Nature and Grace1. “Observe diligently the motions of nature and grace,” says the Imitation of Christ, “for they move with great contrariety and subtlety, and can hardly be distinguished but by a spiritual man, and one that is inwardly enlightened.” (Imit. of Christ, Bk. III, c. 54.)
The struggle between fallen nature and grace is due to original sin, which extinguished in us the supernatural life and gave rise to the disharmony which exists between our lower faculties and reason, and between reason and God. Even the Saints experienced this fearful internal battle between good and evil. “I see another law in my members,” says St. Paul, “warring against the law of my mind.” (Rom. 7:23) Elsewhere he complains that “the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh,” (Gal. 5:17) and that the temptations of the flesh assailed him so strongly that he pleaded with God to save him. But God's reply to his entreaties was: “My grace is sufficient for thee, for strength is made perfect in weakness.” (Cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-9)
This does not mean that human nature is substantially corrupt and incapable of doing good as a result of sin. The inclination towards goodness and towards God remains and is very strong in our better moments. Nevertheless, we need the helping hand of God so that this inclination may express itself in good actions worthy of an everlasting reward. For this reason we should pray humbly and constantly for the precious gift of divine grace.
2. Two extremes must be avoided in the relationship between nature and grace. The first is that of the rigorists who see in human nature nothing but confusion and the propensity towards evil, and therefore advocate an iron domination completely lacking in any understanding of human frailty. They believe that perfection must be achieved swiftly by means of the most ferocious privations and penances. This excessively severe approach to the spiritual life can lead to discouragement and eventual collapse. The way of perfection is an ascending ladder which must be climbed step by step. Falls must be expected, but it is necessary to rise again at once with renewed courage, knowing that when we reach the top we shall find rest and peace.
The other extreme is an attitude of superficial ease. There is no emphasis on the necessity of grace, nor on the need for prayer and faithful co-operation with God's grace in order to perform good works. Instead there is a kind of natural decency and lukewarm virtue which ignores the necessity for mortification and the spirit of sacrifice. Anyone who sets out on this path can never be a fervent and active Christian.
3. Even though there is a contrast between grace and nature there is also a certain harmony, because God made us for Himself, as St. Augustine says, and our hearts will never be at rest until they rest in Him. Grace is a supernatural graft which elevates our nature and makes it capable of attaining everlasting life. It is necessary to take away all the shoots of the old tree-stump and to care for the new branches. Only then shall we begin to approach Christian perfection.
“Therefore, O Lord, let Thy grace always go before and follow me, and make me ever intent upon good works, through Jesus Christ Thy Son, Amen.” (Imit. of Christ, Bk. III, c. 55)