St. Thomas Aquinas, from an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s common to encounter the quote from the scholastic philosophers that “grace builds on nature,” or “grace perfects nature.” Encountering a correct understanding of this adage is less common. In order to accept the teaching of St. John of the Cross regarding the passive nights of the senses and the spirit, we need to understand what “grace perfects nature” truly means.

Common misinterpretations

I am not a philosopher. When I hear the word “nature,” therefore, I tend to interpret it differently than a philosopher would. I am not alone. Here are some examples of misinterpretations found online:

  • On a question-&-answer site, someone wrote, “St. Thomas (in my opinion) is trying to say that if we change our nature, such as living a life of sin, to living a life of holiness, grace will build because of that change.” There is a truth here, but it’s not what St. Thomas meant.
  • On a blog called “Grace builds on nature,” the author says, “I understand it to mean that the Spirit works with me exactly where I am and builds from there.” That’s a common misunderstanding.
  • An online homily states, “Grace works according to the nature of the thing receiving it. Now there’s a problem with human nature. … [It] has been tainted by sin.” It’s true that we are wounded by sin, but sin does not change our “nature,” as St. Thomas and the scholastics use the term. This is basically a repeat of the first misinterpretation.
  • An online meditation on the Loaves and Fishes story ends, “[God] always wants us to make our contribution, however paltry it may seem. Grace builds on nature.” Both these sentences are true, but they aren’t necessarily related to each other.
  • A reflection by a religious priest, which is full of syncretism and psychologizing of the faith says, “To sum up: grace builds on nature. Therefore, it is desirable that we develop our full human potential. We need to integrate with conscious activity the energies of the deep-self so as to be fully alive.” I’ll skip the new-age-sounding final sentence. In truth, we only “develop our full human potential” as a result of grace, not as a prelude to grace.
  • Finally, in conversations concerning mindfulness, even so-called Catholic Mindfulness, I have been told that the peace that mindfulness brings is a good preparation for the peace of Christ. Since “grace builds on nature,” that means (proponents say) that it would be wrong or inhuman to set aside this “natural” peace. But supernatural peace does not require natural peace to preceed it. And, in fact, in order to obtain true peace, we truly must let go of self-generated peaceful states.

Garrigou-Lagrange’s explanation

A few years ago when I was reading The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, I learned the true meaning of the phrase for the first time. He writes:

“St. Thomas takes it [the word ‘nature’] in the philosophical and abstract sense, which corresponds to the definition of man (a rational animal), to his nature, the radical principle of his operations, such as it comes from God, abstraction being made of every grace superior to it and also of original sin and its results. Human nature thus conceived corresponds to a divine idea.” 

Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 2, Part 3, ch. 1

In other words, when St. Thomas speaks of nature, he means what man is, not what an individual man or woman does or has done.

Man alone is a rational animal. Angels are rational, but they have no bodies, so they are not animals. Beasts are animals, but they lack an intellect and will, and therefore are not rational. Man is both spiritual and physical, possessing intellect, will, and body. So, when St. Thomas says that “grace perfects nature,” or St. Albert the Great says that “grace builds on nature,” they mean that grace presupposes a rational animal as the recipient.

Grace cannot perfect a squirrel. The squirrel does not have the requisite nature. Grace cannot build on the nature of a bird. The angels do operate by grace, but it is grace that is suited to their nature — i.e., it comes directly from the Holy Trinity, rather than through the work of Christ on earth.

“Grace perfects nature, but does not destroy it.” That means that grace does not make a man into an angel. Nor does grace circumvent human nature. God works with our intellect and our will, raising them up to a level they could never reach on their own.

When I “discovered” this truth, I told my husband about it. Unlike me, he is a philosopher. At least, he is just short of having a doctorate in Thomistic philosophy. His response? “Of course!” It never occured to him that non-philosophers would interpret the adage differently.

Now, why does all this philosophizing/theologizing matter?

Nature and grace in prayer

“Grace perfects human nature” — this truth has implications for prayer. Some problematic practices (Centering Prayer, for example) teach the practitioner to set aside the work of the intellect, will, and other faculties. When we act in this way, we leave grace nothing to work with. We cannot receive grace in prayer when we deny human nature by the prayer methods we choose. It is no coincidence that teachers of Centering Prayer also teach errors — amounting to heresy at times — about man’s nature and destiny. “As one prays, so one believes.”

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2590.

Raising one’s mind and heart to God is praying in a human manner. Purposefully setting aside the use of our faculties is not. The former opens the mind and heart to grace. The latter closes them. (Of course, in infused contemplation, God Himself raises our faculties, and then we must set aside trying to work with them at the same time. But that’s a topic for another post. Here, we’re speaking of pre-contemplative expressions of prayer.)

Nature and grace outside of prayer

This has implications for our life outside our prayer time as well. All day long, we should be open to the grace of God. Everything we do should be done in His presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a long and usually slow process to reach that state. We do so by lifting our heart and mind, memory, imagination, passions, and desires to God throughout the day. Practicing the presence of God consists precisely of this.

If we purposely set aside the use of our natural human faculties as we go throughout the day, we are closing them off — at least temporarily — to the workings of actual grace. We are rejecting our nature as humans and leaving nothing for grace to work with. What does this mean concretely? Dismissing or ignoring the movements of our faculties may result in missing opportunities of lifting our minds and hearts to God. That means missing opportunities of growing closer to Him and of being directed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We remain at an earthly level. (I don’t say “natural,” because suppressing one’s faculties is unnatural, anti-nature, even though one may accomplish this through “natural” means.)

This caution applies to mindfulness and meditation practices from Eastern religions, which implicitly deny human nature. They deny that thought, imagination, emotion, and desire are good gifts from God. In contrast, the Catechism says:

“[Christian] meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire. This mobilization of the faculties is necessary …”

no. 2708

Cultivating mental habits that reject the use of our God-given faculties, as mindfulness — even so-called Catholic Mindfulness — does, endangers one’s prayer life and the entire life of grace. Mindfulness can give one a sense of peace, but it is not “the peace that passes understanding.” Nor does it prepare one to receive it. One comes from setting aside the use of the faculties. The other comes from lifting up the faculties to God. They are in conflict.

Now, I realize that many are ignorant of these dangers. God can make ways of breaking through to people of goodwill who are simply mistaken. Nevertheless, the person has, objectively speaking, put a roadblock in the way of grace.

Nature, grace, and the dark night

In the teaching of St. John of the Cross, who is the Mystical Doctor of the Church, the spiritual life is called a dark night. During the active phases of this night, we actively work to purge ourselves from all that is contrary to God’s will. During the passive phases, God Himself purges us at a deeper level than we can achieve with ordinary, actual grace.

In order to make our way through this night to God, we must follow the way of “nada” — Spanish for nothing. Nada does not require that we deny our human nature. Nor does it aim for nothingness or a void. The nada doctrine means that we should ultimately live and work for God alone. Nothing but God. We must set aside seeking anything else, whether the “goods of earth,” or the “goods of heaven.”

In the passive night of the senses, one must (at least work to) let go of every delight coming through the senses. Clinging to the goods of earth holds one back from entering the illuminative way, the second major stage of the spiritual life. Regretably, most people decide it’s not worth the cost. They would rather have their earthly comforts — whether it be food or digital media or even “sensible” consolations in prayer — than to experience union with God in prayer. So, like the rich young man in the Gospel, they “go away sad.”

Now, we cannot literally give up everything on the sense level, but we must give up all willed desire for them. Only the pure in heart will see God. Of course, like everything in the spiritual life, perfect detachment is a process that takes a lifetime.

What of those who have been using Eastern techniques to experience peace? These are earthly methods and the peace they give is an earthly peace. So here is a second way in which they can inhibit the working of grace. The peace that comes through Eastern meditation techniques, although in a sense “natural,” falls outside Aquinas’s teaching of “grace perfects nature.” It does not lead to supernatural peace. Desiring this earthly peace will ultimately be a roadblock to grace, not a conduit of it.

Grace builds on and perfects human nature. Be human. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Use the faculties God gave you. Lift them up to God, that He may perfect them. Live a life of grace.

Connie Rossini

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