While preaching the Gospel, Christ presented us with the prime condition for the Holy Spirit to work in us: “Ask and you will receive”. He made it clear: it is about asking for the Holy Spirit. So in a way we may translate it this way: “Ask for the Holy Spirit and you will receive Him”. Jesus showed another condition for receiving the Holy Spirit: “if you do not become like children, you will not enter into the Kingdom of God”, namely,“if you want to have the experience of the action of the HolySpirit in you, you need to have a child’s disposition: total trust, total surrender, humility, relying on God’s Help,… It is a clear choice we need to make in our relationship with God.
But there are many questions that arise: 1- What if we don’t ask, or act toward the Holy Spirit the way Jesus indicated to us? Will we still receive the Holy Spirit, be under his influence? 2- What does “to ask” mean exactly? 3- What does “asking” realise in us? 4- Do we have different qualities in our demand (asking with different degrees of intensity)? We can ask, for example, with “all our heart, all our energy”, and we can ask in a superficial way. 5- How much of the journey is up to us to work on, and how much is it us just waiting for God’s Action? 6- We know contemplation is an infused gift from God (infused: given directly from God without our merit). But can participating in the sacraments, prayer, ascetical life, be seen as a preparation for this Gift?
Note: One can use the expression “Grace of God” instead of “Holy Spirit”.
There are various aspects to the answer. Of course here we are at the heart of the Theology of Grace, but I would like to address the answer in a practical way. In Theology, the constant threat is to give a perfect theoretical answer, sound and orthodox, but a) not understandable by Joe Public and b) not having any visible and understandable practical implications, i.e. how can I receive the Holy Spirit in practice.? What am I supposed to do (or learn to do) in order to receive the Holy Spirit? How can I know and discern if I am really receiving the Holy Spirit? Do I feel the difference? Can I trigger the reception? If so, can I trigger it at any time? Do I need to spend a large section of the journey, a long time, in the necessary preparatory stage?
Indulge me, please, as I lay down the foundations of the answer: first and foremost, the most powerful means and moments for receiving the Holy Spirit are the two moments at the Table of the Eucharist when we ingest Jesus: the Bread of Jesus’ Word and the Bread of His Body and Blood. So learning how to derive nourishment from these two aspects of the one and unique Bread, Jesus himself, is very important. Eating is a long and complete process, that goes from ingesting, to assimilation, passing through masticating and digesting. For this reason, we need to consider that mastering the two processes of “digestion and assimilation” of these two aspects of the Living Bread, namely Lectio Divina and the Prayer of the Heart, is central for the correct and fruitful reception of the Holy Spirit.
There are constant laws that govern a) Spiritual Life in general and in particular b) Lectio Divina and c) Prayer of the Heart. These laws, if understood well, and if the perception and implementation of them is correct, will allow the Holy Spirit to be received constantly and effectively, that is, abundantly, on a daily basis, when growth will be triggered.
Now are these laws the same throughout the journey of Spiritual Life (in a diachronic way)? Aren’t there moments where it is easier to receive the grace of God and others where it is “hard-work”?
It is true that there is a growth curve, where in the beginning the “old man” in us, that is, our original selves given over to worldly temptations/desires, (old man presupposes former knowledge) is bigger and therefore more active than the “new man”, that is the new more spiritual self, and therefore it is more difficult for the person to be docile to the Action of the Holy Spirit. It is true as well, that after the purification realised by the Holy Spirit it becomes easier to be docile, so the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit flows more smoothly. These changes in ease, in learning how He works and how we need to respond, however, do not remove the general “law” of dealing with the Holy Spirit.
In this sense, the answer to question 5 (“How much of the journey is up to us to work on, and how much is it us just waiting for God’s Action?”) is: throughout the journey and at any moment on the journey there are constant things that we should learn: we remain free, masters of our own decisions, till the end. Being transformed in God does not make us less free, on the contrary. Adam did sin while he was in the Presence of God and St Teresa of Avila gives a stern warning in the Seventh Mansion of The Interior Castle when, as an example, she mentions the risk of sinning is still there where King Solomon, who started his life well, ended it badly. The message is: there is no “safe state”.
Using our free will, then, is something that remains necessary always. Our docility to the Holy Spirit never transforms us into “puppets” in the hands of the Puppeteer. Even when the will of God and our will coincide perfectly in the state of “Union with God”, also known as “Spiritual Marriage”, even when transformed in the Holy Spirit and being totally docile to Him, we remain free (even freer than before) and God waits for us to see what we will do, or waits for a repeated act of Love, i.e. an act of oblation/offering of ourselves to Him. This will not change!
Two Main Ways the Holy Spirit Works
The “Sacred Threshold”
If we read the Gospel of Saint Matthew for instance, we will rapidly notice the abundant use he makes of the word “kingdom”. In fact, Jesus repeatedly speaks about “entering the kingdom” and in doing so, He lays down conditions. For instance: if you are rich you cannot enter into the Kingdom; if you are not “like a child” the same is true, you cannot enter. What is the “Kingdom of God”, or the “Kingdom of heaven”? The Kingdom is the area of God, the “space” of His being, the “space” of His freedom, of His Life, the inner life of the Trinity.
To enter this “space” we need to consider the role of grace and its two aspects. In her writings, Saint Teresa of Avila mentions the “General help” and the “Particular help” of the Grace of God or of the Action of the Holy Spirit in us (see Life 14,6; 3 Mansions 1,2; 5 Mansions 2,3). We can understand the “Particular help of the Grace of God” as the fact of “entering into the Kingdom”. Or, if we prefer, it can be understood as the direct and personal Action of the Holy Spirit in us. In the “Prayer of Recollection”, the initial stage of Prayer of the Heart where we focus on the Lord and offer ourselves to Him, the Holy Spirit uses His “general help” and in the “Prayer of Quiet”, which follows when He starts to act in us, He uses His “particular help”. Saint Theresa of Avila calls the latter: “the supernatural” (see Fourth Mansions, chapter 1,1).
Between the “general help” and the “particular help” of the Holy Spirit there is a red line, a “sacred threshold”. At any moment on the journey of spiritual growth we are invited to cross that “Sacred Threshold” by using the “general help of the Holy Spirit”, offering ourselves to Him, asking for His Holy Spirit (His Love).
Here is what saint Theresa of Avila says:
“For many purposes it is necessary to be learned; and it would be very useful to have some learning here, in order to explain what is meant by general or particular help (for there are many who do not know this) and how it is now the Lord’s will that the soul should see this particular help (as they say) with its own eyes; and learning would also serve to explain many other things about which mistakes may be made.” (Life 14,6)
She will then explain that in order to practise the “Prayer of Recollection” we need to use the “General help” of the Grace of God that is constantly being given to us. We should use it, until the “Prayer of Recollection” becomes like a new acquired habit (see “Way of Perfection” chapters 26, 28 and 29). To this act of “recollection” God replies with His Action (the Direct and Personal Action of the Holy Spirit). She calls this action: “Prayer of Quiet”. In the “Prayer of Quiet”, we are receiving the “Particular help” of the Grace of God that is supernatural (4Mansions 1,1) and infused.
These notions belong to the Theology of Grace that we learn while doing the basic 4 years of Theology. For instance, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa T., I-II Q.109 a. 6, addresses this issue (see below). He mentions two needs: one is the main need, which is to receive the Grace of God (say the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit) “and the second precedes it: to prepare ourselves to receive this first and main Grace”. We need the second grace in order to receive the first and main grace, since the grace that prepares us leads us to the main Grace, “knowing the existence of this preparative grace, and learning how to use it” are decisive and vital for all our spiritual life, worship and Christian life.
This preparative grace is “the general help of the Grace of God” (that, so to speak, helps us move in the water from the bottom of the sea to the surface), that we use in the “Prayer of Recollection”, to get closer to God, offering ourselves to Him, putting ourselves in the Hands of God.
The Main grace is when He comes, takes us and put us in Him: this is the particular help of His grace, the main action of the Holy Spirit that puts us in a direct and personal relationship with the Risen Lord.
