As the Church continues to make her way through Lent, the Church draws from the Sacred Scriptures to teach (or to teach again) the truths of the Gospel. Today, we hear a parable from Saint Luke’s Gospel. The simple story contains a strong admonition.
A landowner planted a fig tree in his orchard. When he came to find fruit on its branches, there were none. This occurred for three years. The landowner eventually told the gardener to cut the tree down, since “why should it exhaust the soil?” The gardener appealed to the landowner and requested: “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.”
The gardener only secured time for the difficult fig tree. And so, the parable’s lesson is placed in our hearts. We are expected to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom. We are given time.
With the tenderness of a gardener, we are nurtured and guided so that we can bear the necessary fruit. A portion of this attentiveness is what the theological tradition calls actual grace.
Actual grace is a supernatural assistance from God. He bestows this gift upon us because he loves us and seeks for us to grow in the supernatural life and bear the fruit of his kingdom.
Unlike sanctifying grace, which dwells within our souls, actual grace is not intrinsic to our souls. It is an action upon us. It is divine assistance to do some supernatural act that we cannot do without God’s help. It is oftentimes spontaneous. It acts only within a particular state of affairs. Examples of actual grace working upon us include giving an act of kindness to someone who is unkind to us, remaining silent in the face of criticism, and extending an olive branch of peace to someone who has conflict or tension in our lives.
Actual grace does not remain with us. It comes to us in a specific moment and at a particular time. It is dynamic, unpredictable, and fluid. Through actual grace, God is directing and helping us to bear the fruit of his kingdom in a set time and place. Actual grace, therefore, is transient. We decide to obey or not, but once a decision is made, actual grace either fulfills its goal and bears spiritual fruit or it does not.
The other higher types of grace, such as sanctifying grace and sacramental grace, rely on the workings of actual grace. Actual grace applies the other graces to specific situations and allows our souls to grow in the supernatural life. Actual grace manifests the other graces in tangible situations and circumstances. Sanctifying grace and sacramental grace cannot be sustained without actual grace.
Since actual grace is manifested in the trenches of life, there are two principal ways in which it acts internally upon our intellect and will. Actual grace either illuminates our minds or inspires our wills.
An illumination of our minds occurs when our minds are enlightened to see what is already present, but from a divine perspective. It could also refer to a conferral of knowledge that would not otherwise be known to the person.
An inspiration of our wills occurs when our souls are assisted in making a virtuous and good decision and to persevere in the decision that has been made.
In addition to the actual graces that are given internally, there are also actual graces that are given externally. These are when God uses ordinary means to manifest his will and bestow his guidance to us. In this way, every person, place, or thing in creation can be a means for God to grant us this supernatural help.
This is the working of actual grace on our souls. It is God’s care for us, as he strengthens us to do his will and so bear spiritual fruit. Actual grace is ongoing and constantly desires to be fulfilled in our lives by the fruits of God’s kingdom.
Lent reminds us of God’s care. It holds before us the expectation of God to bear his fruit in the midst of our world today. Lent further recalls to us the gift of time and its fleeting nature. It exhorts us to use our time well and to generously bear the fruits of God’s kingdom.
Portions of today’s column were taken from my new book, Glory Unto Glory: A Primer on Ascetical Theology. Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby