‘Freemen Established Under Grace’

At the end of the Rule of St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace — who was also a monk and father of monks — enjoins his disciples to observe its precepts “not like slaves under the law, but like freemen established under grace”1. The recent feast of St. Nicholas of Tolentino provides but one of the numerous proofs that the Rule of St. Augustine works. Not only did the African Doctor successfully cook his recipe for holiness, so did numerous of his spiritual progeny.

As many religious institutes do, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond, N.H., follow the Rule of St. Augustine. This means that we “slaves” have a rule that says we are to be “not like slaves.” Is this a contradiction, a blunder, or a conundrum — or is it rather one of those rich ironies that arises out of the true Faith?

Most assuredly, it is an irony. St. Augustine himself, who defended free will, and who enjoins us to live as freemen under grace, referred to monks as “servants of God” in his Rule and in other works, like the Confessions. The idea of servitude being part of religious life, of monasticism being a kind of divine “slavery,” was common at his time in both the East and West. Evidently, the servitude here considered is such that it does not rule out freedom. In a different context, St. Louis Marie de Montfort would speak over a millennium later about a “voluntary slavery of love.” If it is voluntary (literally, an act of the will), then it is by that very fact also free.

At the root of this religious concept of “slavery” is the notion of radical dependence on God. God is the necessary being, we are contingent. This constitutes us in a relationship of absolute dependency, both in the natural and the supernatural order. Also included in the notion of religious slavery is the concept of “service.”

In the way that the Church looks at it, every saint is a slave. The word “dulia,” signifying the honor shown to the saints, comes from doulos, which means slave. Dulia is the cult of honor shown the “slave,” or “servant” of God. This reflects our status before God, what we are as creatures. But then there is the other part of slavery, what the slave does: a slave serves. Now, the elevation by grace gives us an exalted dignity, constitutes us part of a royal priesthood, makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, sons of the Most High, and heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven. Nonetheless, we must serve, for that is what our Firstborn Brother did: “But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).

St. Augustine is the Doctor of Grace, who so capably defended the necessity of God’s grace (and of His Church!2) in the face of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian heretics. He wrote a work, On Grace and Free Will, that defends both its eponymous doctrines against heretical extremes. While the burden of the work is to combat the Pelagian denial of grace, it also refutes, well in advance, the free-will-denying heresies of Luther and Calvin.

In the passage cited from his Rule, Saint Augustine is opposing the Mosaic Law to the New Law of Christ. He is borrowing from St. Paul, who contrasts the two dispensations in terms of bondage and freedom. The Apostle does so in Galatians 4, whose last verse reads “So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.”3 In freeing us from sin, death, and the Mosaic law, the New Law of Christ establishes us as freemen under grace. Said another way, it is grace that constitutes us as freemen. With this holy liberty Christ has given us, we are to do good works and keep the commandments so that we may enter into life. The thrust of St. Augustine’s command is that we are to act not out of fear or compulsion, but by a free and spontaneous love of God and neighbor.

The doctrine and mystery of grace is not to be framed as so many heretics have framed it over the years: grace versus free will. No, it must be framed in terms of grace and free will, grace with free will. Let us not tear asunder what God has joined together. Far from being the “enslaved will” that Martin Luther dreamed up in his guilt-induced delirium, the human will is free and is made more free by grace. For Christ came to “liberate,” not to make us captives.

With that freedom that grace has effected in us, we can then voluntarily serve Christ in charity and devotion. This is that “voluntary slavery of love” I referred to earlier. The same Apostle who wrote so beautifully about Christ freeing us from sin, death, and the Mosaic Law, also refers to the Christian faithful as “servants of Christ,” just as St. Peter speaks of Christians being “servants of God.” There is evidently no contradiction in the minds of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul: with our grace-induced Christian freedom, we can serve Christ. Ironic perhaps, but not contradictory.

(Saint Peter Claver, “the slave of the slaves forever,” reminds us that Holy servitude is of great merit, if not in this world’s reckoning, then certainly in the Kingdom of Heaven.)

But how is it that grace frees us to serve Christ? To make it quite simple, I will say that grace elevates us, putting us in a state of being that is higher than what we were before. We are now children of God; we are “divinized,” or “deified.” We receive a “new nature” by our supernatural birth in grace. We call this “sanctifying grace,” or “justification.” But aside from this new manner of being, we also have a new manner of acting. We are given the supernatural habits of faith, hope, and charity — the theological virtues — which empower us to perform acts proper to a child of God. But to perform these works in fact, we need an additional help; we need the supernatural promptings from God that terminate in meritorious acts. These promptings are called “actual graces.”

The above, in a nutshell, explains both our dependence on God in the order of grace and our potential for supernatural life under the power of grace. Salvation is impossible without these supernatural helps. The man without grace can no more get himself to Heaven than an earthworm can fly to Mars. But with grace (sanctifying and actual), man’s free will is empowered to perform supernaturally meritorious deeds. With that power from on high, we can labor to build treasure in Heaven. Herein lies our freedom.

It remains to touch upon the role of the Blessed Virgin in all this. If it is grace that makes us free, then She who is Mediatrix of all grace has a role in our Christian liberty. If every liberating grace won by Christ is mediated to us through Her, then it is fitting that the service we render back to Christ — our slavery — ought to pass through Her as well. Thus, we have the formula of St. Louis Marie: “slaves of Jesus through Mary.”

The birthday of Mary on September 8, the Feast of Her Holy Name on September 12, and of her Sorrows on the fifteenth make September — originally the seventh month, as the name suggests — a very Marian Month. For devotional purposes, Our Lady’s joys and sorrows are both reckoned in sevens, so the original “septimal” character of the month makes it fittingly dedicated to the Immaculate One. Honoring the seven joys of Mary is a Franciscan devotion. Meditating on Her seven sorrows is a devotion that comes to us from another one of the five original mendicant orders, the Servites, properly called the Order of Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Would you be surprised to learn that these men who call themselves Mary’s “servants” also use the Rule of St. Augustine? They were instructed to adopt this rule by Our Lady Herself. She told their seven holy founders, her servants, to take a rule that tells them not to be like servants — an irony, not a contradiction. And the Mother of Divine Grace understands this even better than the Doctor of Grace.

  1. In linguam latinam: “non sicut servi sub lege, sed sicut liberi sub gratia constituti.”
  2. St. Augustine famously preached: “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church. (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem)
  3. St. Augustine seems to be using the wording of Rom. 6:14b: “for you are not under the law, but under grace,” to which he has added the concepts of freemen and slaves.