The Wayfarer’s Way: The Role of Merit, Prayer, and the Sacraments in Man’s Sanctification

Disputes between Protestants and Catholics over the nature of justification have led to a couple of serious problems in the Church. The first problem is that, in response to a barrage of objections, Catholics need to find ways to argue against the Protestant “faith alone” formula. The idea that “works” have no bearing on our salvation has confused many Catholics who lack proper theological formation. Since the time of the Reformation, the Church has built up a strong defense against this objection. Initial justification can be lost via mortal sin. Christians are not merely called to be justified; they are called to be sanctified. In other words, justification is a long process of growing in charity. The second problem which we will mention gets significantly less attention. Many Catholics are ignorant about how to actually grow in holiness. They do not seem to know how to practice their own faith. Preachers and theologians often cite that “works” will be needed in addition to faith, but much more could (and should) be said. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a French theologian and Dominican friar, wrote in detail about the growth of charity. In The Three Ages of the Interior Life, he wrote, “why should charity thus grow in us? It should grow because the Christian on earth is a traveler, viator, who is advancing spiritually toward God.” Lagrange identifies three things which can be done to accomplish this spiritual advancement and strengthen charity in the soul: merit, prayer, and sacraments. A stronger emphasis and a more detailed analysis of the relationship between these three things and the moral life would prove to be invaluable for many Catholics today. The significance of merit, prayer, and the sacraments is best explained by comparing them to three natural counterparts visible in the thought of Aristotle: connatural knowledge, education, and friendship. Just as connatural knowledge, education, and friendship enable people to strengthen their love for the Good, so too merit, prayer, and the sacraments enable people to strengthen their love for God. 

To understand the way that charity is strengthened in the soul, we must first turn our attention to what may seem to be an unrelated subject: the relationship between the intellect and the will. The need to discuss this will become more clear soon after, but for now, it will suffice to make the point that “the intellect moves the will.” This point is really one of the fundamental tenets of Thomist thought, and despite efforts from various groups, it is a difficult claim to deny. It is true that Aquinas teaches that there is a way in which the will moves the intellect. According to Aquinas, there is also a sense in which the will moves itself, and there is a way in which God moves the will. To hash out all the details and controversies surrounding these points would require several books instead of a couple paragraphs, so we will look only at the first point: that the intellect moves the will. 

The intellect’s movement of the will is easy enough to demonstrate. Aristotle made the argument long before Aquinas ever did. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “the origin of action…is choice” and the origin of choice is “desiring and reasoning with a view to an end.” In other words, we perform certain actions because we choose to do so. We make those choices because he have rationally analyzed our options with a view to the end. Our intellect perceives what the end is, and then it deliberates about the best means to achieve the end. The will naturally chooses what the intellect proposes to be the best option. This may at first appear to be an odd way of thinking about choice, but it remains experientially sound. We only want things once we have realized (with our intellect) that they are desirable. The claim often attributed to St. Augustine remains true: we can not love what we do not know. Aquinas says that “the first formal principle is universal ‘being’ and ‘truth,’ which is the object of the intellect.” Therefore the intellect is able to identify what is and what is true. It is impossible for someone to will an object without first knowing that it exists. In this way, the intellect moves the will by presenting its object to it under the aspect of the Good. 

The intellect’s movement of the will is a crucial starting point for any proper analysis of the way in which charity is strengthened. The reason is that, as Aquinas teaches, “charity is in the will.” Charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake.” Love is an act of the will. If we want to know how to strengthen charity, i.e. strengthen our love for God, then we are really asking how to strengthen an act of the will. Therefore it is necessary to begin, as we have, with an analysis of how the will moves and acts at all. We already have our answer. The will is moved by the intellect. We love those objects which our intellect identifies as good and true. A better way of putting this might be to say that we love everything that we know to be good. Knowing is first, and loving is second. Aquinas makes this point concisely when he writes, “good is not the object of the appetite, except as apprehended. And therefore love demands some apprehension of the good that is loved.” In another place he simply says, “knowledge is the cause of love.” This means that if we want to strengthen our love for something, we will have to start by increasing our knowledge of it. 