When Jesus says: “ask and you shall receive” He is just explaining the relationship between the “general help” (“ask”) and the “particular help” (“you will receive”) and the sacred threshold between them, this “red line” that defines the meeting point of the two freedoms: God’s freedom (the kingdom) and our freedom (using the general help in order to show our choice, ask, beg, knock, …)
Let us cross that “sacred threshold”, for this is our vocation, our call. We need, first, to learn about it, and, second, put it into practice, in order to receive the Action of God in our heart.
St Thomas Aquinas explains how the Holy Spirit works
Here is the whole article of Saint Thomas Aquinas where he explains the difference between the “general help of the Grace of God” and the “particular help of the Grace of God” followed by a short comment that explains the practical point of it, in continuity with what we have just seen.
Let us remember that we are addressing a very specific issue in the Theology of Prayer, in order to understand theologically what is the exact difference between the two types of grace: the one that allows us to offer ourselves to God (“Prayer of Recollection” according to Theresa of Avila) and the one that takes us and puts us in God Himself (“Prayer of Quiet”).
Here is Saint Thomas’ Article taken from the Summa Teologica I-IIae Q. 109, A.6:
Can a man prepare himself for Grace
by himself and without the external aid of grace?
Saint Thomas first gives a series of 4 false objections. They seem right and convincing, but only apparently. They all have a flaw that he will show subsequently:
1: It would seem that man, by himself and without the external help of grace, can prepare himself for grace. For nothing impossible is laid upon man, as stated above (A, ad 1). But it is written (Zech. 1:3): “Turn ye to Me . . . and I will turn to you”; Now to prepare for grace is nothing more than to turn to God. Therefore it seems that man of himself, and without the external help of grace, can prepare himself for grace.
2: Further, man prepares himself for grace by doing what is in him to do, since if man does what is in him to do, God will not deny him grace, for it is written (Mat. 7:11) that God gives His good Spirit “to them that ask Him.” But what is in our power is in us to do. Therefore it seems to be in our power to prepare ourselves for grace.
3: Further, if a man needs grace in order to prepare for grace, with equal reason will he need grace to prepare himself for the first grace; and thus to infinity, which is impossible. Hence it seems that we must not go beyond what was said first, viz. that man, of himself and without grace, can prepare himself for grace.
4: Further, it is written (Prov. 16:1) that “it is the part of man to prepare the soul.” Now an action is said to be part of a man, when he can do it by himself. Hence it seems that man by himself can prepare himself for grace.
Then Saint Thomas opposes these objections with the “right teaching” saying:
On the contrary, It is written (Jn. 6:44): “No man can come to Me except the Father, Who hath sent Me, draw him.” But if man could prepare himself, he would not need to be drawn by another. Hence man cannot prepare himself without the help of grace.
Saint Thomas develops the “right teaching”:
I answer that, The preparation of the human will for good is twofold:
– the first, whereby it is prepared to operate rightly and to enjoy God; and this preparation of the will cannot take place without the habitual gift of grace, which is the principle of meritorious works, as stated above.
– There is a second way in which the human will may be taken to be prepared for the gift of habitual grace itself. Now in order that man prepare himself to receive this gift, it is not necessary to presuppose any further habitual gift in the soul, otherwise we should go on to infinity. But we must presuppose a gratuitous gift of God, Who moves the soul inwardly or inspires the good wish.
For in these two ways do we need the Divine assistance, as stated above. Now that we need the help of God to move us, is manifest. For since every agent acts for an end, every cause must direct its ? effect to its end, and hence since the order of ends is according to the order of agents or movers, man must be directed to the last end by the motion of the first mover, and to the proximate end by the motion of any of the subordinate movers; as the spirit of the soldier is bent towards seeking the victory by the motion of the leader of the army – and towards following the standard of a regiment by the motion of the standard-bearer. And thus since God is the First Mover, simply, it is by His motion that everything seeks to be likened to God in its own way. Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “God turns all to Himself.” But He directs righteous men to Himself as to a special end, which they seek, and to which they wish to cling, according to Ps. 72:28, “it is good for Me to adhere to my God.” And that they are “turned” to God can only spring from God’s having “turned” them. Now to prepare oneself for grace is, as it were, to be turned to God; just as, whoever has his eyes turned away from the light of the sun, prepares himself to receive the sun’s light, by turning his eyes towards the sun. Hence it is clear that man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous help of God moving him inwardly.
