Each year many people love watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We can imagine some commonsense reasons for that. One of the most important, though perhaps unacknowledged, has something to do with the miraculous. Quite frankly, it has to do with the Grinch’s spiritual life, and his extraordinary conversion.
For most of us, the classic stages of the spiritual life unfold slowly and progressively. We move through purgation and illumination, with occasional glimpses of union. Eventually, by an act of pure grace, God may even offer us ongoing union. Saints Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and a few others experienced this rare mystical state.
To put it another way, and as Flannery O’Connor wrote about, we struggle with perverted love, give natural love fairly easily, and grasp at Divine love. The Lord guides us over the course of a lifetime to continually say no to perverse love, to discern with prudence how to love naturally, and to always say yes to Divine love. Again, it is a long road of maturation in the school of the Lord.
But the Lord may do as He wills. He may certainly bring someone through all three stages in a matter of moments if He so desires. Such is what happens to the Grinch, and it is a wonderful transformation to witness.
At the beginning of his adventure, the Grinch is completely self-absorbed. He seems to have even no hints of self-love, so encompassing is his anger, hatred, and envy. The narrator describes him, according to the best available theory, as having a heart “two sizes two small.” Most of us live in the realms of purgation (size one) and illumination (size two). The Grinch, who sinks in the swamp of his misery, has not even the beginnings of the purgative way. His heart is cold and shrunken, almost as Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.
As he hatches his plan of becoming an inverse Santa Claus, the Grinch begins to experience delight. This joy, however, is misdirected, as it involves some fairly intense breaking and entering, theft, and even stealing candy from children.
We must marvel, then, at the mysterious course of Providence. For in these very acts are the beginnings of the Grinch’s conversion. The moment of reckoning comes when, scaling the mountain symbolic of his immense pride, the Grinch listens for the sounds of wailing from the town below. In this moment of anticipated schadenfreude, the Grinch hears rejoicing instead. The Whos, for their part, have already embraced a high level of detachment from possessions.
The Grinch changes radically in this moment. He ponders the deeper, spiritual meaning of Christmas. Just so, the cartoon depicts his normally red eyes as blue for the first time, just like the innocent Cindy Lou Who’s. This classic moment of illumination has the hallmarks of genuine spiritual growth. He realizes how wretched he has been, and he immediately moves to make amends.
Alas, the weight of his sins–symbolized by the impossibly heavy burden of the things he has stolen–threatens to capsize his entire existence. Interestingly, this looming tragedy will take down his intrepid dog Max, as well. Indeed, the spiritual life affects the surrounding family, as it were.
At this moment the cartoon makes a bold claim. “They say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” The Grinch moves in a matter of moments from a vile villain to a creature inspired to serve others out of love. Grace expands his heart even beyond what people might naturally expect. If he started with a heart two sizes two small, he ends up with a superabundant heart, the overflowing size indicative of the stage of union.
One of St. Teresa of Avila’s favorite Scriptures talks about just that phenomenon. When God moves a soul to greater love, he dilates the heart: Cum dilatasti cor meum (Ps 118/119: 32). Indeed, as the Catholic Catechism relates, “in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays” (par. 2562).
There is no better proof of this dilation of soul than the cartoon’s final scenes. The Grinch willingly and freely serves others at the feast table. He distributes the Roast Beast, just as he himself has been transformed from little more than a beast to a noble creature. The fruit of his extraordinary progress in the spiritual life is evident. He has, too, been incorporated into a community–another sign of genuine conversion. What was lost has been found.