One thing I have learned as I have tried to understand the concept of grace is that as soon as I have a handle on it a new definition or way of seeing takes me in another direction.
Grace is the first name of the wife of the recently deceased Prince of Monaco. Grace can be viewed as a pleasing quality, an attractive character trait, as in “the ballerina moved with a gracefulness that was truly glorious to behold.” There grace is a thing of beauty. Grace can be what we offer before dinner as an expression of gratitude or thanks and as our blessing upon those at the table, those not present, and appreciation for the bounty before us.
In some instances grace is given between one human being and another, where there has been an occasion of ill will or mischief. In other cases, it is a gift offered by God to all who seek his care and with whom they wish to be reconciled.
The Hebrew and the Christian scriptures contain conflicting notions of this complex expression. The difficulty in defining it reflects the perplexity of human behavior and the mystery of God around which it swirls.
The words we have heard recited many times over and over, particularly in the past two weeks as we watched and waited during Pope John Paul II’s last days contain this word: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” This prayer ascribes grace to the mother of God and was offered as a blessing upon a man who had blessed many.
Because it can be so casually thrown off on so many occasions, this word can become almost meaningless precisely because of its many connotations. But I speak of it because it is a word of profound depth. Grace is what we do as we offer the most gracious and loving act of kindness we know. It is what opens the door of new possibilities for future acts of dependability and loyalty. Grace, for me, is another word for a blessing, a gift offered and received.
I turn, once again, to another of my favorite sages, Dr. Rachael Remen who writes, “My patient, a physician who has cancer, comes to his session enormously pleased with himself. Knowing my love of stories, he says that he has found a perfect story and tells me the following parable.
Shiva and Shakti, the Divine Couple in Hinduism, are in their heavenly abode watching over the earth. They are touched by the challenges of human life, the complexity of human reactions, and the ever-present place of suffering in the human experience. As they watch, Shakti spies a miserably poor man walking down a road. His clothes are shabby and his sandals are tied together with rope. Her heart is wrung with compassion. Touched by his goodness and his struggle, Shakti turns to her divine husband and begs him to give this man some gold. Shiva looks at the man for a long moment. “My Dearest Wife,” he says, “I cannot do that.” Shakti is astounded. “Why, what do you mean, Husband? You are Lord of the Universe. Why can’t you do this simple thing?”
“I cannot do this to him because he is not yet ready to receive it,” Shiva replies. Shakti becomes angry. “Do you mean to say that you cannot drop a bag of gold in his path?”
“Surely I can,” Shiva replies, “but that is quite another thing.”
“Please Husband,” Shakti implores.
And so Shiva drops a bag of gold in the man’s path.
The man meanwhile walks along thinking to himself, “I wonder if I will find dinner tonight–or shall I go hungry again?” Turning a bend in the road, he sees something on the path in his way. “Aha,” he says. “Look there, a large rock. How fortunate that I have seen it. I might have torn these poor sandals of mine even further.” And carefully stepping over the bag of gold, he goes on his way.
“It seems,” Dr. Remen concludes, “that Life drops many bags of gold in our path. Rarely do they look like what they are. I ask my patient if Life has ever dropped him a bag of gold that he has recognized and used to enrich his life. He smiles at me. “Cancer,” he says simply. “I thought you’d guess.”¹ So it is with blessings. They are received only as we are ready to receive them.
Martin Buber reminds us that just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing, but what keeps us from receiving life’s blessings? It is not always so simple a thing as a lack of time. Often we may not recognize a blessing when it is given, or we may have ideas about life that keep us from experiencing what we already have. Sometimes we become frozen in the past or unaware of the potential in the present. We may even come to feel entitled to what has been given us by grace. Or we may become so caught up in what is missing in the world that we allow our hearts to break. There are many ways to feel empty in the midst of our blessings.
Grace, I believe, is the ability to receive a blessing or forgiveness as it is given, and to offer the same when called for, or as Buber might put it, it is an grace-full act to bless the needy and to accept that blessing even if it cannot be in any way reciprocated.
Grace fundamentally speaks to and motivates the human heart at the deepest core level,² writes Jeffrey Yerger, who trains and teaches business people. He argues “Grace has a sustaining power precisely because it speaks to the intrinsic worth of the person.³ Grace can free us because it can create the environment where we can thrive because they are encouraged or given the opportunity to pursue their lives without the burdens of guilt and remorse.
Yerger transforms Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan into contemporary language. A middle manager was on his way to a meeting across town. As he walked into the parking lot, he saw his boss laying on the ground, a clear victim of a hit and run accident. He was moaning and thrashing about and clearly needed medical attention. Other employees who were in this manager’s department passed by, intentionally looking the other direction. As the middle manager ran toward his boss, scenes flashed across his mind of the cruel and mean-spirited nature of this man. Despite the fact that he was hated and vilified by most everyone who served under him, this man saw his value and knew his potential. The middle manager knew that help was needed quickly and it was imprudent to wait for help to arrive. He ran to the man’s side and lifted him into his own car. At the hospital, he called his supervisor’s relatives who lived across the country. He waited at the hospital until they arrived. He never left the side of his boss in the interim period. He helped him sip water, eat and otherwise encouraged and inspired him. He cared for him despite the way his boss had treated him. He valued his life. He looked past his mean-spirited demeanor and saw him as a human being in need of care and support. Moreover, he knew that this man could become a valuable leader in the company if he could ever find a way to soften his heart and encourage others. Regardless of how he had been treated, he responded with kindness and support and expected nothing in return.”
