Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
January 28, 2010
Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
“The Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all I have told you.” John 14:26
To paraphrase Mark Twain, there is a big difference between being hit by a lightning bolt and a lightning bug. Of course, he was talking about the right word and the almost-right word. Regardless, the analogy is a good one, and I would like to apply it to the way we perceive Grace.
Most people in our contemporary society wait for God to send them a lightning bolt. They wait a long time. Perhaps because we hear so much talk about “irresistible” Grace or hear so much about people “slain in the Spirit,” many think that one day they will be struck off their horses like St. Paul and experience some sort of instantaneous conversion. Certainly such conversions can take place. St. Paul is the notable example here. However, the rest of us seem to plod along through life waiting for that moment, and when it never comes, we confine ourselves to mediocrity. In other words, we await the drama of the lightning bolt and miss the beauty of lightning bugs.
In the Catholic understanding, there is as much one as there is the other. As a matter of fact, there are probably more lightning bugs. The Catholic Church has always taught that Grace is God’s gift, true enough, but we must cooperate with it, and that is a free choice on our part. God initiates the Grace, and with the cooperation of our free will, that Grace transforms us by filling up what is lacking in us and guiding our free will to be even more open to God. The manner in which He inserts Himself into our lives becomes gentle and subtle. God’s grace appears more with lightning bugs, in gentle breezes, at the soft twilight hours of a dying day. Grace is more often than not a gradual thing. As the Gospel says, a seed that is planted, given time to grow, nurtured by the good farmer and pruned, will yield fruit in due season. It is like the lesson of the parable of our Lord. The gardener pleads with the owner of the orchard to allow time for him to fertilize and nourish the barren fig tree (Luke 13:8).
There is a book, excellently reviewed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal a few years ago, about four great Catholics of the recently finished 20th century. The book bears the compelling title, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. This book by Paul Elie traces the lives of four very different Catholics whose contributions crisscrossed the world of literature, politics, and religion. They were not Catholics in name only, like some politicians whose Catholicism is only election deep or like some celebrities fond of parroting the line, “I’m a fallen away Catholic.” On the contrary, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day struggled with God’s grace, faith, and what God wanted of them. All were writers and people of enormous intelligence and depth of soul. All were lay, except one. Two were married, two celibate. Two came from grand old Southern families. One was born in France to a struggling artist. One was for all purposes a socialist. All were different, but the one thing they shared in common was that God was trying to impact their lives and working gently with them, bringing them to conversion, moving them closer to Him. They in turn were responding slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and above all patiently. Grace is a gradual thing, conversion often a lifetime occupation.
The first time I heard Walker Percy speak was at a gathering at a local university. His topic before this secular audience was nothing less than God’s Grace. For him, as for the Catholic tradition, Grace worked slowly, and we had to be tuned into it. It was compassionate and kind, understanding and patient, everything the modern world is not. What made a Catholic writer, Percy would agree with other three, was not that he wrote about priests or churches or religious topics. Instead what defined a Catholic writer was his understanding of God’s Grace and how it worked in his life and the lives of his characters. This Catholic perception left open the realm of possibility. In short, Catholicism still believed in mystery. Grace was above all mysterious. Flannery O’Connor would sum up the tension this causes in the modern world when she wrote: “Mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Most prefer lightning bolts. We just kill the lightning bugs.
For whatever reason, because it remains ultimately a mystery, you are students in a Catholic school. You are being given a foundation and framework upon which and through which your lives will take shape. A lightning bolt may come your way one day. That would be dramatic and may happen. Instead look for the lightning bugs. Something valuable you thought you had forgotten, taught you by a speech coach or a religion teacher, will come back to you when you are thirty or fifty years into life. What will stir your memory will be your faith. Grace will gently and gradually weave in and out of your lives, making sense out of seeming confusion, giving answers where only doubt seems to reign. In a world grown weary and fatigued with the pretences of empiricism, Catholicism offers some philosophical coherency to the truth that God’s Grace conquers in the end. Catholicism without apology continues to witness to the reality of mystery and the value of human experience that admits God’s presence into the everyday.
If there is one thing I hear said of Catholic school students consistently, it is this. They are optimistic. As a group they are believers in the realm of possibility. I think they are so because they have been introduced to mystery, not a solvable mystery like the one we read in a mystery novel. The mystery we encounter is the mystery of love, God’s love for us, made manifest in Jesus Christ. It defies being solved. God’s love is not a riddle. It cannot be measured. As with human love, this mystery is difficult to define or to explain. What makes this love different is that it is divine, a divine love making itself present in the life of the creature. The Catholic school student is opened up to the Grace of possibilities because they are fed by God in the Eucharist, forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, confirmed with the Holy Spirit, and given the opportunity of a secure and stable classroom where the teacher can impart a knowledge and love God, whether teaching mathematics or literature. The Catholic school student is introduced to the possibility of God’s Grace because the Catholic school introduces the student to the Incarnation, God making Himself present in the flesh. Grace following upon grace, St. John said of it in his Gospel (John 1:16). By all means be aware of lightning bolts, but pay more attention to the lightning bugs.
Bishop Glen John Provost