We used to have a small orchard of fruit trees on our property until the racoons started pre-empting the harvests. I was in charge of it, and I would spray the trees, a cherry tree, a couple of peach trees, a plum tree and a pair of apple trees. I also tried covering them with mesh, which never discouraged the birds who would simply fly in from the bottom of the mesh.

They were small fruit trees, supposedly dwarf trees because we knew that a full-size fruit tree can be 40 feet high. These were smaller, but when it came to picking the fruit, we discovered that they weren’t REAL dwarf trees, which measure 8-10 feet high. These were about 20 feet high, and I found that most of the fruit was far out of my reach. There I was, standing on a cart, with the 5-foot fruit picker held out at arm’s length and gazing up at a treasure of fruit hopelessly beyond my grasp. Maybe it was at that point that we decided to let the racoons take over.

This experience had one important effect: it totally upended my understanding of “subjection.” To “subject” is to put or throw under. When applied to people, it is an expression of humiliation, and it usually involves some practice that makes the victims look or feel to be smaller than they really are. In Livy’s account of the battle of the Caudine Forks, he describes how the victorious Samnites forced the vanquished Romans to pass bent over under a wooden yoke, graphically driving home the reality of their defeat.

Dictionaries define subjection as “when a person, group, or government forces another person — or group of people — to submit or be controlled.” The essence of subjection is control of the subject by the subjugator. This can have a positive association when one is dealing with a object, as in “a holy man for whom the subjection of earthly desires is the path to spiritual perfection.” When applied to some people subjecting others, it comes across as totally negative. For someone to be in subjection means that they are controlled by another, made smaller than they really are and ultimately stripped of their dignity. Even a cursory reading of history reinforces this understanding of subjection.

With such a derogatory association of the whole concept of subjection, it was inevitable that the teaching that we human beings are subject to God’s power and authority should undermine whatever belief we have in His goodness and love. God is greater than we are, and that automatically makes us think of ourselves as having to make ourselves smaller than we really are lest we encroach on God’s majesty. The various passages in Scripture that speak of “being subject” unconsciously reinforce this idea. Even St. Peter’s direction to “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time”[1] fails to reassure us. All the rules and regulations of the Church that seem to infringe on my liberty just make the yoke felt more keenly, no matter how light it is supposed to be.

Yet, as I stood there, literally fruitlessly gazing up at the unattainable, my whole understanding of “subjection” was turned upside down. To be subject is to be put under something or someone and that means making myself smaller than I am. But what if what I am put under is high above my head? To make myself smaller doesn’t do anything. I am already too small to begin with. In order to be subject to this exalted limit I have to make myself bigger than I am. But if the one I am subject to is God, who is infinitely beyond me, how do I do that? We are told, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are commanded to “love one another as I have loved you.” How can I lift myself up to His measure?

St. Paul struggled with this dilemma and was reassured by Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you.” But what is grace? How does it work? I remember once hearing Fr. Benedict Groeschel say that most American Christians are Pelagian, the rest are Calvinist, and some manage to be both. Pelagianism is the belief that grace is not necessary to fulfill God’s commands. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Calvinism teaches that, of ourselves, we are incapable of obeying God’s commands. By His grace, God saves those whom He chooses. In both positions, we find that grace has nothing to do with what we do. A movement within the Catholic Church called Jansenism taught an understanding of grace very similar to that of Calvin.

The Catholic Church rejects all such teaching. We need grace to obey God’s commands, to do His will and to be saved, but grace is not just something that God does to bring that about. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”[2]

The Catechism continues: “Grace is a participation in the life of God.” It “is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul.”[3] Grace is not some kind of power poured into us enabling us to act, like electricity that causes a machine to run. It is God’s life within us, God living within us. The Catechism quotes St. Augustine to show that even “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace…God brings to completion in us what he has begun, ‘since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.”[4]

St. Paul said that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”[5] I can even obey His commandments and live the impossible challenges of His love. What is impossible for us is possible in God, because “for God all things are possible.”[6]

Fruit farmers, faced with my challenge of unattainable fruit, have several options: They can chop down the tree. This will certainly bring everything within reach, though it will probably damage a good number of the fruit when it falls. It will certainly abolish all hope of any future fruit from that tree.