Grace, Yeager argues, is any act of kindness, courtesy or forgiveness offered to another when kindness, courtesy and forgiveness are either unexpected or unmerited. A spouse, or business partner, or employee, or boss may have merited harsh judgment because of poor judgment or performance or dereliction of duties. What is received in response however is not merited. Rather it is a gift, the gift of a second chance, a word of forgiveness, or kind words offered. Grace, he says, works from the outside-in and from the inside-out.⁴
For grace to be real, I suspect it must be felt more than heard. I return to the notion that forgiveness is not of the mind but of the soul or heart. In a fascinating book titled The File, British intellectual and historian Timothy Garton Ash describes how he was informed on by the East German spy unit known as the Stasi during the cold war while he was completing his Ph.D. on eastern block countries. Informants were recruited by offering exit visas, or blackmail, or threat of expulsion from jobs.
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the West Berlin government opened up the Stasi files to all who would inquire. Ash inquired, and he writes about his search for those who had informed on him. The most poignant among the informers was an elderly Jewish lady. She joined the Communist Party in her teens and escaped before the war to Moscow only to see her husband sent for more than ten years to a labor camp and her son taken from her and put in an orphanage, all victims of Stalin’s purges.
When Ash confronts her, she tells him of her suffering and her idealism that she still believed in. He saw how ashamed she was that she had been an informer. And Ash writes: “By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (Italics mine)”⁵
Forgetting does not mean pretending something hasn’t happened. It may mean occasionally waking up without it being the first thing on your mind. It is the kind of forgetting that allows one to lift one’s voice in song, or find simple pleasures in life again. I can forgive, Ash is saying, I can learn, and I can selectively forget. I can learn that you are capable of suffering just as I am, and that we are both deserving of love.
Grace responds to a fundamental understanding that lives within every human: we know ourselves to be imperfect and flawed, insecure and vulnerable. Grace is about creating worthiness in people when they feel unworthy and undeserving. It becomes a blessing when it is freely offered and accepted.
“Many years ago I cared for a woman called Mae Thomas,” Dr. Remen writes in another place. “Mae had grown up in Georgia and while she had lived in Oakland, California for many years, she had in some profound way never left the holy ground of her childhood. She had worked hard all her life, cleaning houses in order to raise seven children and more than a few grandchildren. By the time I met her, she had grown old and was riddled with cancer.
“May celebrated life. Her laugh was pure joy. It made you remember how to laugh yourself. All these years later, just thinking of her makes me smile. As she became sicker, I began to call her every few days to check on her. She would always answer the phone in the same way. I would say, ‘Mae, how ya doin’? and she would chuckle and reply, ‘I’m blessed, Sister, I’m blessed.’
“The night before she died, I called, and her family had brought the phone to her. ‘Mae,’ I said. ‘it’s Rachel.’ I could hear her coughing and clearing her throat, looking to find breath enough to speak in a lung filled with cancer, willing herself past a fog of morphine to connect to my voice. Tears stung my eyes. ‘Mae,’ I said. ‘It’s Rachel. How ya doin?’ There was a sound I could not identify, which slowly unwrapped itself into a deep chuckle. ‘I’m blessed, Rachel. I am blessed,’ she told me. Mae was one of those people. And so, perhaps, are we all.”
Dr. Remen is a cancer survivor and she speaks and writes from a first-hand kind of understanding of what her patients that she deeply cares for are going through.
“We can bless others only when we feel blessed ourselves,” she concludes. “Blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life. It may require an appreciation of life as it is and an acceptance of much in life that we cannot understand. It may mean developing an eye for joy. It is not necessary to sit in judgment in order to move things forward, and our anger may not be the most potent tool for change. Most important, it requires the humility to know that we are not in this task of restoring the world alone.”⁶
Grace is a too much word, a word that is used to cover most anything, but when it is a verb and not a noun, when it is an act rather than a description, it is healing, and forgiveness, and a blessing that can renew and enliven. Grace is a bearer of hope in the midst of the darkness.
1. Remen, Rachael Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom. Riverhead Books, 1996. Pp. 88f.
2. “Management and Grace.” Jeffrey D. Yerger. The CEO Refresher. A Web publication. 4/5/05. P. 2
3. ibid. P. 4.
4. ibid. Pp. 4-6.
5. “Secret Sharers.” Noel Annon. The New York Review of Books, September 26, 1997, p. 22.
6. Remen, Rachael Naomi. My Grandfather’s Blessings. Riverhead Books, 2000. Pp. 17-18.
© 2005 Richard Venus