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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Mystical Grace, Contemplative Prayer and the Perfection of the Christian Life

While few of us will reach the highest degrees of mystical prayer, many more of us are being invited to some degree of it in our life. This is prayer where God is the primary actor and we respond to his initiative. In initial efforts at prayer, actual graces are at work without our having done anything to deserve them. Yet, those graces are ordered to helping us make the effort that, up until now, we have not had the desire or courage to make.

Think of prodigal son in Christ’s parable. By some grace he did not deserve he came to himself and began to reason with himself about his plight. This actual grace of conversion prompts him to examine and accept his situation, to change his mind about his actions and about his father, and then to do something about it. We could say that the grace of conversion is "operative" because behind all of the son's actions, there is something that God is doing without the son ever knowing it or doing anything to deserve it. He simply responds to this divine action. The love of God works in this way in our lives—mysteriously moving us to repent. When we accept the grace of conversion, all at once a whole new range of actual graces overflow our lives. Among these graces, there are those in which we take the initiative but God cooperates with our effort. We could never receive these cooperative graces had God not moved us to conversion first. Without His action, we would never take the initiative. He acted, and now we are free to act. And He loves to work in our freedom. When we sanctioned His judgment in our hearts, we gave Him the permission to help us in new ways that He could not help us before. For the prodigal son, he needed to make the decision to get up, turn to His Father’s house, go and humbly plead his case, accepting his responsibility. Grace is at work in his actions even though he is taking the initiative. For God to help him, the young man needed to choose to stand up and go to his father’s house. We could say that God cooperated with his efforts, supporting him all through his journey home. So we call this cooperation on God’s part, cooperative grace, a divine action that cooperates with the actions of human freedom. The way God has made the human heart and the work of salvation, there are initiatives and efforts that must be made in the spiritual life. If we have accepted truth in our hearts, we must profess with our lips and live with our lives. But we never do these alone. In these cooperative graces, the Lord supports our freedom in beautiful but hidden ways—unaware of all He is doing behind the scenes, we have no idea how much we have to be grateful for. Mystical grace, even in the most initial degree, is a new divine gift other than the grace of conversion and it is not the same as the cooperative graces. Like all grace, it is ordered to our holiness. Like all grace, it was won for us by what Christ suffered on the Cross. This mystical grace, however, is actual and operativen in an entirely new way. This means that God acts and we respond—but our response is a much deeper surrender than anything we have ever been able to render before. We belong to Him more radically, more completely than we could have ever given ourselves, even in our grace supported effort: there are divine workings makings that completely surpass anything we have done. In the parable, Jesus teaches that the father saw his son coming from a long way off and ran to him. The Father sees us, contemplates us, long before we see and contemplate Him. His ever greater desire for us evokes even our most tepid our desire to come into His presence. His loving gaze evokes love when we seek Him in prayer. We walk. He runs. We say we are not worthy. He greets us with a kiss and embrace and endows us with rings, and shoes, and a robe - and then throws a party—for we who were dead have come back to life. In the grace of mystical prayer, the soul comes to realize that no matter what it has done, it is as nothing compared to the immensity of what the Lord is doing. The least degree of mystical prayer is the grace of the Father running to us, embracing us, kissing us, clothing us, honoring us, and celebrating our home coming. Anyone who knows the joy of this homecoming remembers that it is so overwhelming that in a single moment, every the sorrow, hardship and difficulty is forgotten. We suddenly realize where we belong, and we want to stay there. Something so much more beautiful has made a claim over us that causes the banality of our own sin to relinquish its claim. We are contemplated, seen, recognized, known by the Father - and so we contemplate Him with the deepest conviction that we have not even touched the surface of the inexhaustible riches of Christ.

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