If grace presupposes nature (as St. Thomas Aquinas liked to remark), then the things of grace can give hints as to what is naturally the case, what is naturally true. I recently ran across a nice illustration of this approach in The Reed of God, the English writer Caryll Houselander‘s book about the life of the Virgin Mary.
Writing about the Catholic doctrine of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Houselander does not merely consider what they are (the spiritual instincts of Christ), but rather the significance in the fact that God would deem it necessary or advantageous to give us such gifts on this earth:
“When we think about what they are, it becomes very obvious that it was not into the Garden of Eden that Christ would be born, not into a smooth happy world; and that when he was born again, in life after life, it would always be in order to live through the same things as he did the first time: fear, poverty, exile, work, publicity, temptation, pain, betrayal, and crucifixion.” (Part Two, “The Fugue”)
In other words, a rational giver does not give pointless gifts, like ice skates in the middle of a desert or $5 to a billionaire. For Christians, God is rational (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”), and so Houselander infers that we must be in a situation in which we have need of such divine helps. So without delving too deeply into the particulars of the Gifts, suffice it to say that in this world wisdom, fortitude, piety, and these other qualities are likely to be in short supply and in need of some divine supplementation.
Now one does have to be careful when working back in this way, lest one commit the classic logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” This is the kind of mistake someone makes when he says “If you are in New Mexico, you are in Tucumcari.” Well maybe you are and maybe you aren’t. It does seem to be the place with the most hotel rooms, so it isn’t a bad guess–but it is just that, a guess. There is still the logical possibility that you never made it past Albuquerque (a sad, sad fate). Being in New Mexico is indeed a consequence of being in Tucumcari, but the tight logical relation does not hold if you try to flip the two.
In like manner, some circumspection is also appropriate when inferring something about the world from the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Maybe God would have given such Gifts even in a good, unfallen world. Maybe God just gives them for fun. But circumstances being what they are, I think it is a safe bet that Houselander is right in this. As the old prayer puts it, this world is a vale of tears. This is not a gloomy thought, but a realistic one–and realism is a good thing. Lowering your expectations for earthly existence can, paradoxically, free you from being outraged at it all the time. It takes away some of the sting, and can open your heart to greater appreciation for when things surprisingly, inexplicably, work out just fine.