Near Occasions of Sanctity

On a dreary New Hampshire winter afternoon, as I was preparing myself for a philosophy discussion on the subject of Ontology by attentively taking in a recorded lecture by Brother Francis, I was given one of those moments of joy that comes from relishing an uplifting truth. The subject might not immediately seem evocative of joy: Brother was discussing the “four causes” that Aristotle named, and distinguishing the concept of cause from the related concepts of principle, reason, condition and occasion.

But Brother’s delightful sense of humor came out as he was explaining occasion, which he did by referencing that phrase familiar to every even rudimentarily informed Catholic: the near occasion of sin. Once he invoked that consecrated phrase from the Catholic lexicon, Brother’s audience had a better grasp of the philosophical concept of occasion as distinguished from cause. Then, with an innocent irony that was typical of our beloved mentor, he asked, with a slight chuckle in his voice, “why don’t you ever hear about near occasions of holiness?”

Good question, right?

Brother Francis went on to explain what some examples would be: religious life, which does so much to occasion holiness, and holy friendships with people who are themselves pursuing sanctity, and who can provide mutual encouragement to one another in becoming saints.

What are the causes of holiness? And what are some occasions of it? These are the questions I will try to answer after a very brief philosophy lesson of five paragraphs. The lesson will be on the distinction between cause, principle, reason, condition, and occasion.

A principle is that from which something proceeds in any way whatsoever. All causes are principles, but not all principles are causes, so the concept principle is at once both broader and higher than the concept cause. According to Aristotle, principles are those things through which something is, becomes, or is known. Aristotle’s concept of principle is useful when we consider the inner life of the Trinity, because God is the “Uncaused Cause,” and there can be no causality in God. In other words, no Divine Person can be caused, yet the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son. Thus, the Father is the Principle (not the cause) of the Son, and the Father and the Son (as one Principle) proceed forth the Holy Ghost.

Reason is that through which a thing is understood. To give the reason for anything, is, according to Father A.C. Cotter (The ABC of Philosophy), “to explain it, to make it intelligible.” All that exists is somehow intelligible, even if we cannot know everything about it. Thus, in perennial philosophy, we have what is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,“The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground.” The “and controversial” part of that definition is due to the objections of modern philosophers, who deny creation its Creator, and therefore denigrate the Logos through which all that was made was made orderly and reasonably.

A cause, in scholastic language, is a principle which by a positive influence determines something else to exist” (Father Cotter). The something else that comes to exist is, of course, known as the effect. Thus cause and effect are correlative terms. Without a cause, the effect simply does not happen, even if the conditions are present for the effect, it will not be effected without a cause. So, when scientists tell you that all the conditions for life are present on Mars, or on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) that does not mean that life is actually present there. If the life has not been caused, it is not. Scientists, by the way, do this kind of thing all the time. They point to conditions as if they were causes. The really important words in Father Cotter’s definition are “positive influence.”

A condition “is something that is required for the operation of the cause, but exerts no positive influence on the effect” (again, Father Cotter). Light is a necessary condition for reading. But that does not mean that as soon as the light gets turned on in a room, reading happens. Now, in the case of an indispensable cause (a causa sine qua non), the effect is dependent both on the cause and on the condition, but the dependence is different. Father Cotter explains this very well and concisely in his book we are quoting from, but this would get us into too much detail here.

Lastly, an occasion is, according to Father Cotter, “any circumstance or set of circumstances favorable to the action of a free cause.” And the examples given are that darkness is an occasion for the crime of theft and bad companionship is an occasion of sin. Note that the effect does not depend on an occasion as it depends radically on a cause or even on a necessary condition: theft can be committed in broad daylight (the government does it all the time!), and one can sin alone, or even among good companions. But occasions are helpful. That thief is aided in doing his evil by the cloak of darkenss, and bad company creates the climate or culture where sin will likely perpetuate and worsen. Hence, the obligation that we have to avoid near (or proximate) occasions of sin. If I get drunk as as skunk every time I go to happy hour with Billy, well, I ought to either avoid Billy outright, or perhaps go to the coffee bar with him instead.

The Council of Trent, in a beautiful and quite involved passage in the Decree on Justification, gives five causes of Justification, which is to way five causes for how a man gets into the state of Sanctifying Grace. This is the entrance to the life of holiness. Trent’s list of five causes expands somewhat on the four causes of Aristotle and leaves off one of his causes — the “material cause,” which is, presumably, man himself, who is justified. (That passage from Trent may be found elsewhere on our site and relished all on its own.) All of these causes of man’s being brought into the state of Sanctifying Grace, and thus being made holy, are things that either remain in God or come from God and are done to man. None of them are intrinsic to man (although some remain in him), but they are all given from above.

