I can remember vividly the first night I went driving. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Over the next few months I began to discover the ‘feel’ of driving a car, and learnt the rules of the road, and for the last half a lifetime I’ve been driving, I have a much clearer understanding of why we have painted lines, speed limits, and roadway signs to help get us safely to and from all sorts of places. You could say that I learned to drive in three stages. The first was the experience I had of watching others drive, something I’d seen my whole life. Then, came this first night of driving, after a school dance, when I had my first chance behind the wheel and the experience became much more concrete. Then, when I got my license the following fall, there was a real joy and freedom in being able to take the car on my own for the first time. You could say that this progressive understanding mirrors the way in which God has revealed moral law to us.
First, in our hearts he planted what we call ‘natural law,’ which begins to tell us the “fundamental rights and duties (we) have and thus forms the real foundation for life together in the family, in society, and in the State” (YouCat 333). This law is written in the human heart giving us our first sense of what is truly good, and you can see common elements of this natural law throughout the world. The simplest example of this is the universality of the ‘Golden Rule’ across many religions (Matthew 7:1 “Do unto others…” in Christianity). The second stage was the revelation of the ‘Old Law’ to Moses and all of Israel, building upon the truths of natural law already present in us. This law was meant to ‘tutor’ Israel into a life of charity, and at the center of the Old Law is the Ten Commandments, a law which Israel struggled to keep. “That is why the Law, as good and important as it is, only prepares the way for faith in the saving God” (YouCat 335). In the third and final stage, Christ revealed the ‘Law of the Gospel,’ bringing to perfection both what had been revealed through Moses and those things which are known naturally. This law does not replace the Old Law, but fulfills it (see Matthew 5:17). If you read the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see the principle elements of this ‘New Law.’
Much like my experience of learning to drive, God revealed moral law to us in stages, as we were able to accept it. But along with the law, God also gave us His strength – grace – in order to be able to live it and to reach the end goal of obeying the law: eternal life. When we speak of grace, we are talking about “God’s free, loving gift to us, his helping goodness, the vitality that comes from Him” (YouCat 338), or as Pope Benedict explains it: “Grace is being looked upon by God, our being touched by His love.”
God’s grace given to us helps us to be what we couldn’t be on our own, and to do what we ought to do in the same way as the revelation of the Law through Moses helped Israel to know what was expected of them. There are a variety of terms used to describe grace in YouCat: supernatural grace, sanctifying grace, habitual grace, actual grace, sanctifying grace, charisms, and graces of state. What you need to know most importantly is that grace “makes us capable of living in God’s love and acting on the basis of this love” (YouCat 339), or, as St. Therese of Lisieux put it: “Everything is grace.”
As a responsible driver, I am always faced with the choice to do what I ought to do while behind the wheel. When I have my kids buckled into the car behind me, I have an extra motivation to take care in order to ensure their safety. But it remains always my choice to abide by the rules of the road, staying in my line, obeying the signs, and stopping for red lights. God’s grace works in much the same way: offered to us as a free gift that we might follow His directions… but never forced upon us. We remain free each and every day with the opportunity to live up to our destiny. God’s law points us in the right direction, and it’s God’s grace that gets us there.
“The purpose of our life is to be united with God in love and to correspond entirely to God’s wishes. We should allow God to ‘live His life in us’ (Mother Teresa). That is what it means to be holy: a ‘saint.'” (YouCat 342)