What would it be like to wake up tomorrow morning and have almost superhuman power to deflect any temptation and avoid sin?
I think each of us tends to be vexed by a particular temptation. Confessing the same sin over and over to the priest, I half expect him to bark back at me: “Haven’t you got this one down yet?”
When I was a teenager, I frequently struggled with perfectionism. Part of this stemmed from an erroneous idea that I had to be perfect in every way to be loved and accepted. It wasn’t enough for me just to get all A’s on my report card. I became frustrated when I couldn’t run a mile as fast as a classmate. When I could not learn how to drive a stick-shift car quickly enough (I suppose it didn’t help that my father too was quite impatient!), I gave up in a fit of tears.
Patience was another challenge. I chafed when traffic backed up or I got behind a particularly slow driver in the left lane. One day I heard a suggestion to pray the Rosary while on the freeway. So I tried it. I wasn’t able to concentrate much on the mysteries, but somehow the litany served to calm me down a bit. Perhaps there was a slight shift in my mindset that everything was going to turn out alright, even if I showed up 5-10 minutes late for my meeting.
Lately, I struggle most with procrastination. Sometimes I delay starting tasks out of boredom, but often I’m unmotivated because of fear. Somewhat ironic because, despite earning a Ph.D., I still listen to the taunts of the Evil One — “you’re a fraud” or “you have nothing new to offer.”
Grace at Conception
When it comes to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it’s interesting to speculate how a special and unique grace empowered Mary.
Priest and theologian Fr. Albert Kippes suggests that Mary was immune from ignorance and immune from concupiscence. This means she did not experience the difficulty in knowing the necessary truths for her vocation. She also was free from even the inclination to sin.
Does this mean that Mary kind of spiritually “floated” through her day without a care in the world?
Scripturally, we know this is untrue. Mary clearly was not spared the emotional turmoil of human beings. She is troubled when the angel first greets her and invites her to accept the call to bear the Son of God. Likely she could have experienced fear when told that Herod was trying to kill the baby Jesus. Obviously, she suffered great sorrow at the foot of the cross as she watched her son die after being tortured and abandoned by most of his closest friends.
Did her immunity from concupiscence mean that Mary was immune from temptation? Certainly not! Even her divine Son was subjected to temptation. But, if Mary was full of grace and still retained free will, she must have been so attuned to the truth of both who God is and who she was that her will naturally followed to choose the good.
In other words, I don’t think that Mary, just because she was preserved from the stain of Original Sin from the point of her conception, had it so easy. She still needed to surrender to what was being asked of her at a particular moment.
Grace as Interception
Sometimes I forget that I too have access to that same grace, just in a different way. St. Jerome, in his Sermon on the Assumption, contrasts the grace that is given simultaneously and in all fullness to Mary, yet “to others… [it is given] measure by measure.”
This means for us, it’s a process. A beautiful pas à deux consisting of God’s leading and my following. Through the Church, God provides the sacraments; I respond by availing myself of these as much as possible.
I can also grow in grace through the habitual practice of good acts (and good thoughts!). Thus, when I consistently co-operate with the prompts God gives me in a traffic jam to pray for those drivers around me, it becomes a little easier to not become impatient or swear.
Now, admittedly, many times I don’t explicitly ask for grace and it comes gratuitously anyway. Other times, I think God allows me to get to the point where I need to swallow my pride, accept my own weakness, and inability to overcome the temptation. Like a baby learning to walk, I fall many times. But the key is to get back up and try again. As I continue to try, my spiritual muscles get stronger.
No, I’m still not immune to ignorance or concupiscence, but I better understand the truth of who I am and have become more aware of what draws me away from the good. Growing in my identity as a daughter of the King, I am less concerned about what other people think about me. And while I’m certainly not unaware of a handsome face or body, lust just isn’t as powerful of a force anymore. For what that’s worth, I’m grateful.
As for procrastination, I finally decided to set aside my anxiety and cry out to God for an extra dose of creativity and perseverance to finish this posting. It didn’t come until the last minute.
I may not have superhuman abilities to overcome temptation and sin on my own, but I can (with God’s help) super-naturally intercept those flaming darts of the Evil One.
Tamra is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. She is awaiting the publication of her first manuscript on pre-evangelization of American young adult “native nones” through Wipf and Stock.
 Albert Kippes, (1954) "The Immaculate Conception and the Preternatural Gifts," Marian Studies: Vol. 5, Article 8, Pages 186-199. Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/marian_studies/vol5/iss1/8