"There but for the grace of God go I". Some may have assumed that it is a quote from the Bible. In fact, it is from a mid-16th century statement attributed to English reformer and martyr John Bradford, who in reference to a group of prisoners being led to execution said, "There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford" The meaning is of course that others misfortune could have been mine if it wasnt for Divine fate, or Gods graciousness toward me. Most often it is a statement of humility that my destiny is not entirely in my own hands and that factors outside of my influence have played a part in my life. Ironically John Bradford was executed for his "reformist" views some years after this statement.
This idea, that grace comes from God, preceded both the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures. In the ancient world, grace was the sustaining power necessary to turn suffering into wisdom and character. We hear the echo of St Pauls message to the church in Rome some 500 years earlier in the words of the Greek writer and philosopher Aeschylus (?sk?l?s). He wrote:
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
And as read earlier Romans Chapter 3:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
So the Christian belief is that it is the Grace of God that sustains and supports us in the living of our lives. It is the sense that the Divine, the ground of all being, visits us with unmerited favour. It is that sense that the God of the Universe is for us and not against us. That is what some have called an "enabling belief." It means that you can get on with your life and live with the belief, or perhaps more accurately the feeling, that this world is an hospitable place.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Grace is that there is nothing we have done, nor can we ever do, to earn this favour. It is a gift. And all we must do to receive it is to put out our hand and accept it.
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, said:
For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.
That is what some have called living in a state of grace.
This leads to what we might call a grace-full life. While the word graceful has shifted in its meaning and is now more commonly used to express a sense of elegance or a smooth flow and even refinement or stylishness, yet there still remains at its core the notion that Grace is what sustains us, forms and shapes us. To return to the Greek philosophers, Aristotle is quoted as saying:
The ideal person bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.
It reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffers poem, Who am I? written in prison not long before his execution:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cells confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Later in the poem Bonhoeffer goes on to wrestle with his doubts and uncertainties, but his identity is ultimately secure, because who he is at the centre of his being is held by a loving God. It is maintained, nourished and nurtured by a God of Grace and mercy. Hence we can all live a life filled with Grace, a Graceful life.
I dont think we should underestimate the importance of living with the sense that God is for us and not against us. Too much of Christian history has been dominated by the notion that the creator of the universe is punitive and judgmental, which has often created a punitive and judgmental church. And we know that it is still alive and well in the world today.
But when we are formed and shaped by Grace, then we can become gracious and willing to practise hospitality toward those around us. Grace is how the relationship between us and the Divine is maintained. There are other ways of maintaining a relationship. Law and duty bind people together. Or fear and favour are ways we keep each other in line. But Grace is different and starts with the premise that only love can truly be the basis of our relationship with God and with others.
It is Mothers Day today and I want to recognize the importance of Grace as we can experience it from our parents and even by being parents. There is, I think, a Thai saying that goes something like, Look at me the way a mother looks at her child, with soft eyes. It is also used in terms of contemplation which can be called, "the loving gaze." I am well aware that mothers and fathers do not always do the best for their children. I suggest that you Google the poet Philip Larkin and find his poem about parenting that has a very rude word in the title.
However, we all have seen or experienced that unconditional love that a parent, a mother, has for her child. It is in fact a state of Grace. There is nothing that the child needs to do to win this sustaining and nurturing love. In fact, children often test this unmerited favour through misbehaviour and disobedience. But, pray God, love wins in the end.
It is interesting that graceful and gracious are more often associated with women than with men. Not exclusively but frequently. As I wrote in my reflection in Update, given what we observe between a mother and a child, why dont we in the Christian faith refer to God as Mother more often? Perhaps it is because we are shaped by the Bible, which was produced in a patriarchal society. While there are mothering images in relation to God in the Bible, a cursory reading will clearly show that Father and male images win hands down.
Mothering is a very helpful way of understanding Grace. I suppose we can even see this in our references to Mother Earth; this place that nourishes and sustains us. When we are born we are given the gift of life and a place to live. We do not earn it. While it does come with the responsibility to live with love, respect and justice, nevertheless, the creation, the earth, the universe is an act of graciousness and we respond with gratitude and living grace-full lives.