod, too, when he heard of the birth of Christ from the Magi, failed to co-operate with grace. St. Francis de Sales draws an illustration from marriage: When a man wishes to marry he offers his hand to some suitable person, and that person may accept or reject the offer; thus God acts. He offers us His grace and we may accept it or reject it. Whoever constantly resists actual grace, and dies in that resistance is guilty of grave sin against the Holy Ghost, a sin which cannot be forgiven. Such a man resembles the devil, who is ever resisting the truth.
Whoever co-operates with actual grace acquires greater graces; but he who resists loses other graces and must answer at the judgment for his obstinacy.
The first grace, if responded to, brings with it a string of other graces. The servant who employed well his five talents received five talents more (Matt. xxv. 28). Hence the words of Christ: He that hath, to him shall be given and he shall abound (Matt. xxv. 29). The punishment which fell on the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is a terrible example of the rejection of grace, because it did not know the time of its visitation (Luke xix. 44). To him who rejects grace apply those words of Christ: “The unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. xxv. 30). It is an insult to a great lord to refuse his gifts, all the more if he be the Lord of heaven and earth and God Himself. He who rejects graces has as little chance of getting to heaven as the traveller of reaching his destination who should neglect to enter the train while it is in the station. The moment of actual grace is like the crisis of a sickness, when a little carelessness may cause death. Many people give a poor reception to the Holy Ghost when He comes to them on the occasion of a death, the reception of the sacraments, or the celebration of great feasts, by giving way to worldly distractions and following their inclinations. They should then seek solitude and time for recollection and prayer, or purify their souls from sin by confession. Thus acted St. Ignatius of Loyola when after his conversion he retired into the cave at Manresa; thus too St. Mary of Egypt who retired into the desert. “Sailors put out to sea,” says Louis of Granada, “as soon as they see that a favorable wind is blowing; with like promptitude ought we to act when we feel the influence of the Holy Spirit.” If we delay God will withdraw His graces, just as in the case of the Israelites. Those who failed to rise in the early morning to gather the manna found it had melted away after sunrise. “The greater the graces we receive,” says St. Gregory the Great, “the greater is our responsibility.” Christ’s own words are: “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required” (Luke xii. 48).
4. The Holy Ghost acts on every man, on the sinner as well as on the just; and more on Catholics than on non-Catholics and unbelievers.
God is the Good Shepherd (John x.). Who seeks the lost sheep till He finds it (Luke xv.). Christ, the Light of the world, enlightens every man that comes into the world (John i. 9). God’s will is that all men be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. ii. 4). Besides all this God has a very special love for the souls of men. “My delight is to be with the children of men” (Prov. viii. 31).
The Holy Ghost was even from the beginning of the world active in promoting the salvation of mankind, but on Pentecost He came into the world in a much more efficacious manner.
While the Jews were in exile in Babylon, the Holy Ghost was working in the heathen by the many miracles which were wrought to demonstrate God’s power; as in the incident of the three children in the furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den. He was working not only in the patriarchs and prophets, but even in heathens like Socrates (who taught the existence of one God, and for that reason was condemned to death in 399 B.C.). Just as the sunrise is preceded by the dawn, so the sun of justice, Christ, is preceded by the dawn of the Holy Ghost.
The Holy Ghost does not distribute His gifts equally to all men; the members of the Catholic Church receive the richest share.
One servant five talents, another two, and another one talent (Matt. xxv. 15). The Jews received more than the heathen; the blessed Mother of God more than all other men. The towns of Corozain and Bethsaida received more graces than Tyre and Sidon, Capharnaum more than Sodom (Matt. xi. 21, 23). There are ordinary graces which are given to all men without distinction, and there are special graces which God grants only to a few souls, and that with a view to some special work. Many graces may be obtained, especially by the prayers of others and by co-operation with the first grace. St. Augustine received many more graces than other men in consequence of the prayers of St. Monica; so, too, St. Paul through the dying prayer of St. Stephen. The holy apostles obeyed the first call of Our Lord, and thus obtained many other graces.
The action of the Holy Ghost on the souls of men is not constant, but occasional.
Hence the exhortation of St. Paul: “Now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. vi. 2). Compare the parable of the vineyard where the workmen received only one summons (Matt. xx.). Times of special grace are the seasons of Lent or when a mission is being given, or the jubilee year. These times of grace are like the market-days when things are easier to obtain; with this difference, that no money is required. “Come buy wine and milk, without money, and without any price” (Is. Iv. 1).
5. Actual graces are obtained by the performance of good works, especially by prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds; and more especially by the use of the means of grace provided by the Church, by hearing of holy Mass, worthy reception of the sacraments, and attendance at sermons.
God’s grace cannot be merited by our own good works alone, otherwise it would not be grace (Rom. xi. 6), yet these good works are necessary, for, as St. Augustine says: “God, Who created us without our co-operation will not save us without our co-operation.” Not according to the works which we have done but out of His mercy has God saved us (Tit. iii. 5). The Holy Ghost gives to each one as He wills (1 Cor. xii. 11), with regard, however, to the preparation and cooperation of each individual (Council of Trent, 6, 7). Hence it is that a man receives more actual grace as he is richer in good works. In particular we know that prayer to the Holy Ghost is very efficacious, for the Father in heaven gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. Prayer to the Mother of God is also very efficacious: for she is “full of grace,” and “the dispenser of all God’s gifts.” “Let no one,” says St. Alphonsus, “consider this last title extravagant, for the greatest saints have so spoken of her, and the saints, as we know, were inspired by the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth.” Prayer to the Blessed Sacrament also confers many graces. So, too, retirement from the world, or the solitude in which God speaks to the heart (Osee ii. 14), and the mortification of the senses are excellent means of drawing down grace; a good example is found in the conduct of the apostles during the time preceding Pentecost.
This article, Actual Grace is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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