Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Thoughts On Grace

What can be the driving force, the motivation which leads a person either to begin, to begin anew, or to continue to live the life which we call “Christian”? I believe that the answer to this is what we call grace.
The word grace can have lots of meanings and understandings. We speak of “grace” before meals. We point to the style and “grace” of an ice-skater or a ballet dancer. When special guests come, we set a table “graced” with fine linen, elegant china, and exquisite crystal. We even speak of the “grace” of a happy death.
On Christmas Day, 1977, when my daughter was seven years old, she came to me with a small, taped-up envelope as we were opening our gifts. From the hapless care with which she’d wrapped it, and the solemn way in which she presented it -- with all of a 1st grader’s formality! -- I knew that it was something very special. On a small card, a familiar scrawl had written: “Dad, I know that this is a very small thing for a gift but it is the only rare and beatyfull [thing] I could find. I hope you like it...” Enclosed in the card was a large, chipped rhinestone. That is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because the rhinestone was a symbol for the really rare and beautiful gift: the gift of herself. What I experienced in receiving that child’s gift is about as close as I can come, humanly, to describing what God’s gift of grace to you and me is like.
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (p. 858) says that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” 

God’s favor”:  When you’re a favorite or when someone does you a favor, it’s because you’re special; in fact, because you’re unique. You mean something. You’re important to the other person. And the favor is freely given. The giver consciously chooses to give it to you. A mature person doesn’t give favors indiscriminately or routinely. Favor is reserved for a special someone, on a rare and singular occasion. Grace is God’s favoring you and me: except that it’s not something. It’s God’s very self, God Who is amazing Love, and that is given to you at creation forever, if you choose, in the very person and nature who you and I are.
Towards us, unearned and undeserved”: St. Paul has a passage in Ephesians 2 (5-10), and upon reading it one morning in the study hall my first year in college seminary, I broke into tears at the power of its message: “Even though we were dead in our sins, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God had for us, gave us life together with Christ -- it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved...Thus God shows for all time the tremendous generosity of the grace and kindness God has expressed towards us in Christ Jesus. It was nothing you could or did achieve: it was God’s gift...which saved you. No one can pride oneself on earning the love of God. The fact is that what we are, we owe to the hand of God upon us…” “Unearned”, “undeserved”. We can each easily recall just the foolish things we’ve done in the past: the careless mistakes, the dumb things we all do without using our God-given reason -- not to mention our willful and deliberate selfishness. Yet St. Paul assures us that “though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God that God’s grace is wider and deeper still!
The description of grace I mentioned before goes on to say that God’s favor “forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” Remember the phrase in St. Luke’s account of the Gospel (17:21) where he says: “The reign of God is within you”? Well, that’s what being in grace means: God in Jesus is present within you: all the time, forgiving in mercy, enlightening by his Word, loving and empowering you through the Holy Spirit. Christ’s presence is a sanctifying grace, i.e., a holy-making gift, because the Holy God -- Creator, Redeemer, and Amazing Love -- hands God’s very self over to you and to me, God’s “favored” ones.

