Divine Grace and Gifts of Nature in the Saints #1010, by St. Maximilian Kolbe
Rycerz Niepokalanej, June 1922
God has assigned each person a specific mission in this world as He created the universe. He arranged primal causes so that the uninterrupted chain of their effects would engender the conditions and circumstances most favorable to carrying out that mission. Every man, therefore, is born with skills proportionate to the mission entrusted to him and, throughout the course of his life, environment, circumstances, and everything else contribute to make it possible and easy for him to achieve his aim. In fact, man’s perfection entirely consists in the attainment of that aim. The more accurately he manages to realize his task, the more scrupulously he fulfills its mission, the greater, and holier he becomes in God’s eyes.
In addition, to natural gifts, from the cradle to the grave man is accompanied by the grace of God, which is poured out upon each of us in such quantity and quality that our weak human forces can be properly reinforced and acquire the supernatural energy needed to cope with our own mission.
Many saints throughout the course of their lives have worked along tirelessly cooperating with God’s gifts, both natural and supernatural. I am not thinking at this time only of the most pure Mother of God, who, by special privilege, already immaculate in her conception never stained her soul with even the smallest of sins. I am thinking of the ranks of those pure souls, such as St. Aloysius (Gonzaga), or our countryman of St. Stanislaw Kostka, who appeared before God’s tribunal with the robe of innocence they had received in Holy Baptism.
However, among the saints, there are also those who, for a longer or shorter period of time, abused the gifts of God and were deaf to the silent call of grace. Some of them forgot their sublime destiny because they were too tied up with work and amusements, albeit not sinful, as in the case of the seraphic St. Francis, the jewel of the rich youth of Assisi. Other, having fallen down and wallowed in the mud of vice, had almost completely estranged themselves from God, as did St. Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret of Cortina. Others, still did not even know the true path assigned to them, like St. Paul the Apostle, who openly confessed that out of ignorance he had persecuted the Church of God (1 Tim. 1:13).
And now we see how God pursued them with His grace, how He knocked at the door of their hearts under the favorable conditions, how He pointed out to them ever more clearly the path of their mission. Finally, as they began to collaborate with the gifts of God, they became saints. So for instance, St. Francis heard a voice calling him to go and fight, but while he was getting his horse and armor ready in obedience to that command, God made it clear to him that he was meant to take charge of a spiritual army, fight against the powers of Hell; and there began a new life. St. Margaret of Cortona regarded her lover, by then … a fetid corpse, and, under the impression of that view, left her sinful life and converted. And when St. Paul, trembling with anger, was approaching the gates of Damascus to imprison Christians, he was thrown to the ground, and from stubborn enemy he was made ardent apostle of the doctrine of Christ. After their conversion all these saints no longer knew measure or limit in their service to God, they were no longer content with keeping a mediocre righteousness, but, climbing to the highest peaks of perfection, strove to make up for the time and graces they had previously dissipated.
When it comes to God’s glory and the salvation of souls, no effort was heavy for them, no cross unpleasant; from that moment on, everything was a pleasure, everything to them was a treasure; for everything was in the service of God’s love.
Varied and countless are the ways in which God leads the saints to a sublime destiny. He often strengthens the inclinations of nature with supernatural gifts. In fact, He allows and commands men to use them. Yet at times, He demands that those inclinations of nature be sacrificed, whenever it is necessary for a higher formation of the soul. “If God,” says Bossuet, “wishes to make them worthy of Himself, He must train them in various ways, in order to mold them according to His plan, As He does that, there is only one thing He respects; He will not do explicit violence to our innate disposition.” That is why God led some into the desert and fully distances them form other men; He called others to common life and to support each other in the progress toward perfection; He left others still in the whirl of the world, next to the plow, in the workshops of artisans, or on royal thrones. Some He made famous for their secular or religious knowledge, or for their social activity. Others He left in the shadows of oblivion during all their earthly life. Some in a way He pampered, feeding them with the milk of spiritual sweetness, while others He fed with the hard bread of suffering. All that depended on the needs of the individual souls and on the type of mission to which a soul had been intended.
Although faithfully following the inspiration of the divine grace, the saints did not cease to be people like us, and usually their actions and their words carried within them the typical traces of their environment, their country, their homeland. Take for instance St. Catherine of Siena, who felt she had “Sienese blood” running through her veins, which mean, in the words of St. Bernadine, that it was a “sweet blood.” She would at times cover children with kisses, and once, summoned to comfort a convict sentenced to death and to get him to go to confession, she kept his head close to her chest all night long, as a mother would be to her son. In St. Teresa, on the other hand, we start to envision the spirit of chivalry. Born in Avila, the “city of knights” – where even the women once, during the absence of their husbands, were able to withstand a siege – she was deeply imbued with the spirit of her city and her nation. That is why in her writings we often find the expression: “God of battles,” “the banner of God,” “serve God with manly courage.” The same attitude is found in St. Teresa’s compatriot, St. Ignatius Loyola, who had been a soldier.
Many saints were music lovers. At times, when St. Francis felt inspired, he took two pieces of wood in his hand and rubbed them on each other, as if he were playing a violin. O holidays, St. Teresa used to play a small flute and struck a tambourine, while St. Ignatius Loyola was so carried away by music that he no longer felt any pain.
Usually, the saints behaved in a perfectly natural way, but for the sake of a higher virtue, and especially to escape the praise and approval of men, under the influence of grace they would at times do things that, to those around them, seemed utterly unreasonable and humiliating. A true master in this sense was St. Philip Neri. For example, one day some Polish delegates who had gone to visit with the Pope, having been told that there was “saint” in Rome, wanted to see him. When St. Philip was informed of that, he had a stool set up with a few books. He then sent for some children and once they were around him, instructed one of them to read out a book of humorous content and began to listen with great earnestness. The delegates went in with much reverence, yet the saint did not allow the boy to stop reading, but begged the guests to wait. Since, however, he had the child read one chapter after another and they could not possibly wait until reading would end, the delegates departed, outraged and shocked, while St. Philip thanked God for having avoided the praise of men.
We see, therefore, that the saints proceeded by different routes: they each had a different way of acting with regard to the gifts of nature. One thing they all had in common: the fact that they always subdued such gifts to grace, the very grace that so many times had raised them up form a state of prolonged listlessness or even from the slavery of sin. All, therefore, experienced a higher and supernatural life, regardless of the fact that they had been imposed upon by grace to walk along a path that was either in keeping with or in contrast to their nature. Their only purpose was God and His holy love, and everything else – facts either natural or supernatural, pleasant or unpleasant – were simply means to that end. In this way, nothing turned against them, but rather they drew endless benefit from everything, because their benefit was spiritual: as matter of fact, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).