They can use ropes and grappling hooks to bring the upper branches down within reach for a quick harvest. This may break a number of branches, and the higher branches will still remain out of reach.

They can use ladders and climb up and pluck the fruit that is within reach. This entails strenuous work and, again, will leave the higher branches beyond reach.

Applying these suggestions to the Church’s teaching, those who object to her challenges can simply try to chop down the Church and destroy her. This has often been tried by those who reject her moral demands, especially in the areas of sexual morality and greed. So far, it has never succeeded.

Other people try to bend her teaching to fit within their own framework. They interpret the challenges of faith to correspond to their own ideas and what they accept. This has never caused the Church to change her teaching but has simply limited the graces such people can receive. To shut oneself off from her teaching effectively shuts oneself off from grace.

Still others try to meet her challenges by their own efforts. In doing so, they pick and choose which ones they can manage. As we have seen, this Pelagian approach is common in this country. It is an exhausting way of proceeding, and not only can the climber never reach the higher levels of the spiritual life, but he runs the risk of a serious fall from grace through pride.

Wise farmers use another method to reach the fruit beyond their grasp: they employ a moveable platform that can lift them up to the fruit they want to harvest. These harvesting platforms are easily obtainable and very adjustable, and this method is a perfect illustration of how to reach the highest levels of the life of grace, enabling us to meet all the challenges of holiness.

St. Therese of Lisieux aimed high. She wanted to be a saint and she refused to limit her aspirations to her own ideas or what she could achieve by herself. In the “Story of a Soul” she writes,

“I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by. Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is straight, very short and totally new.

“We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. I searched, then, in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: ‘Whoever is a LITTLE ONE let him come to me.’[7] And so I succeeded. I felt I had found what I was looking for. But wanting to know, O my God, what You would do to the very little one who answered Your call, I continued my search and this is what I discovered: ‘As one whom a mother caresses, so will I comfort you; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you.’ Ah! Never did words more tender and more melodious come to give joy to my soul The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus!”[8]

In our previous article, “Bruised Reeds and Dimly Burning Wicks,” we considered several saints who realized that they could not rescue themselves from their attachments and who let themselves be lifted up by Jesus. But being saved is not just a mechanical elevation. It is the work of grace, a sharing in God’s own life and love, and this means entering into a deep personal relationship with Him.

In this article, we saw several ways in which people try to save themselves without Him: by trying to eliminate the demands of love proclaimed by the Church; by interpreting those demands according to their own understanding; by picking and choosing which demands they will accept. In all these attempts of self-elevation, we are evading the invitation to a personal relationship with God.

This is nothing new. In an earlier series of articles, “Union and Communion,” we have seen that, ever since the Fall, we have kept God at arm’s length. We flee Him, as Francis Thompson wrote, “down the nights and down the days, down the arches of the years, down the labyrinthian ways of my own mind.”[9] We fence with Him in interminable discussions about details that are important, but important only within the context of a living relationship with Him.

It is impossible to be a Christian without Christ, but many who claim to believe in Him try to do it. We reduce Him to a figurehead of a movement. We limit our relationship with Him to a belief that we recall from time to time. We try to tailor salvation to our small abilities, to fit it to our size. We lower the demands of love to our level. We refuse to subject ourselves to the challenges of the Church because we don’t want to be carried. We want to do it by ourselves, on our own conditions, without the need of grace.

Those who accept the challenges of the Church, who realize that love is a relationship beyond our dreams and who “upject“ themselves to that relationship, agree to be carried. They will be lifted up in the arms of God to “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.”[10]


[1] 1 Pet. 5,6

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1996

[3] Ibid. # 1997 & 1999

[4] Ibid. #2001, quoting St. Augustine, De gratia et libero arbitrio, 17: PL 44, 901.

[5] Phil. 4,13

[6] Mk 10, 27

[7] Prov. 9, 4

[8] “Story of a Soul,” Manuscript C, chapter X

[9] Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”

[10] 1 Cor. 2, 9

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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