Somewhere in his voluminous works, Hilaire Belloc explains how natural attending Mass was for him. Before he entered one church, he placed his glowing cigar on a fencepost and continued the smoke after Mass. There is a profound nugget of spiritual soundness in his habit. The more we understand the relationship between faith and reason – matter and spirit, heaven and earth, God and man – the more likely we will live normal, integrated, and (relatively) serene lives.
Occasionally we hear words suggesting that religious people are abnormal, almost unnatural: “He’s very religious”; or even, “He’s a devout Catholic.” And all right-thinking people know what that means.
But God is supernatural. He is above nature. He is the Creator of nature. His grace is supernatural. He lavishes His grace on creation – on us. His extraordinary physical gifts, like manna from heaven, are also supernatural and not the stuff of the everyday.
But the intersection of grace and nature raises the question: What is our “natural” state?
Before the Fall, without sin and its effects, the love between Adam and Eve was Godly. The marital embrace was pure and holy. Just as Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), it is fair to suggest that Adam and Eve would have also similarly developed in their humanity.
Prior to sinning, they worked in the Garden, as we must work, but the toil was not a burden. Misunderstandings within their family (like those of the Holy Family) would be without sin. They would not need God’s healing grace, and would not know suffering and death.
Original Sin defaced human nature. Blame, shame, and isolation became part of family life and extended to all of society. Work became onerous.
Sin wounded nature but did not destroy it. Human love, human relations, and work did not lose their inherent Godly dignity but were obscured. Our nature, in the grip of evil, without a Savior, remained on the path to eternal destruction. Sin violated nature. Now, we suffer and die.
While it is proper to say that death has become “natural” after the Fall (a gift, according to Saint Ambrose, to limit our suffering), we should not press the point too far. While we care for the sick and dying, and we pray to Saint Joseph for a happy death, death is a terrible reality and for all time it will remain unnatural to us, a sign of sin.
The Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, restore our nature – and more. Flannery O’Connor describes the perfect compatibility of God’s grace with human nature:
For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. . . .I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.
In Jesus, God’s grace is not alien to us. It perfects us. Although supernatural in its source, after the Incarnation, our union with God’s grace does not make us supernatural, but more natural.
Before the Incarnation, perhaps we could say, the prophets were “supernatural” in their ministry. Their human nature had not yet been redeemed so there was a kind of misalignment of grace and nature. (The acerbic Elijah would have been a difficult college roommate.) But after the Incarnation – with God and man reconciled in Jesus – a “supernatural person” becomes what’s normal. To press the point, even “devout Catholic” is a redundancy – or should be.
Hence, it seems excessive to describe the Sacraments as supernatural, placing too much emphasis on the spiritual. Thinking of the Sacraments as grace buttered on the toast of our nature distorts our vision of living the everyday sacramental life.
From a heavenly perspective, the Mass and the Sacraments are in a sense not above nature. The matter and form of the Sacraments are integral to our nature, our original nature. In union with us, God’s grace – indeed, His love — is more natural to us than nature without it. In part, this is what Saint Athanasius may have meant when he said: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
In our age, after the Incarnation, perhaps there will be no more supernatural physical gifts from Heaven such as manna or the water from the rock. The Eucharist, like manna, is the “bread which came down from heaven.” (Jn. 6:51) But unlike manna, it is the Bread of Life, work of human hands, consecrated by God’s grace through the ministry of a priest to become our “our daily bread.”
The substance is changed and elevated to a Divine Substance in perfect union with our nature. Transubstantiation is not a fairy tale of shallow spirituality. It is the union of God and man and the promise of our ultimate destiny in Jesus.
There is nothing bizarre or abnormal about a sacramental life. Properly understood, the Sacraments bring out the “better angels of our nature,” to borrow Lincoln’s words. So enjoy that cigar (in moderation) and delight in God’s creation. But we need the Mass and the Sacraments to restore and elevate all nature to its supernatural character.
*Image: Allegory of Redemption by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, c. 1338 [Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy]