(I'm taking a risk talking about this subject for two reasons, because I want to keep this simple, and someone is bound to find fault, and because this is a subject I enjoy and can go on and on about -- but here goes...)
We often talk about grace, either not being clear about what grace is, or we talk about graces, different sorts of grace, different means or characteristics of grace -- and lose sight of the big picture.
So a few key ideas:
Although we talk about different sorts of grace, essentially grace is one reality, which we experience in a variety of ways. What is grace? Grace is a sharing in God's own life; St. Thomas Aquinas said, profoundly, "Grace is God's eternal love, acting in time."
Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has, in its glossary:
GRACE: The free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children. As sanctifying grace, God shares his divine life and friendship with us in a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that enables the soul to live with God, to act by his love. As actual grace, God gives us the help to conform our lives to his will. Sacramental grace and special graces (charisms, the grace of one's state of life) are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian vocation (1996, 2000; cf. 654).
(On the distinction between "habitual" or sanctifying grace, and actual grace, I'll say more below.)
In my experience, I cannot, at present, think of an instance where what one says about grace cannot be said about the Holy Spirit, even though there is legitimate reason, in refined theology, to distinguish them, insofar as we understand grace as a created reality, and an effect; yet it equally important to understand grace as sharing God's own life, as the Catechism says.
Perhaps a helpful analogy would be the incarnation: In the Incarnate One, we recognize both uncreated God, and a created human being, united to the Divine Person. God's purpose in the Incarnation is the same as his purpose in sharing grace: to divinize us! To make us partakers of the divine nature, as our very first pope, Peter, wrote in Scripture.
Therefore, in the end, the distinctions disappear: grace, accomplishing its end, will unite us, not with some created reality, but with the Triune God himself! Update: I ought to added "merely," in the blue-highlighted text, because our union with the Trinity will include union with the "created reality" of the Son's human nature.
We look for grace, we pray for it, we hunger for it--thank God! (Hint: that seeking, desring, it itself grace at work!) We seek God's grace through various prayers, devotions and practices.
But the fact remains, grace is, essentially, one--and grace is more abundant, infinitely moreso, than water in the oceans, and air in the sky.
So don't fall into the thinking that we have to "hunt" for grace, or, God forbid, work for it!
So what about devotions, practices, not to mention the normal means of grace?
As Catholics, we believe the Lord instituted the sacraments as normal means of grace, for our sake -- they teach us about him, and conform well to our needs -- beginning with baptism. But to cite St. Thomas Aquinas again, while God certainly works in the sacraments, he is not limited to them. So any discussion of other ways to grow in grace presuppose living the life of a Christian -- receiving the sacraments in faith.
So then come various devotions, and there is no end to the list of them. Do we receive grace in them? Sure (I assume we're talking about legitimate, well-attested devotions, rooted in sound tradition). Is one better than the other? I have no authority to say that! I can think of particular devotions (which I won't name, because I don't want irate devotees to come after me), that hold no attraction for me. But if they draw you into God's presence? Wonderful!
But if a devotion becomes a drudge, a burden -- I'm not saying don't do it; but I'd say, step back and ask yourself if something is wrong with that picture.
May I point out that all devotions, indeed, the sacraments themselves! exist for our benefit; not the other way around! After all, God had no need to come to earth -- he did it, as we profess: "for us men, and for our salvation..."
Certain devotions are connected, or promoted, in relation to specific graces, or promises: I think of First Friday, First Saturday, and scapulars, among others.
I think if you look very closely at these devotions, which I applaud, you'll see that all these promises, or hopes, are premised -- as indicated earlier -- on living the life of a Christian, fortified by the sacraments. These devotions are helps -- there's no gift or grace they bring that we cannot find apart from them. (This is true even of the sacraments: while they are normal means of grace, God can and does save souls apart from the sacraments.) As I said in a recent homily: God commands us, he doesn't command himself.
So for heaven's sake -- don't worry! I think St. Magaret Mary, and the Blessed Mother, do not want the devotions associated with them to become a chore, and for folks to fret because they omitted something: "will I get the grace?" Brother, sister, if you can ask the question, you've got the grace!
In the confessional, I often say this: it is not God's agenda to induce anxiety and fear in us. I mean: if grace prompts us to be fearful or anxious, it is to lead us to the next step, conversion: confess sin, change direction. And that means not anxiety but peace. I also say this: you would not be in the confessional without God's grace already at work--your presence here is a certain sign of God's love and care for you.
(This seems to be news to some folks when they hear it, so let me say it again: grace precedes the first moment of conversion in our hearts; i.e., it would be heresy to say, we convert, then grace is working in our lives; rather, grace must be active in order for us even to consider conversion. This is what we call the "grace of conversion.")
I'm not saying be passive and presumptuous, but I am saying, be hopeful and confident. Ours is a God of salvation, not hide-and-seek: it was God who, after Adam sinned, came into the garden and called out, "Adam, where are you?"
A word about indulgences (I wish I'd run this last Monday on "Reformation Day"!)...
An indulgence, to speak simply, is a means of grace: it is one more way God, through his Church, helps us to salvation. No indulgence is, strictly speaking, "necessary": that is to say, everything we can gain via an indulgence, we can gain without one.
Like the sacraments themselves, indulgences exist, not for God's sake, but for ours -- they're designed to fit our needs and dispositions.
Just what is an indulgence? It is a spiritual benefit (the remission of any penalties or purification associated with purgatory) which God gives in relation to our doing some particular good work: a prayer, or a pilgrimage, or such.
What actually "gains" the indulgence? Nota bene: not the work per se, but faith--which is proved by noting that the spiritual benefit can be obtained without the indulgence!
Now, our Protestant sisters and brothers say, "then omit the works and stick to the faith!" To which I respond, from Sacred Scripture: "Indeed someone might say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works" (James 2:18). Put it another way--God understands we human beings need to be doing something. And he knows it helps if we have a "buy-in"--as opposed to being passive, inert recipients. But grace precedes.
In the case of indulgences, let us be clear about something. An indulgence is not salvation -- indulgences are gifts for the saved! I.e., the remission of penalty is not for anyone in hell, but for anyone undergoing purification in "purgatory," the foyer of heaven. No one goes through this purification who is not saved.
An indulgence is essentially an answer to prayer! We pray to assist someone's purification, and indubitably, that prayer is answered! (The very term, "indulgence," reveals what it is: a gift.)
Another thing: an indulgence is not a "get out of jail free" card! I confess, I have described it this way, but this is misleading. Why?
Because here is what happens in us to allow the indulgenced "work" to be effective: CONVERSION! Look carefully at each and every indulgence: it speaks of confession of sin, conversion of heart, faith in Christ, reception of him in the Eucharist. (Obviously, this prior sentence presupposes...GRACE.)
Guess what? If you do those things, without ever seeking any particular indulgence, whaddya think? Think you might be fully purified in this life, and thus have no need of final purification at the gate of heaven? I think, YES! The point of the various indulgences is the same as the various devotions -- they are helps to us to find our way to what we fundamentally need: conversion through the grace of Christ, that we might fully partake in God's life. It really is that simple.
Am I speaking against, or discouraging, indulgences? Not at all. But I think any experience of them needs to be grounded in a right understanding of grace, what an indulgence is (and is not), and what is truly "necessary." Recall Our Lord's words to Martha: "only one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen the better part." Being in relationship with Jesus is the "better part," the one thing necessary, from which all else flows, including each and every grace there is.
A word about habitual or sanctifying grace, and actual grace(s). Actual graces are those ways God prompts and helps us, whether or not we have sanctifying, habitual, or indwelling grace, which is the grace that justifies us, the grace of salvation. (I am aware of various distinctions we can make with all these terms; I am simply trying to simplify this matter.)
The distinction is valid, insofar as it helps us to see that while everyone whatsoever receives actual graces, that doesn't mean everyone receives, or rather, has, habitual grace; though we believe God is eager to give the saving grace to anyone and everyone, and we hope and pray, that that is what will happen. It may, but we don't know; we don't presume all are saved, but we also don't presume that anyone, but the devil and his cohorts, is in hell. Or, to say it another way, sanctifying grace is available and offered to all; that doesn't mean all respond to it, or persevere in it.
Hence, the grace that precedes conversion is an actual grace, leading to habitual grace. While I won't deny the validity of making distinctions, in the end, one must remember that grace, at its source, is One, namely God himself, as he acts for our salvation and pours himself into our lives.