Is Faith a gift? Is faith a grace only from God? Can faith be prayed for?The subject arose when I was asked by someone whose son had gone away from his Catholic faith, to pray for this boy as his devout Mother was deeply saddened by this.
In a subsequent conversation with a friend, who also happened to be a priest (but now of blessed memory) it was explained to me that faith was indeed a gift from God available only by grace.It can be prayed for by the person seeking it, but in the case of another we should be praying God’s will for that person lest our prayers are in conflict with that persons free-will. I remember wondering why God would not want to give this ‘grace’ to everyone.At that time I was not aware of the Augustinian teaching on grace, but fairly recently the subject came to mind again, in similar circumstances.
It was then that I learnt of St. Vincent de Lerin, and that this dilemma was indeed centuries old. Since the Feast of St. Vincent de Lerin was on May 14th, and as he is not perhaps the best known ‘St. Vincent’ I was interested to see that The Catholic Herald had nominated said saint as their ‘Saint of the Week’.
Before you read the Catholic Herald’s brief biography, there is a section of his ‘Commonitory’ which although written in the 5th Century, in the light of recent controversies, rather proves the old adage ‘that there is nothing new under the sun’:
If what is new begins to be mingled with what is old, the profane with the sacred, this disorder will spread universally, till at last the Church will have nothing remaining intact, nothing unchanged, nothing sound, nothing unblemished. Where formerly there was a sanctuary of chaste and undefiled truth, thenceforward there will be a brothel of impious and shameful errors. May God’s mercy avert this wickedness from the minds of His servants; be it rather the frenzy of the ungodly. The Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, and does not appropriate what is another’s.
Vincent de Lérins (died c 445) was a nobleman who seems to have been a soldier in his youth. Later he became a monk on Saint-Honorat, one of Les Iles de Lérins, a mile offshore from Cannes.
Vincent belonged to a school of monks in the south of France who sought to moderate the harsh views of St Augustine on grace. Augustine (354-430) had taught that no one can attain faith or salvation without the previous reception of God’s grace.
There could be no question of deserving this gift. The matter of who should or should not be visited with grace has been predestined for all eternity: “No one is added or subtracted.”
Augustine seemed almost to revel in the cruel implications of this view. “Many are not saved,” he explained, “not because they themselves do not will it, but because God does not will it.”
Against Augustine were ranged the Pelagians, who taught that every individual is capable of attaining virtue and salvation through the unaided exercise of the will. This belief, which implicitly denies both Original Sin and the necessity of the sacraments, hardly left a role for the Church.
It was the aim of Vincent de Lérins, along with other theologians such as John Cassian at Marseille, to find a middle way: to soften Augustine’s teaching without denying the necessity of grace.
Known as Semi-Pelagians, they proposed that the human will and divine grace might work together. If, in the cases of St Matthew and St Peter, it seemed that the the action of grace had been dominant in their calling, were there not also suggestions, for instance in the stories of Zacchaeus the tax collector, and of the good thief at the crucifixion, that God sometimes responds to the impulses of good nature?
Vincent de Lérins is chiefly remembered for his Commonitorium, written around 434, in which he proposed a means for distinguishing true from false doctrine.
“In the Catholic Church,” he wrote, “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all… This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.”
To Cardinal Newman this test by itself implied too static a theology. Newman agreed that the seeds of doctrine had always been present in the Church’s teaching; he held, however, that it is in the development of those seeds that the full meaning is revealed.
“It is sometimes said,” Newman wrote, “that the stream is clearest nearest the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad and full.”
Sancta Vincente – ora pro nobis