Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah spoke about the salvation that would come to the world through Christ: “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel,” Jeremiah wrote, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
Often when we speak about salvation, we have in mind the objective work of Christ: his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of the dead. We think about the promise of heaven, and the sacramental means of grace that get us there. But Jeremiah’s prophecy reminds us that there is also a subjective side to the story of salvation. There is something that the sacraments do to us and in us. This side of the doctrine of salvation can be summarized in the words of St. Peter: “He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” (2 Peter 1:4)
In the Western Catholic tradition, we have a name for this sharing in the divine nature. It is called sanctifying grace. Eastern Catholics refer to it as theosis – or divinization. It does not mean that one becomes God in the pantheistic sense of merging indistinguishably into the divine essence. Rather, it means that one regains what was lost in Adam, that full “image and likeness of God” that orients us towards heaven.
This sharing in God’s own life comes through identification with Christ. St. Paul says, “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk innewness of life.” (Romans 6:4) It makes us God’s children by adoption. (John 1:12). It brings the gift of God’s Spirit (Romans 8:9), a life of joy, hope, and love. (Romans 5:5)
Throughout sacred Scripture, we learn that it is love and mercy, not legalism, that God desires. (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13). The real fulfillment of the law comes through love. (Romans 13:8). Through faith, we receive the gift of the Spirit and our sinful inclinations are overcome. (Romans 8:9-10) Our old man dies with Christ. (Romans 6:6) The gift of the Spirit to us is love. (Galatians 5:22) Through the circumcision of the heart, we fulfill the “righteous requirements of the law.” (Deuteronomy 30:6, Ezekiel 36:26, Romans 2:25-29; Romans 8:3-4)
This is what St. Paul means when he says we are justified by faith and not works. The bare letter of the law is powerless to save us, and even less the mere outward rituals of Jewish observance. The apostle says, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Romans 2:13) This true obedience to the law – to the spirit of the law and not its mere letter – the life of faith, hope, and charity- is what we receive by the gift of grace.
But what if this is not your experience of the Catholic faith? All these promises of grace and love sound wonderful, but what if you still feel the “weight and sin which clings so closely?” (Hebrew 12:1) The call to holiness does not mean that Catholics expect absolute perfection immediately. “We all stumble in many ways,” says St. James. (James 3:2) Christ and the apostles made allowances for moral failure and restoration. (Matthew 18: 15-18; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2; 1 John 2:1-2). In fact, Christ gave the apostles the absolute and unqualified right to forgive sins. (John 20: 21-22) This would not have been necessary if Christians were perfect immediately. But the promises of the gospel and the call to holiness means that these things are real, they are available to us.
To enter fully into the freedom of the gospel, we have to withdraw ourselves consciously from the world. “Set your mind on things above,” says St. Paul, “not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3) Like Jesus himself, we must go away and seek God in the deserts of our lives. “When you pray,” says Jesus, “go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:6)
This is what we call recollection in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines recollection this way:
[It is] attention to the presence of God in the soul. It includes the withdrawal of the mind from external and earthly affairs in order to attend to God and Divine things. It is the same as interior solitude in which the soul is alone with God . . . It is necessary for all who wish to attain Christian Perfection. Without it, it is most difficult to make progress in virtue.
The Gospel promises us the most glorious realities for our inner lives: faith, hope, and charity, the indwelling Trinity, the presence of God in our souls. Salvation is the forgiveness of our sins, but also the infusion of supernatural gifts. If we attend to them, if we practice recollection and prayer, we will find “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)