Editor’s note: This is part 21 of a series, “The Kingdom of Grace.” Part 20 can be found here.
On the pathways of metanoia, hope counts on the help of God every step of the way.
All things need the help of God at all times. Such a statement might come as a surprise, but it is true nonetheless. Without the help of God, the sun would not rise in the sky or go down in the evening. Without the help of God, no star would ever trace a course through the night sky, no ant would ever go from here to there, and no blade of grass would ever grow at all. But for the help of God at every moment of our lives, you and I would not be able to think, blink, walk, talk or do any of the things we normally take for granted as our own most basic abilities. All of our abilities, and our very exercise of them at any point in time, depend at all times on God giving being to all, activating all, and moving all in his own incomprehensible way as the Creator of all.
Grace is a special help from God – distinct from all the divine helps he ordinarily gives to keep thing in the world being and doing and going. God’s actual graces and inspirations are given specifically to persons, and stir us inwardly yet freely to turn to God, to go to him, to believe in him, to love him, to repent before him, and to call upon him for mercy. But for his grace giving birth in our hearts to such holy loves and desires and intentions, you and I would not carry out any supernatural or saving acts at all. It is by the grace of God at work in our hearts that we even desire to walk the pathways of metanoia and set out for the unapproachable Light in the heavenly places. Saint Paul says it most clearly: “It is God who is at work in you both to will and to work according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Hope consists of counting on the grace of God to bring us home to the Father’s house. There are many difficulties and challenges on the way. The pathways of metanoia are not easy. “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 13-14). To walk by the hard way and enter by the narrow gate requires special help from God – grace – at every moment. Hope consists basically in reaching out to God for the help of his grace. It gives birth to prayer, to recourse to the sacraments, to the reading of Scripture, to looking for God. Hope such as this, Saint Paul says, “does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5).
What does he mean? Human beings naturally hope for many things: for good weather, for a good spouse, for a better job, for healing when we are ill, or for various problems to go away. Indeed, everyone hopes for a good life and tends to complain to God when it does not come to us. People naturally hope for all such natural goods from God and even plead for them in tears. God is good and hears our cries. He often answers our prayers for the blessings of nature to come to us. But Saint Paul is not saying that every hope for the blessings of nature to come to us is bound to be fulfilled with the help of God. In a world of many disappointments, sometimes devastating disappointments and inescapable hardships, such a claim would be obviously false. Every day of our lives many longstanding afflictions of many people stand before our eyes. Hopes for the blessings of nature are good, and we cannot live without such hopes. The Church, too, in her liturgy prays for the blessings of nature to come to us. Yet, the hope of the Christian heart is at the same time far deeper. It is for something more.
The Church, too, in her liturgy prays for the blessings of nature to come to us. Yet, the hope of the Christian heart is at the same time far deeper. It is for something more.
Christian hope is for something more than all the finite goods of this world combined. The Christian heart hopes for God – to live something of his own supernatural and divine Life by grace, to go into the Light, and to know his Love forever. Hopes such as these can only be born from faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of grace, and so long as anyone hopes for things such as these – hopes for God – the person shall never be disappointed. No one who ever believed in Jesus Christ and hoped to the end to go to the Father’s house was ever let down by God. Such is the meaning of Saint Paul when he said “hope does not disappoint.”
Yet, as we walk the narrow way that leads to Life, difficulties and challenges pile high. In a previous article, we spoke of building a dwelling in our hearts and fashioning an interior home for God to come and teach us. At any one point in time, however, our hearts might seem like anything but a suitable dwelling place for God. All of us have patterns of sin and are subject to bombardments with dark thoughts and disordered passions about ourselves, other people, and God. All of us struggle to pay attention in prayer, really listen to the Word, and follow the lead of the Spirit. All of us endure afflictions and trials of many kinds – troubles with health, wealth, relationships, family life, parish life, the state of the Church on earth, and our overall cultural and political situation as a society. Causes of discouragement and despair abound on all sides both inside and outside of us.
The fallen mind, faced with a world of many hostilities, spontaneously seeks a way to deal with all of it. From an early age, the fallen mind tends to form many habits of impulsive reaction to the perceived pleasures and hostilities of the world and to take control to excess. Ironically, reaction and control are often rather effective. They work up to a point. They often help us get our way momentarily. Thus, they tend to become our habitual go-to strategies for everything. All such strategies for survival and flourishing, however, are really little more than self-reliance in disguise. The habit of self-reliance is often so ancient in our stories, and so deep in our souls, the full extent of it normally remains an unconscious condition.
The habit of self-reliance is often so ancient in our stories, and so deep in our souls, the full extent of it normally remains an unconscious condition.
Self-reliance, however, cannot save our souls. It does not give Life. God alone can give us the Life we seek, and he does so by grace. The opposite of self-reliance is to hope in God – to hope for his grace to work in us and transform us. Walking the pathways of metanoia means unlearning self-reliance and learning to depend on God more and more for his love and grace. The Church teaches us this in every Mass. What is the last prayer we say before holy communion? The centurion’s prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
It is a prayer of humility, hope, and healing. “I am not worthy” means my heart is not yet a completely suitable dwelling place for God. In fact, my heart is a mess in a thousand ways and much in need of healing and purification. To say “I am not worthy” is an act of honesty, vulnerability, and humility about the actual condition of our own hearts before God. The same prayer, however, is full of complete confidence and hope in God: “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” For Jesus Christ is the Good Physician and his grace is the true medicine for our souls. Those who put their hope in him, those who walk the pathways of metanoia with the centurion’s prayer in their hearts, shall not be disappointed.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.