The same principle will apply when we are talking about charity: the love of God. We can not love what we do not know, and so we can only love God to the extent that we know him. Already we can see here the core response to Protestant claims that nothing further is needed after faith and Baptism. Nobody would argue that a newly baptized 8 year old knows as much about God as the post-conversion St. Paul. This disparity in knowledge also suggests a disparity in love. Clearly there are gradations of love, and any particular person’s love for God can increase or decrease in tandem with that person’s knowledge of God. Here we find the real reason behind the Catholic Tradition’s emphasis on intellectual development, education, and even metaphysics. Christian revelation does not contradict reason; it calls it to a higher level. The Church continues to reference writers like Aristotle because the truth he saw remains true today. The principles he discovered remain principles today. Aristotle wrote that “as health produces health; so does philosophic wisdom produce happiness.” What he meant was that you can not separate what we know from what fulfills us. The perfection of the human person begins in the intellect. We must learn before we can love. If we want to love God more, we must learn more about him. 

We will now move on to an analysis of how we can increase our knowledge of God. The sort of knowledge that we can have of God in this life is naturally limited and elevated only by the gift of faith. Essentially then, we are asking how we can increase our faith and understanding. The more we believe and understand God as True, the more we will come to love him. Before we address how exactly this works on the level of grace and faith, we will begin with an analysis on the level of nature. This is based in part on another famous Thomist tenet that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” The relationship between grace and nature is not competitive or distant. There is an intimate union between grace and nature because God “apportions to each according to its natural capability.” If we come to understand how we can increase our knowledge and love of the natural Good, it will be that much easier to understand how we can increase our knowledge and love of the supernatural God. We will rely primarily on Aristotle for the question of the Good, and afterwards we will rely on Aquinas and Garrigou-Lagrange for the question of God. 

The first way to grow in knowledge and love of the Good is education. Aristotle was a philosopher, and he was a teacher of philosophy. It should come then as no surprise that he puts a great deal of emphasis on education. Plato and Aristotle would have disagreed on quite a lot, but education is one area in which they find some common ground. Aristotle goes so far as to cite Plato when he writes, “hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.” Aristotle thinks that, when it comes to virtue, childhood education makes “all the difference.” Adult education can be helpful, but Aristotle thinks that it is more difficult to change habits after they have been ingrained from childhood. 

Education is so powerful because it changes the way a person sees the end. As we established previously, Aristotle thinks that people are better able to love the Good as they grow in knowledge of it. One way of getting to know the Good is by learning from a teacher who is well-acquainted with it. The young man who is never told that moderation is good will stand little chance of acquiring temperance amidst the pleasures of sex, food, and money. Aristotle teaches that virtue lies in the mean, and the human person is more fulfilled by the pleasures of the mind than the pleasures of the body. By way of reading, writing, dialogue, and contemplation, a person can increase his or her understanding of the Good. Aristotle, for his part, formed his entire metaphysics on the basis of what he observed around him in the natural world. It is reasonable to think that we can get to know the Good by observing good objects. The more we study good things, the more we understand the nature of the Good itself. This enables us to love it more fully. 

It is true that Aristotle does not think education is as powerful as Plato thinks it is. Plato’s famous analogy of the cave is nothing other than a metaphor for the progress of the intellectual life in education. Plato sees education as the primary thing which frees us by revealing the Good, and it is in direct response to this that Aristotle says, “most people…take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.” At one point, he even goes so far as to say that “as a condition of the possession of the virtues knowledge has little or no weight.” However, this is not to be understood as a denial of the primacy of the intellect in matters of virtue or the role the intellect has in moving the will. It is also clear that Aristotle thinks education matters a great deal. Considered the right way, as was shown above, he even says it makes “all the difference.” What Aristotle rejects in Plato’s thought (or certain interpretations of Plato’s thought) is a very limited sense of education. Aristotle does not think reading and thinking is sufficient to come to full knowledge of the Good. He is not rejecting the importance of philosophy per se; he is rejecting a certain type of philosophical hypocrisy. His concern is that intelligent men will study virtues and learn about the Good without actually seeking to live in accordance with it. There is a difference between learning arguments and actually contemplating the True and the Good. Therefore education is helpful, but only education in its richest and most complete sense. 

