This is part VI of “Formed by Divine Teaching”, a 12-part series on the Lord’s prayer. Click here for the main page of the series for updated links for each installment.
This phrase from the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most theologically dense, for behind its terse formulation stands an immensity of content concerning the mode in which the Christian views the relationship between God and creation, grace and nature, the divine and the human. We will elucidate the meaning of this petition by examining an old phrase from scholastic theology, a quote from St. Augustine, and a brief examination of the Incarnation.
1. Gratia perficit naturam
This old scholastic axiom, better known by St. Thomas’ longer formula gratia non destruit naturam sed perficit eam (Summa I.I.VIII ad 2), firstly implies the two distinct orders, that of nature, and that of grace. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the revival of Thomistic philosophy and theology led to the rediscovery of this axiom in all its splendor, which became a sort of catchphrase which distinguished Catholic spirituality from the Protestant. Beginning with Luther’s interpretation of Augustine and Paul, mainstream Protestantism tended to emphasize the depravity of human nature after the Fall, countered only by the superfluity of grace (in short: “nature bad; grace good”). Nature had fallen so far away from the primordial concord that it in a sense needed to be annihilated by God. But for Thomas and the scholastics, gratia non destruit; or in the words of the Roman liturgy, whence this blog takes its name, vita mutatur, non tollitur.
Another variant on this formula found in various scholastic texts is gratia praesupponit naturam: Bonaventure’s insight into this phrase, rediscovered by a certain Joseph Ratzinger during research for his hotly contested habilitationsschrift, recognizes that “grace presupposes nature”. The existence or occurrence of grace implies the existence of a creature who receives it.
It means to say that grace is not a self-subsistent, independent creature but, rather, an act of God upon a creature that already exists; that it is therefore not a substance in itself but an event that “presupposes” a bearer, a point of reference for the event. The saying, therefore, implies no value judgment about nature but, rather, is a statement about the ontological status of grace. (Ratzinger, “Gratia Praesupponit Naturam”, in Dogma and Preaching, p. 150).
Nature is thus ontologically open to grace; because it carries this capacity, it simply does not fit into the structured diametrical opposition against grace which later Protestant writers will propose. Human nature is to a large extent marked by freedom and thus the possibility for either grace or sin. When the human subject acts in such a way that the will responds positively to grace, we glimpse an event which recalls the original intent of the Creator: man (human nature) lives in harmony with God and thus the human life is taken up into the divine life.
When later Bernard Lonergan, SJ, use the idea of sublation to describe the upward participation of a lower level (the natural) with a higher level (the supernatural level of grace), he merely clarifies the old scholastic term perficit, “perfects”. This word has two parts, per (through), and ficit, derived from the verb facere (to do or to make). To “perfect”, therefore, means “to thoroughly do or make”, in the sense of bringing to fullness or completion. Grace perfects nature– it brings human nature to its fullest potential according to the intent of the Creator, which is a harmonious yet completely free participation in the divine life.
2. “…inquietum est cor nostrum…”
This is perhaps Augustine’s most famous quote, taken from the beginning of his Confessions, and oft cited by Christians of all denominations. The entire sentence, however, illustrates the drama of nature and grace: Tu excitas ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. (“You stir up man that he might delight in praising you, for you have made us unto yourself, and our heart is restless until it might rest in you.”)
2a. fecisti nos ad te
In section 1 above, we saw that nature in itself is given no value judgment; neither the human race nor individual persons are judged by their nature, but secundum facta sua. Despite this inherited fallen condition, we can still say unto God, fecisti nos— “you have made us”. That which God has has made is good, though through free will, the creatures can choose evil. Not only is man created by God, which gives him a sense of innate goodness, but he is made for God, and precisely because he is created in his image and likeness, God summons man to be close to him in a unique and special way. When man ceases his restless struggle against God in the name of pure self-autonomy but finds harmony between his own will and the divine will, man truly “rests” in God.
2b. Tu excitas
God “excites” us in the first instance; he communicates his love and power to us in such a way that we are stirred to respond to his grace. Since even creation is itself an act of grace, nature has its ultimate source in Him who is the ground of all being. Grace is not so much a thing possessing substatia, essentia, or quidditas; it is rather an act of the God who “excites” or “stirs” man toward him. Grace is therefore prevenient in nature, and the existence of nature implies the existence of grace, as we know from Bonaventure. Against Pelagianism, we maintain that there is no human movement toward God that is not a response to grace, and nor can man complete this movement without the help of grace.
2c. omnia intendunt assimilari Deo
Thomas will coin this formulation as a corollary of the createdness of all the world and its inherent goodness. It echoes Augustine’s inquietudine, though it goes much deeper by saying that “all things”, not just the hearts of men, tend toward God. Though this ontological tendency toward God is implicit in all nature, nature does not necessarily fulfill this tendency in every case. This is most true in the case of man, who by virtue of his freedom can and does choose against God. This does not, however, change the assertion of Thomas and the whole Catholic tradition with him: nature’s finds its perfection in consonance with God; or, in different terms, nature by virtue of its createdness is so imbued with grace, that it already in its substance reaches towards its celestial completion, waiting to be drawn into the will of God.
3. The Incarnation
The Incarnation of the Son is a grace-event of the highest order. Here we see not only human flesh elevated into something that gains the salvation of mankind; we see the fullness of grace descending from the heights of infinity into the sensible, tangible confines of the created world. In the person of Jesus Christ, in the hypostatic union, we glimpse the perfect unity between nature and grace according to the design of God. In perfect accord with the will of his Father, Jesus does not chase the delusion of self-autonomy, nor does he succumb to the satanic temptation to use his own power for worldly ends. He “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming human in likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death upon a cross.” We have a true man who in his freedom chooses obedience to the Father, and we have the true God who effuses his grace through his example of word, deed, and expiatory sacrifice.
These three ideas– that grace perfects nature, that God created the world unto himself, and that God became man– are all expressed every time the Christian asks God, “be it done on earth as in heaven”. This excerpt from the Lord’s prayer does not ask for God to destroy or efface the world; rather, the created order contains innate goodness, and thus we ask the Lord to amplify this goodness, to perfect it until the order of nature is in total harmony with the order of grace. When men respond positively and cooperate with the action of God, manifested through acts of charity, community, and brotherhood, even mortal life is transformed into a life of divine praise. In such a context where human actions are enlivened by supernatural grace, the man of of faith cannot but give thanks and cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth; the whole earth is full of his glory!”– and thus one will hear this same prayer of praise, here on earth as it is said by the angels eternally in heaven.