He then addresses each of the first 4 objections in the light of the central teaching he has just stated:
Reply to Objections
1: Man’s turning to God is by free-will; and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God. But free-will can only be turned to God, when God turns it, according to Jer. 31:18: “Convert me and I shall be converted, for Thou art the Lord, my God”; and Lam. 5:21: “Convert us, O Lord, to Thee, and we shall be converted.”
2: Man can do nothing unless moved by God, according to Jn. 15:5: “Without Me, you can do nothing.” Hence when a man is said to do what is in him to do, this is said to be in his power according as he is moved by God.
3: This objection regards habitual grace, for which some preparation is required, since every form requires a disposition in that which is to be its subject. But in order that man should be moved by God, no further motion is presupposed since God is the First Mover. Hence we need not go to infinity.
4: It is the part of man to prepare his soul, since he does this by his free-will. And yet he does not do this without the help of God moving him, and drawing him to Himself, as was said above.
Let us see in detail Saint Thomas’ answer: “I answer that, The preparation of the human will for good is twofold” He will then explain the two graces:
1- The main Grace, the infused one: this one is the one we need and await in order to “enter in God” (merit eternal life). This is the particular help of the Grace of God that introduces us in Him.
2- and the other grace is the one that prepares us for it, that leads us to it, that helps our free will to choose God, go toward Him in order to receive his grace. This is the “general help of the Grace of God”, that leads us to the “border” or “meeting point”, that “prepares us”, makes us ready to receive the Main grace. As one can see, the second leads to the first one. One cannot separate the “prayer of recollection” and the “prayer of quiet”. One is ordered to the other. Let us now re-read Saint Thomas in his key passage:
the first, whereby it is prepared to operate rightly and to enjoy God; and this preparation of the will cannot take place without the habitual gift of grace, which is the principle of meritorious works, as stated above.
Without this Grace we cannot be introduced in God, drink God, “enjoy God” and “operate rightly” in Him. This is the Main Grace we need from God.
Now, how can we receive this grace? This is the central issue of this 6th article. Do we need to help from God to receive the Main infused supernatural Grace? This article is a key article. Because our spiritual life is about receiving “Grace upon Grace”, and the question is: how can we receive the Grace? How can we prepare ourselves? Here comes Saint Thomas’ reply:
There is a second way in which the human will may be taken to be prepared for the gift of habitual grace itself. Now in order that man prepare himself to receive this gift, it is not necessary to presuppose any further habitual gift in the soul, otherwise we should go on to infinity. But we must presuppose a gratuitous gift of God, Who moves the soul inwardly or inspires the good wish.
This is the key word: “a gratuitous gift of God”. This gratuitous gift is constantly given, to everybody, it is the “general help of the grace of God” that Saint Theresa of Avila mentions (see previous post). We can complete this with his reply to the 4th objection: “4: It is the part of man to prepare his soul, since he does this by his free-will. And yet he does not do this without the [general] help of God moving him, and drawing him to Himself, as was said above.”
As we can see: it is our part to prepare ourselves in the sense of: “to go inwardly” as he stated, to get closer to the meeting point where we are supposed to receive the main grace (in the diagram below the meeting point is the surface of the water). Moving ourselves and offering ourselves to God is done by the “General help of the grace of God, represented by the arrow (1-) in the diagram below:
These are all together central and practical issues. They are not only the “Theology of Grace”, they are as well the “Economy of Grace” (i.e. Spiritual Theology) and its application in our Spiritual Life. In this article we see how “theory” is the theory of a practical issue, we see how all the theory is invited to become flesh in us. These notions Saint Thomas is teaching us are Pearls, Divine Seeds of the Word of God.
What depends on us
In order for the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit to work, two acts should be implemented: one depends on us, and the second depends on God. Fulfilling our part brings us to the meeting point (or the Sacred Threshold) between our freedom and God’s one (see above). If we do not do our part, we will not reach that point, and Prayer will not work: we do not enter in God, and therefore God does not pour Himself into us, He cannot transform us in Him. Therefore to know and do “what depends on us” is of utmost importance. We need to understand it, learn it and, mainly, learn to practise it.
In the 3 following slides we go through “what depends on us”:
Is Contemplation “Acquired” or “Infused”?
The first part of last century has seen a debate on Contemplation of momentous proportions between two (if not more) schools of thought. Today we would have great difficulty in understanding why and how the schools of Theology fought. It was fierce and it was in the public domain, through respective Journals. The core of the discussion was: is contemplation acquired or infused. “acquired” meant: with the general help of God, I can acquire a (supernatural) habit or state or capacity to access God. “infused” meant that accessing God, receiving Contemplation was something that depended totally on God’s freedom, and no meritorious act whatsoever can merit us receiving the Gift of Supernatural Contemplation.
The debate was heated and lacked practical insight. It was all purely theological. There is nothing wrong with it. Both camps considered the Grace of God, the human free will, and the general interaction, but from a different stand point. The result is that each camp remained firm in its belief and no clear bridges were built. The point is that each camp was right! But the combination of both, together, on different levels never happened! The debate stopped toward the end of the 1940s, not because a compromise or a solution or some clarity were found! No! Just because of battle fatigue became tired (and the readers lost)!
Now, can we use these theological categories today? Yes, it is possible, and the above explanations, either from St Teresa of Avila, St Thomas Aquinas or from the drawing help us see what is what.
In the drawing above, “moving in the water” of our being is something that we all can do, and have to do, using the “general help of the Holy Spirit” that is given to everybody all the time, with no conditions! Being taken from the surface of the water to the Sun (Jesus, the Trinity) depends purely on the direct and personal action of the Holy Sprit.
But we need to add two things here:
While respecting the pure freedom of God (the infused aspect), we need to add a dimension that the two schools mentioned above failed to underline with clarity: God has an immense desire to give Himself to us, because He is Love and love by definition is to give oneself. The rules of Love and of the communication between the two persons who love each others need to be known! There are conditions on our part to fulfil in order to allow Him to give Himself to us!
One of the schools stressed the total freedom of the Grace of God reminding us of the theological truth: God gives His grace to whoever He wants, when He wants, the way He wants. But this is only part of the truth about God’s sovereign freedom and being. Let us be aware that if we take only one part of the truth, the one just mentioned, we might end up making of God (God forbid) a capricious being, who acts according to his mood! How can we complement this truth?
God is Love and awaits for real love from us. What is love? To love is to give oneself. So to love Him means to give ourselves to Him. To produce that act of gifting ourselves.
The critical question becomes here: can we give ourselves to Him? If we rely on the diagram of the sea (see above), where the water symbolises our being and moving in the water depends on the General Grace of God, given all the time to all baptised, here is then the question: can we bring ourselves to the surface of the water of our being? The answer is “yes”. This happens when we use the general help of the Grace of God to offer ourselves totally to Him.
But bringing ourselves to the surface of the water doesn’t mean that we can fly!! (That would impinge upon God’s domain and freedom).
Thus, on the drawing, the air-space and the sun not only symbolise God’s Being as well as sovereign freedom, but also the fact that moving in these mediums depends totally on the Holy Spirit’s direct and personal Action – that is, on infused grace.
In order to complement the truth that God is totally free to act in us the way He wants, when He wants, with whom He wants, we next need to find the answer to this fundamental theological discovery: where is God? Being Love, being a constant Burning Love for each one of us, God is standing at the threshold between His being and ours (the surface of the water). He is waiting for us to appear, to emerge from the water so He can take us to Himself, introducing us into His Being, immersing us in Him. This truth re-aligns the possible wrong impression that one can have dealing solely with the first Truth seen above (He acts with sovereign freedom, when He wants the way He wants…), and re-aligns our misconception that we need to wait for ever (or even worse: to gain merit) for Him to decide and condescend and deal with us by giving us His direct Grace, the Holy Spirit!
We need to bear this truth in mind: we can never force ourselves into God’s kingdom (air-space sun in the diagram of the Sea). But like the Father of the Prodigal son, He is there, at the door of our being, waiting respectfully for us to appear, to emerge from the water. Waiting for us to use our free will and express our clear determined decision to give ourselves to Him! In fact He is waiting for us and not us for Him. He is constantly available, providing we understand His language, the language of Love, which means the language of the mutual gift of oneself.