The second way to grow in knowledge and love of the Good is friendship. This way is closely related to education. Aristotle has many beautiful things to say about friendship, and he places a surprising amount of emphasis on it. He says that “it is a virtue,” it “implies virtue,” and it is “most necessary” because “without friends no one would choose to live.” It is difficult to imagine a stronger endorsement. At the heart of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship is the idea that “we can contemplate our neighbours better than ourselves and their actions better than our own.” Friendship elevates human beings and helps them to know the Good because a good friend sets a good example. One way of thinking about this, in relation to education, is that a good friend is a good teacher. This is true not only because of what a friend says (although good friends do speak truth), but also because of what a friend does. We can understand virtue better when we see it actualized in our friends. For this very reason we often become similar to our friends. If a young man spends all his time with a mature friend who always noticeably stops drinking at the right time, that young man is likely to behave the same way when he sees the attractive quality of temperance exercised in his friend. 

The fact that friendship is necessary for virtue reveals that it is also necessary for knowing and loving the Good. This is because true virtue is impossible without love for the Good, and love for the Good is impossible without knowledge of the Good. Experience teaches us that good friends have an enormous impact on a person’s life. This is why Aristotle says that “the supremely happy man will need friends of this sort, since his purpose is to contemplate worthy actions and actions that are his own, and the actions of a good man who is his friend have both these qualities.” By observing and then contemplating the good actions that friends perform, we come to a deeper understanding of the end of human nature. We see more clearly our own weaknesses, and we also see our own potential. The young man who sees his friend bravely go to war has a more secure possession of the knowledge of what a good man really is. He sees the good of courage more clearly, and so he sees the Good itself more clearly. At this point, his will naturally follows the judgement of his intellect, and he loves the Good with greater intensity and fervor. Spending time with good people helps us to fall further in love with the Good itself. 

The third and final way to grow in knowledge and love of the Good is connatural knowledge. Aristotle likely would have argued that this is the most powerful and significant of the three. When discussing how we can become virtuous (i.e. come to have a greater love of the Good) Aristotle consistently replies that “we become just by doing just acts.” This sort of knowledge is called connatural knowledge because it is the type of knowledge we have of the Good when we ourselves participate in the Good. The idea here is that a man who does not do good things can not know and love the good as much as a man who regularly does good things. A man can not really know the goodness of fortitude until he consistently chooses greater goods despite the discomforts and hardships that stand in the way. It is only by performing virtuous acts that we can develop virtuous habits. Our habits change our character. Good habits form us into good human beings by helping us to know and love the Good with ever-greater clarity. The Good, in a way, becomes a part of us, and that allows us to know it more intimately and powerfully than ever before.

To explain this more, Aristotle offers an analogy with the arts. He says that “the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre.” A man can study how to play the piano by reading books on it for years. He can learn more about playing the piano by listening to his friend play it every day. Both of these things will help him to play the piano well, but he will never become truly good at it until he practices himself for long periods of time. The knowledge a man can get about piano playing from the outside is helpful, but hardly sufficient. He needs internal knowledge gained from the experience of actually playing. This will take time and effort, but after a while, it will yield the most beautiful results. The same principle applies with knowledge and love of the Good. A man will never fully know and love the Good until he consistently performs good actions, with increasing intensity, for a long period of time. In this context, the “practice makes perfect” cliché suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. 

This concludes the analysis of the three ways that we can strengthen our knowledge and love of the Good. Aristotle’s Ethics teaches that education, friendship, and (most importantly) performing good actions repeatedly to achieve connatural knowledge are the primary ways in which human beings can achieve closer union with the Good they are naturally ordered to. We will now transition to an analysis of growing in love for God (i.e. charity) by applying everything we have said so far about man’s natural end to his supernatural end. The question we are now asking is not how to increase our knowledge of the Good, but how to increase our “knowledge” about God in faith. Here we will find that for each of Aristotle’s ways (education, friendship, and connatural knowledge) there is a counterpart for the Christian moral life. These three counterparts are prayer, sacraments, and merit. These are not chosen arbitrarily or at random. This analysis is based on what Garrigou-Lagrange writes in The Three Ages of the Interior Life. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas talks about each of these three things as something which increases charity in the soul. The only truly original thought here is the connection being drawn between these three Christian practices and Aristotle’s three natural ways outlined above.

