I have a problem. My father died when I was 18, leaving my mother a widow. My mother’s next-door neighbor harasses her in ways I won’t go into. It’s fair to say that he is attempting to drive her out of her home by these acts of terrorism. It’s a game to him, and the police are useless (useless). It doesn’t help that, in addition to being a widow, my mother is also a cripple; she is bound to a wheelchair. I live 90 miles from my mother and am not in a position to help her redress the recurring acts of harassment. And I am my mother’s only child.
As we know from multiple passages of the Bible that I don’t need to cite here, God has prepared a special place in Hell for people who molest widows. When my mother tells me of the latest harassment, I want revenge. Not merely justice restored or peaceful reconciliation, but sinful retaliation in kind. And I want it *now.* I commit the sin of hatred when instead I am called to love and pray for and forgive my mother’s persecutor. For a Christian, this is a fundamental rejection of a core commandment of the Gospel. It is a repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount, and hence a repudiation of Christ Himself.
Here is the quandary. I go to Confession once every few weeks, and Holy Communion more often, yet every time I hear about my mother’s suffering at the hands of her neighbor, I am very strongly tempted in this way, and I often succumb to the sin of wrath. Why do the Sacraments not provide me sufficient grace to meet each new provocation with grace, patience, and benignity?
Behind this question is the assumption that, on each occasion when God gives us grace, he gives us sufficient grace to overcome every obstacle that we shall ever meet for the remainder of our earthly lives. I don’t believe this is so. Instead, God gives us the grace to ask for the next grace that we need. He gives us the grace to choose to grow in grace with each new obstacle. But as we encounter these obstacles, we must again cry out for a greater share in God’s Spirit. In the sacraments, I receive the grace to choose to pray for more grace the next time my mother tells me of a new provocation. But unless I plead for more grace in that moment, and cooperate with that grace to overcome the temptation, I will fail.
I believe that this interpretation has Scriptural backing. I remember an Ash Wednesday homily where the priest said that we are all called to go out into the desert with Christ. He said that the desert is the place where we encounter our own weakness and insufficiency. After the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites found that they would starve. They had eaten the Passover sacrifice, but that sacrifice was only enough to get them out of Egypt. To survive in the desert, they needed additional sustenance–the miraculous flocks of quail that God sent, and the manna that fell from Heaven.
Likewise, in my case, the graces bestowed in Holy Communion are not enough without the actual graces of the moment. The Eucharist disposes me to receive those actual graces, but the graces of the Eucharist are not meant to suffice. I am called to enter the desert and live on the manna of God’s grace, gathering it each day as the Israelites did. With each provocation, I must commit myself again, in that moment, to living out the Gospel. May God grant my mother and me the strength to do so, and may he grant my mother’s neighbor a conversion of heart!