Later in that same decree, the Council will discuss how, by “faith co-operating with good works,” a justified man can grow in grace. That is to say, by the practice of good works (e.g., prayer, interior acts of virtue, the works of mercy), the man in the State of Grace can increase in the State of Grace and therefore become holier. In a later decree, on the sacraments, the same Council of Trent treats of “the most holy Sacraments of the Church, through which all true justice either begins, or being begun is increased, or being lost is repaired,” which is to say that the sacraments also cause us to grow in Sanctifying Grace, in holiness.

So, having considered the causes of justification and therefore of human sanctity, let us consider conditions and occasions of human sanctity. Recall that a condition is “something that is required for the operation of the cause, but exerts no positive influence on the effect.” The most important condition for holiness is a good will. Think of the Parable of the Sower as it is related by Saint Luke, where Our Lord explains that the “good ground” upon which some of the seeds fell, “are they who in a good and perfect heart, hearing the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit in patience” (Luke 8:15).

Now, of course, one of the great mysteries of our Faith is that this “good ground” — the “good and perfect heart” — cannot be good without actual grace from God. So even this condition requires the grace of God. But if all we have is the condition, we do not get the effect of holiness, because the condition is not the cause.

And now we come to the moment that will justify the title of this column. An occasion, we remember, is “any circumstance or set of circumstances favorable to the action of a free cause.” It’s not as necessary as a cause, or even a condition, but it is helpful. So just as occasions of sin give us that culture or climate that is favorable to our betraying God by sin, so, too, occasions of holiness make for a climate or culture that facilitates sanctity. Here is a small list of “occasions of sanctity” readers can consider:

  • Holy images (icons, statues), in our home, school, or place of employment. Looking at them from time to time facilitates holy thoughts, helps us to lift up our minds to God, Mary, and the Saints.
  • Good friends, who are also seeking holiness. These can offer us fraternal correction, give us encouragement, advice, or an opportunity to talk about our problems without getting wicked counsel. Just knowing we have such support is a boon to our perseverance.
  • Holy conversation with other Catholics, including the friends mentioned above. Such conversation concerns divine things, not Church politics — “have you heard the latest about Cardinal so-and-so” — and other such things. I’m not saying there is no place for Church news, but what I am saying is that it does not constitute holy conversation. Holy conversation is speaking with, and listening to others in matters concerning divine revelation, Jesus, Mary, the Divine Law, the means of salvation, how to grow in perfection, etc. It is said of Saint Dominic that when he spoke he always spoke either to God our about Him. To be with Saint Dominic was to be in a proximate occasion of holiness. So to with all the saints.
  • The good example of our fellows who are seeking sanctity. If a bad example can occasion my fall, a good example can certainly help me to grow in virtue. It is written in the liturgical lesson for the life of Saint Anthony the Abbot that, “He was so fired with zeal for all virtues that, whenever he saw anyone praiseworthy for excelling in any virtue, he strove to imitate him.” Those praiseworthy people the saint observed were occasions of holiness for Saint Anthony.
  • A robust family life where virtue is encouraged. In such an atmosphere, the virtuous love of mother and father for God and for one another radiates out to the other members of the family. The Epistle for the Feast of the Holy Family (Col 3:12-17) gives us a series of admonitions on how to have a holy family life, which will occasion sanctity for all the members of the family.
  • Good manners. In his book, The Restoration of Christian Culture, Dr. John Senior makes the point that manners are the custodian of the moral life just as the moral life is the custodian of the interior life. If I do not keep Catholic morals, I cannot live the spiritual life. If I do not have at least basic manners, I will not be able to keep good morals.
  • Religious life. By design, this institution provides numerous occasions for growth in holiness: the horarium (schedule), with its times set aside for private and liturgical prayer, work, study, and holy reading. Religious life generally provides freer access to the sacraments, good company, edifying examples presented to us in reading the martyrology, etc.
  • Crosses, contradictions, and trials. Not all occasions of grace are pleasant. Sometimes, God sends us “painful graces,” which can be persons, events, or circumstances that try our virtue. The cardinal virtue of fortitude is necessary for sanctity, and we do not grow in fortitude without having to deal with what is arduous and difficult. In such instances, we can be consoled of those concluding words that are part of the traditional Roman ritual for the sacrament of Penance: “May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints obtain for you that whatever good you do or whatever evil you bear might merit for you the remission of your sins, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.”

This list could be augmented, I am sure! One last point: Whatever we might do to be an occasion of sanctity for another, is a good work for ourselves, and thus — because it is a response to God’s grace — is a cause of our own increase in grace. This is in accord with the Council of Trent’s teaching, mentioned above, on how grace is increased in the soul. So, by willfully occasioning holiness in another, we cooperate with God in increasing it in ourselves.

The world is full of occasions of sin. Let us each strive to be and to make occasions of holiness for others. In so doing, we can become saints.