Coming to faith by gradual awareness of God’s presence in us through Christ and the Spirit, in the very person and nature in which you and I are created, amounts to something of a personal revolution. We’re all seekers by nature. Spiritual writer James Finley describes a seeker as "a person who, having once caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do". We can all think of times when we’ve had “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. In those moments we subtly recognize the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children and young people; in helping others; even in experiencing death, our own or others’. These are moments of revelation, literally, of having the “veil”, the curtain, pulled back for us. God passes through the gate in our momentary quickenings, awakening us to Love, to Godself, given to us in our creation. God continually awakens you and me to see that we have the ability to live habitually conscious of this Love giving Itself away. It calls forth in us a desire for a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. And the effect of these moments of grace is cumulative, i.e., they lead to our wanting to set out upon the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with the Love which abides at the very center of our being. For some, this happens at an important turning-point in our life. For others, it gains momentum through a longer process of investigation, questioning, study, and struggle. For all of us, this is what we mean by “following Christ”, living the Christian life, living in grace.
In speaking of “Grace” through the years: in sermons, retreats and Cursillos, I’ve often begun by saying: “I was conceived in and born of “Grace”. That was because my mother’s name was “Grace”.  My mom favored me with warmth and understanding; with respect and love for others: with a sense of fairness and honesty. She shared with me her basic sense of the holy; of responsibility; and a love of learning. For Grace, who died in 2003 at age 88, her giving didn’t come easy. My father had left us when I was about three, and I was raised as an only child, though 50 years later, through a complicated maze of circumstances, I learned that I actually had four half-brothers and three half-sisters, who, except for a sister and a brother now deceased, range from ages 88 to 47! Grace and her older sister, Florence, my godmother, were only two years apart in age. They were very close growing up, not only as sisters, but as best friends. Sadly, both began drinking heavily in their young adulthood, and by midlife, both had become dependent on alcohol. 
Just after 8th Grade, having lived with my mom only 14 years, I entered Catholic seminary. A year after being ordained a Catholic priest in 1964, I unexpectedly and literally on the spur of the moment, made Cursillo #5 at a parish in Ft. Wayne, IN, in June, 1965, a men’s weekend with 57 laymen and clergy attending.  I still have the group picture and my original notes from the weekend. There I experienced first-hand and in a new way an incredible testimony to love and grace, shown in the caring and giving of the Cursillo team members and other participants. That love and grace was held out to each of us candidates for the taking.  

Three months later, I had an even more vivid encounter of the workings of love and grace which I’d witnessed at that Cursillo weekend. It was the autumn of 1965, and Aunt Florence’s problems with alcohol had become so serious that, by then, after an illustrious career as a nurse for almost 30 years, she now couldn’t hold down a job. By then I was at my first assignment for the Society of the Precious Blood: teaching philosophy and theology at a college in Wichita, KS. Florence called me one day from Ohio, and, in her inebriated desperation, calmly told me that she’d “hit bottom”, and that she simply wanted to end it all with the gun she had. She was calling me as a last resort before deciding whether or not to go through with it. All I could do was listen, for over an hour, and talk, and encourage her, and joke with her, and pray quietly. I honestly didn’t know what she would do after we hung up.
Fast forward three months: I learned from my Mom that Florence had gone back to college, she’d become active at church and was teaching a religion class, and had returned to her nursing job. She’d  discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, and had come to know how her Higher Power’s amazing love and grace was able to transform her life. Yes, and by that same love and grace Florence, too, made a Cursillo, in 1972, two years before she died of cancer. The circle of God’s love and grace kept expanding. A year later, in 1973, my Mom, Grace, also discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, through Florence’s testimony to Love. Seven years after that, Grace became the third person in our family to make a Cursillo!
After Florence’s recovery began, my mother told me that in each of Florence’s AA talks, and she gave many, she said that what was initially a turning point for her was something her nephew and godson had said to her during that conversation in the autumn of 1965. What I’d said to her in passing (and I’d actually forgotten it) was: “The difference between a saint and a sinner is that the sinner falls, refuses to get up, and just stays there; whereas the saint is a sinner who falls, but trusts Christ enough to take his hand, and to get up and go on.” It wasn’t even an original thought of mine, but rather something I’d heard during a college retreat! Yet it’s an example of how witnessing to love and grace, even subconsciously, can unfold exponentially, if we allow it. 
Eleven years later, after I’d left the Community and the priesthood, and after many, many spiritual dark valleys, traveling an unbelievable journey on which only God could have led me, I landed in California at a parish where one of the first things the Rector said to me was: “Hey, there’s something I think you might like to get involved in: it’s called ‘Cursillo‘“...Amazing grace! Some time after that, despite all my attempts at stonewalling, kicking and screaming, God favored me with the grace of priesthood for a second time, in the Episcopal Church; and this past June, I celebrated a total of 50 years as a priest.
The second talk during my Cursillo in 1965 was given by a Fr. McNulty, of whom I have no recollection at all, since he was there only for that talk. But I do remember that the title of his talk was “Grace”, and that in my original notes I jotted down that he had said this: “Grace is what God has to do to me to enable me to love as [God] loves.” 
Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven,  one which I’ve loved ever since high school, talks about Love’s relentless pursuit of you and me in lines which couldn’t be a better summing up of Grace:

Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms, 
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”  

(Adapted from a talk given at a Cursillo, October 24, 2014)