I have been spending a lot of time brewing on the concept of grace and our cooperation with grace with regards to salvation. I didn’t realize that there was a theological term for this that was emphasized during the Council of Trent and that is synergism. Here is a definition from a theological perspective:
In Christian theology, synergism is the position of those who hold that salvation involves some form of cooperation between divine grace and human freedom – Wikipedia
I want to clear up one objection that might be raised against the Catholic regarding synergism: to even cooperate with the grace of God actually requires grace itself. For example, grace prompts us to pray, do good to others, read scripture, be holy, etc. The interplay that occurs within each individual is our response to these movements of grace. Either we are moved by the grace received and accept this, or, we choose to ignore this movement and reject the grace, thus rejecting the fruit that would have been gained by our cooperation with the grace of God.
I think we can accept that salvation, sanctification, justification, etc. are only achieved and accomplished by grace. This is a free gift from God, and by the merits of Jesus Christ we have access to this gift. That much is very clear and that is a point I do not want to over fuss. What separates many Christians, however, is the idea of how much our cooperation with grace influences our salvation. Most Protestants, particularly Calvinists, hold on to the idea of monergism, which is defined as follows:
Monergism is the view within Christian theology which holds that God works through the Holy Spirit to bring about the salvation of an individual through spiritual regeneration, regardless of the individual’s cooperation – Wikipedia
In another sense, monergism can be viewed as predestination. The notion that irrespective of what we do, God wills that some are damned and others are saved. Honestly, this is a very interesting thing to think through because in some ways, scripture would almost give us the glimpse that God does in fact do this. Why did he pick the Jewish people to be His people? Why was St. Paul given so much grace and aid? Why does God not exact the same benefits to each soul?
As it is written:“I loved Jacob but hated Esau.” What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not. For he says to Moses: “I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will.” So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy – Romans 9:13-16
One thing that I have had to accept based on the wisdom given to us by St. Paul is that there are some things that are above our pay grade to know, especially as it ascertains to the salvation of souls. Why some seem more blessed or damned than others might lead one to believe that God chooses to save some and not all. But the answer to this is summarized nicely by St. Therese of Liseux:
I often asked myself why God had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal measure of grace… In reading the lives of the Saints I was surprised to see that there were certain privileged souls, whom Our Lord favored from the cradle to the grave, allowing no obstacle in their path which might keep them from mounting towards Him… And again it puzzled me why so many poor savages should die without having even heard the name of God... He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy… And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies… – Story of a Soul b St. Therese of Liseux
Irrespective if you are called to be a great rose or a lowly daisy, this is dictated by God and the grace He has reserved for you, and in order to attain the crown that He has planned for us from the beginning requires both His grace AND our cooperation. We see this very clearly in the parable of the talents:
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability…Immediately, the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five.He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy…Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back. His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant…throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth – Matthew 25:15-30
The talents can almost be interpreted as the free grace given to us by God, and the additional talents gained are the fruit of our response to grace. If God did not want us to cooperate with His grace, why then did He cast out the last servant to the darkness? Should he not also been treated as the first and second servant? The reason the last servant was cast into the darkness is because God will only save us with our cooperation. He will give us His grace to be saved but we must cooperate with His saving grace.
The reason I emphasize this is to remind the reader that we are called to respond to the graces given to us by God. It almost seems like our salvation depends on this for grace without cooperation does not save. The same can be said for cooperation without grace, which we would identify as an individual trying to merit salvation while being in a state of mortal sin. It just can’t happen when you are in mortal sin.
I feel that this is point is muddled and lost today. Praying, for example, is a response to grace and one that we use in order to obtain more grace, depending on what we pray for. If we pray for the grace to be humble or to resist a temptation, the Lord will give us the grace to be humble or resist this temptation, but as I mentioned, we need to cooperate with that grace in order for it to bear fruit. The funny part is, sometimes this grace takes on a form that is not at all what we expected. Let us look at a situation where we are stuck in traffic. In this particular example, we can say that our prayer for humility has given us one talent in order to be humble in this situation. If we act patiently and do not get angry, it is equivalent to us gaining an additional talent, however, if we acting impatiently and get angry, we gain no additional talent. Just be mindful that you have to act according to the grace given.
Constantly seek grace in the forms available to you, such as the sacraments and through an active prayer life. Be mindful that once you receive this grace, you must respond to the grace and act accordingly, in order that the grace may bear more spiritual fruit in your life.
Blessed Mother, pray for us!