It is true that we can’t fly to the sun using our own power, or by the “General help of the Holy Spirit”. He knows it, He knows that it all depends on Him (this is the infused part), but like the Father of the Prodigal son, once He sees us producing this act of love, act of offering ourselves to Him, He doesn’t wait saying “oh I am not sure I really want to give myself”, or “this is really my domain and I will make him or her wait”… no! He immediately gathers us to Him, exactly because by our oblation we make all our being available to Him. He Loves us so much that He died for each one of us and is ready to die again if that were needed or possible. His is bottomless yearning to unite Himself to us, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.. His IS a burning desire, a burning thirst to have each one of us! But He respects our freedom and awaits for us to come and meet Him at the mid point between Him and us, just as when two persons shake hands: their hands reach out at the mid distance!
So asking ourselves (our initial question): “is contemplation acquired or infused?” is like looking at the diagram of the Sea and asking ourselves: “does meeting God happen only by our moving in the water or by his moving in the air-space and sun?” We need both: we need to move toward the surface of the water, this depending on us, because God is constantly giving us the general preparatory grace, and if we don’t use it, nothing will happen. We will remain somewhere in the midst of the water, and will be only randomly brought to the surface of the water by a lucky act of Love. And we need to acknowledge that whenever we reach the surface of the water, by an act of Love – that we need to learn to do, to perfect and to maintain as an acquired habit – , He uses His pure power, direct and personal, and lifts us toward Him, introducing us in Himself, immersing us in the Transformative Purifying Fire of His Love (the action of the Holy Spirit).
It is not either or. It is both, and combined, adding the other part of the truth, showing where God is standing and waiting and in which state He holds himself ready – his huge desire to possess/envelop us.
The answer to this theological question influences a similar old category of division in Spiritual Theology: the “ascetic” part and the “mystic” part. Even though these categories are not used anymore, we need to understand them properly in order to use them correctly if needed. This would take us of course to a completely different article/study.
The Action of the Holy Spirit in us According to St John of the Cross
If we study with great care and attention the action of the Holy Spirit in the human being throughout the spiritual journey of growth, according to St John of the Cross, we will be able to find 8 different types of actions He can perform in us, according to our purity or degree of transformation. The more the person is purified by the Holy Spirit the more docile they become to His Action.
1- Meditation: general help of the Holy Spirit
2- Contemplation: particular help of the Holy Spirit, with a human modality.
3- Contemplation: particular help of the Holy Spirit with a divine modality.
4- Spiritual Engagement: visits of the Holy Spirit who starts to be clearly mentioned and who is called the “lodger” (who prepares the future bride, who is the future Mansion of the Groom, adorning her with the virtues to be able to receive the Divine Groom.)
5- Spiritual Marriage: the soul is united with God and her spirit becomes so transformed in God that it seems to be like a Flame, and one spirit with God. She does what the Father and Son do and with them: aspiring to the Holy Spirit.
6- Celebration and Transition period: the intensity of the action of the Holy Spirit increases.
7- Sparkling: the spirit transformed into the Holy Spirit, and the intensity having reached a necessary degree, allows the spirit to start to “sparkle” or send sparkles of flame, with the Holy Spirit. The human being is said to be able to give the Holy Spirit, God to God, and to give the Holy Spirit to whoever he or she wants. The merits of each one of these acts or sparkles are divine! Because it is the Holy Spirit who acts in them.
8- Christian Death: it is with a greater and more powerful act of the Holy Spirit that the soul-spirit are taken up to God, provoking death (separation of the body from the soul-spirit).
Our Lady’s Place
If we abandon and surrender ourselves to Our Lady, like a little child, with complete trust, this allows the Holy Spirit to work better in us! We become children again, receiving Mary as our Mother. According to St Luke She is the only one who was able to believe in the incarnating action of the Holy Spirit, incarnating God’s Word in us, as gloriously evidenced in her unhesitating Fiat at the Annunciation.
To sum up then one can say that the Holy Spirit’s action is to conform us, mould us, into the resemblance of Jesus! He is Christ-conforming.