With those who are perfect and walk with simplicity, there is nothing small and contemptible, if it be a thing that pleases God; for the pleasure of God is the object at which alone they aim, and which is the reason, the measure, and the reward of all their occupations, actions, and plans; and so, in whatever they find this, it is for them a great and important thing.
-- St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
My daughter is going to be home next week! This week is finals week, and the term's theology work was on St Augustine, and on the phone we (Clare and I, that is) were talking about merit -- how no mere human act, no matter how spectacular, is worthy of merit in the supernatural sense.
All human works "have their reward" already, in natural terms. Aristotle makes the case that even on strictly human terms, virtue is the highest good -- higher than honor or fortune or health, because those things can be taken away by the turn of fortune. Having a good character may reap benefits in terms of health, prosperity, friendship, etc but those aren't the proper rewards of virtue. Virtue itself, the perfecting of the human character, is the natural fruit of a habit of virtuous action.
But even virtue, per se, humanly speaking, is nothing in supernatural terms.
"There is none righteous, no, not one"
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)Yet we can merit through filial adoption. The Catechism says a lot about this.
The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.Even when I have realized this, though, it's so easy to set up that bargaining situation.
The God that speaks to Job is quite blunt in answer to that. All good things come from Him. Virtue isn't like a bargaining chip. It is the very minimum return and yet it is entirely insufficient, because we are incapable of restitution for where we have already gone wrong.
"If I am good, God will give me what I'm asking for (a good reputation, good things, health, successful children, whatever)."
If thou be righteous, what givest thou Him? or what receiveth He of thine hand? (Job 35:7)
But God gives us way more than we are able to ask for, and this is the essence of the Bible story. As CS Lewis says, we are "far too easily pleased". All the Advent promises are so spectacular that it is almost too much for ordinary common sense. My imagination falls way short. My natural northern austerity even wants to reject or minimize the plenitude and glamor of the promises. I can only glimpse Glory through faith and a bit by analogy.
He has promised us participation and filial heritage. .... so much more than earthly goods, even the noblest.
Why would I want to exchange filial adoption and trust in what He provides, in return for earthly good things? That is exactly like the Prodigal Son or like Esau, scarfing down pottage and giving up his birthright in return. I think that for me, at least, there is immediate feedback in temporal good things. If my children are well-behaved,, say, I feel like I am succeeding..... meeting my part of the bargain. The problem seems to be in thinking that there is a bargain -- "I do this, and then You, God, will have to do that." Which is absurd in a way -- in another way, He indulges us somewhat in this, perhaps the way I indulge my children when they "pay" me their allowance (which comes from me in the first place!). He does give us earthly goods in return for effort. Still, He tries to lead me further than that, past spiritual childhood, and too often, I'm not ready to go -- I want to stay at the concrete immediate-feedback stage.
Even the promise of successful children.... of course we want our children to be pleasing to God. But in terms of success -- Mary and Joseph weren't successful by secular or even "proverbial" standards. They weren't wealthy or well-known as teachers or leaders. They had only one Child and He died the death of a rebel and criminal. I think the "successful children" trap is one of the most insidious, because of course, virtue and character and excellence do bring earthly rewards "by the way". But those rewards aren't the proper rewards of raising children for God. Those are incidentals, and not having them immediately doesn't mean necessarily that one is doing things "wrong".
I think I can glimpse why the saints would run away in something like horror from "good things", even the best things earth can offer. Perhaps they would lose their focus. As Chesterton says, it wasn't that they despised the good things -- people don't sacrifice rats and vultures, they sacrifice the first fruits of their labor. But their love for the things of God was such that everything else seemed like straw, as Aquinas said, or like "a night in a bad inn", as Teresa of Avila said. Who would want to get comfortable living in straw or think the bad inn was the best one could expect, or be entirely happy with a belly full of pottage? This would be a denial of the reality of what is and what could be.
On the other side, salvation is so entirely gratuitous that in the ordinary way, there is no need to "measure up" by doing great things. St Therese said "To pick up a pin with love could convert a soul." I think I take refuge in that as an excuse for laziness and complacency, which of course is wrong. It's not enough to simply pick up pins; the love part is the operating principle. The value of an act isn't in its greatness, but in its being pleasant to God. Jesus was always drawn to those who were messing up their lives, because they were the ones who needed healing and KNEW it. The Father of the Prodigal Son welcomed him back joyously; the angels rejoice at the returning of a sinner, while they are unmoved by the great deeds of a man or woman who has not charity, charity meaning the participation in the life of the Trinity.