The first way that Lagrange suggests for strengthening charity is based on the last (and most important) of Aristotle’s ways. For Aristotle, the most essential thing for knowing and loving the Good is actually performing virtuous actions. Lagrange and Aquinas think the most important thing for growing in knowledge and love of God is performing meritorious actions. On the level of nature, men increase their love for the Good when they act in a good way out of their love for the Good. On the level of grace, men increase their love for God when they act in a holy way our of their love for God. As Lagrange says, “a meritorious act is one which proceeds from charity, or from an inspired virtue vivified by charity, and which gives a right to a supernatural reward: first of all, to an increase of grace and of charity itself.” A meritorious action is anything that is done for the love of God. Everyone who has the virtue of charity, including the newly baptized 8 year old, has a soul infused with the supernatural love of God above all things. When a person performs an action for the sake of this love (we could say “motivated” by this love), then the action is said to be meritorious. The thing that it merits is, first and foremost, an increase in the charity which inspired the action. The more we do things in a holy way, for the sake of charity, the more we will understand the God who lives in us, moves us, and inspires us to act. Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, spent his life serving and sacrificing for others. Lagrange’s idea is that we will better know and understand Christ when we live the life he has given us and do the things he has done. He who sees Jesus, sees the Father. Acting out of love for God increases our knowledge of God. Then our knowledge of God increases our original love for God. Thus Aquinas says, “each act of charity disposes to an increase of charity, in so far as one act of charity makes man more ready to act again according to charity.”

Aquinas was very careful with his wording in this sentence. Aquinas intentionally says that an act of charity “disposes” to an increase of charity. He is careful not to say that it directly causes an increase in charity. The reason for this is that, in Aquinas’ words, “since charity surpasses the proportion of human nature, as stated above it depends, not on any natural virtue, but on the sole grace of the Holy Ghost Who infuses charity.” The virtue of charity is a supernatural virtue which can not be had without grace. At Baptism, charity is infused in the human soul by the free gift of the Holy Spirit. This can not happen naturally; it depends entirely on the grace of God. In the very same way, the increase of charity depends on the action of the Holy Spirit. In light of this, Aquinas and Lagrange explain the significance of performing acts of charity in terms of “disposing” or “meriting” or “preparing.” Aquinas says the process “is somewhat like the increase of a body.” Before there is any real growth, the human body needs to prepare for the growth by making room for the increase in mass. The obscurity of this example is likely due to scientific limitations in Aquinas’ day, but there is still something helpful about it. Lagrange explains what Aquinas means by writing that “although our acts of charity cannot produce the increase of this virtue, they concur in it in two ways: morally, by meriting it; and physically, by preparing us to receive it.” In this way, performing acts of charity is necessary for charity to increase, although it does not directly cause the increase which depends on God’s action and not ours. 

The second way that Lagrange suggests can be considered alongside what Aristotle says about education. This second way is prayer, and just as Aristotle looked at education in a very broad sense, so too we need to think about prayer in a broad sense. Prayer is not merely reciting Hail Marys or kneeling down in a Church. Here we are talking primarily about contemplative or “mental prayer” which “draws God strongly toward us that He may give Himself intimately to us and that we may give ourselves to Him.” One popular definition of prayer which is actually quite theologically sound is that prayer is “conversation with God.” This is helpful because it suggests that prayer is not just about what man says, but it consists (at least equally) in what God says. Mental prayer is a practice of listening to God and contemplating on what he says about himself. This includes reading the Scriptures, studying Church Tradition and the saints, and even reading Magisterial documents. On the level of nature, men increase their love for the Good when they are educated about the Good. On the level of grace, God increases man’s love for God when man reaches out to God in prayer and God responds. 

Aquinas teaches that this works in a couple of different ways. The first way is in union with the principle of meritorious action that we discussed previously. Aquinas says that “the prayer will be meritorious for the person who prays thus out of charity.” In other words, prayer itself is an act of charity, and so it merits an increase in charity just like any other charitable act. The second way, Aquinas says, “consists in impetration.” Prayer is not a meritorious action with no content. Prayer consists in listening and speaking to God. When we pray, we ask God for his favor, and this is the “impetration” or “request” that is always granted when we ask rightly. The person who prays to God “experiences His immense goodness and…receives Him in a prolonged spiritual communion that has a savor of eternal life.” God is not bound to give his grace to those who pray to him, but he freely chooses to do so. Our asking for an increase in charity does not force God to give it to us, but he has promised that he will give us what we ask for. Thus Aquinas says that “impetration rests on grace.” This process clearly does not work in precisely the same way as education, but there is a real similarity. By way of his education, a student inquires and is taught about the Good. In the act of prayer, a Christian requests and is given the grace of an increase in charity. Through natural contemplation, man studies and unites himself to the Good. Through prayerful contemplation, man dwells upon and is united to God. 

The third and final way that Lagrange suggests can be considered alongside Aristotle’s discussion of friendship. In addition to merit and prayer, men can strengthen their love for God by receiving the sacraments. As we saw earlier with friendship, men grow in the knowledge of the Good by spending time with (living with) good friends. In a similar way, God chooses to make himself available as a friend to men who seek him in the sacraments. As Lagrange attests, “the just man grows thus in the love of God through absolution and especially by Communion.” This is in a way true for all the sacraments, but here we will focus on the Eucharist. Holy Communion is the way by which man is able to live with God as he lives with his natural friends. Jesus Christ, God made man, is really and truly present in the sacrament that we can approach daily. This is especially powerful in regard to charity since “Christ and His Passion are the cause of grace and since spiritual refreshment, and charity cannot be without grace.” This is why the Eucharist has always held a preeminent position among the sacraments in the eyes of the Church. Holy Communion is absolutely indispensable for those looking to grow in their love for God because, as Aquinas says, “the reality of this sacrament is charity, not only as to its habit, but also as to its act, which is kindled in this sacrament.” The more frequently and devoutly we receive Holy Communion, the closer we are untied to Christ. The closer we are united to Christ, the more clearly we see him. The more clearly we see him, the more clearly we see the Father, and the more we love the Father. 

The sacraments also hold a special place in relation to merit and prayer because they produce grace “ex opere operato” instead of “ex opere operantis.” This means that they produce grace by themselves “from the fact that they were instituted by God to apply the merits of the Savior to us.” Merit and prayer depend on God’s free choice to give us grace in response to our charitable actions and prayers. The sacraments automatically bestow grace upon us because of God’s prior will that should they do so. The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are quite similar to friendship. Nothing else puts us in direct contact with the person of Jesus Christ in the same way. As Aquinas puts it, “the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s Passion according as a man is made perfect in union with Christ Who suffered.” This sort of personal union really is a type of supernatural friendship. On the level of nature, men increase their love for the Good when they see it more clearly in their friend who is good. On the level of grace, man’s love for God increases when he sees the Divine nature more clearly in Christ, who is God. 

These are the three ways which Lagrange and Aquinas suggest to help us strengthen the virtue of charity in our souls. Merit helps us to love God more by helping us know him more fully through a sort of connatural knowledge. Prayer helps us to love God more by helping us to know him more fully through contemplation fueled by study. Sacraments (especially the Eucharist) help us to love God more by putting us in direct contact with Christ as a form of friendship. The Church would do well to teach these three ways and their significance more directly in a time when practical questions in moral life seem to be neglected. Especially amidst increasingly grave public sin, Catholics will need to cling to these three ways if they hope to maintain their faith and love God enough to resist modern temptations. Faith and Baptism cause a new birth, and that new birth is a source of great joy. However, a birth is merely starting point, and it should be recognized as such. If we want to become adults in the Gospel, we need to pray, work, and receive the sacraments.