Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, writes that the entire order of monastic life is directed to helping the person attune him or herself to and live in accord with the workings of God’s grace. Although monastic life is an amplification of the intensity of the average Christian’s search for God, the single-minded focus of monastic life can provide helpful insights for all Christians. In other words, what is true for the monastic is true for every Christian: the goal of our lives is to attune ourselves to the workings of grace and to respond from the core of our being. Hence, there is an intrinsic connection to this interior disposition (what is often referred to as contemplation) and our exterior response, which is in essence the heart of the moral life – though it is much broader than what we typically think of as morality.
There are many ways to become attuned to the workings of God’s grace, but some are more primary than others. I would suggest that hearing the Word of God in Scripture and celebrating the liturgy are the two most foundational and essential aspects of developing a contemplative heart. The Catholic tradition has often referred to these two sources of Christian life as “Word and Sacrament,” the two basic aspects of the Mass (Scripture readings [Word] and Eucharist [Sacrament]).
In yesterday’s reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet proclaim that “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:3). This suggests that we can do certain things to make a straight path for God, to tiddy up our road in order that grace may more easily reach our hearts and minds.
But from a certain perspective this presents a conundrum. Grace is strictly speaking the workings of God’s actions taken on our behalf, something that we cannot do for ourselves. So what does it mean to make a straight highway for our God? To draw upon some technical theological language, Aquinas (and others) speak of a distinction between operative and cooperative grace (Summa Theologiae I-II. Q. 111, A. 2). In the movements of operative grace, God simply acts to move our will to know and to love God – grace engages both our mind or intellect and our desire or love, and empowers us to act in accord with God’s will. Thus, the second aspect of grace is to call it cooperative grace – that is, we are both moved and we respond, with the help of God.
In the homily at Mass yesterday, the priest spoke of his experience of driving on the rocky, washed-out roads of Africa during a recent mission trip, which made it extremely difficult to travel even short distances. He noted how as a typical American he repeatedly asked why nobody did anything to remove the rocks or smooth out the roads, and the response he received was always that there would only be more rocks underneath and that the rains would create new channels and wash-outs. What this seems to suggest is that although we cannot demand God’s gift of grace, we can try to make ourselves ready to receive it, to purify our desires, and carefully look for the things in our lives that block us from hearing, receiving, and responding to the subtle promptings of grace. And ultimately, we believe that though we cannot demand anything of God, we know that God desires to reach out to everyone in love, and thus we wait in joyful hope, no matter how rocky we discover our road to be.
This, it seems to me, is the perfect Advent practice. In may turn out in the end that what we thought was our own initiative to make straight a highway for our God was actually begun with the promptings of grace in ways that we did not then see. In other words, all may become grace, even in the areas that we first perceived as being desert. We do not always have the comfort of seeing where these movements of grace are while we are on the journey, but we trust that in the end the truth will be revealed to us, and that God will have been beckoning in unseen ways all along.