Grace is necessary.
We can achieve by ourselves, thank you very much. If we’re in need of repair (which we are, given that Something Is Wrong), we can also fix ourselves. We have capacities to control both positive and negative energy, and for good or ill, most of the time, we are the responsible party. And yet…
We work and work, and things don’t work out. We get stuck in self-destructive patterns of action, and fight like hell to break out of them, only to find we’re stuck, and worse. Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace describes how our synaptic conceptions of reality get written deeply over time, and that to undo their steel-strong connections is hard. To break a habit tests all of us. It seems so simple. Just change the habit. Stop this. And this. And this. Do this instead. Simple.
Not so simple. Those same synaptic constructions mapping our reality mark our routines as well, and function as addictions for all of us, supplying the hits of dopamine and reward that we cherish, fight for, and resist giving up.
How many self-help books do you have? I’ve been reading them for nearly forty years, and yes, they’ve helped. Tools to assist in discipline, in planning, in overcoming obstacles, in holding on to vision…these are all good and wise and helpful. And we can follow their instructions…sort of…for a time.
Oh, yes, I know. There are exceptions, the Tony Robbins’ of the world, successes that make the rest of us out to be the fools their achievements suggest we are. And we buy the books and programs the exceptions write, and follow their instructions…sort of…for a time.
Yes, we can fix ourselves, get better results, and achieve new things. Overall, we do better work and better repairs in community than by ourselves, but, to a significant degree, even alone, it’s possible to make real progress. Therapies help. As does medicine, friendship, meaning, and accomplishment.
And…the Something Wrong keeps hanging around.
There’s always a new thing in us that needs fixing, or we find out the fix of the last thing didn’t completely take. Or perhaps our work crumbles yet again, frustrating us, our goals needing an extra spark of inspiration that just will not show up! The Something Wrong continually pursues us, leaking out into behaviors and states of mind we thought we thought we were long past. In clinical addictions, the Something Wrong takes us by the throat and chokes the life out of far too many days, our attempts at self-repair frustrating at best. And, of course, there’s just no avoiding the fact that we die. At the end, we can’t be fixed so as to outrun the fate that catches up to all of us.
We can’t fix ourselves. Not completely, not finally.
Grace is present.
May’s book describes another component involved in our repair, the mysterious thing he calls grace. His study of addiction led him to many stories of addicts finally gaining a foothold against their addiction by way of a “spiritual” event, a mystery that happened to them, something inexplicable. Again, leaving faith in a specific God aside, reports remain of experiencing transformation as a gift, as something that arrives, an empowerment that moves in us a bit like wind through a forest. We feel its touch, hear its effects, and in near miraculous fashion, we finally find the courage and fortitude to fix in large degree the Something Wrong that’s been killing us for years.
It’s a strangeness in the growth and repair of human beings that after all the work we put in, at the end of things, if repairs have been successful at all, we describe with ease the sensation that we didn’t do it. That it was a gift.
Call it what you will. Assign what source you will.
The arrival of grace is a ubiquitous human experience that fills gaps in ways we’ll never quite understand. And by ubiquitous, I don’t mean everyone experiences it, but my reading convinces me that around the world God-folk and Unbelievers alike describe experiencing the hand of assistance that seems to come from elsewhere, infusing us with power, vitality, inspiration, and an extra measure of life itself.
Grace is Uncontrollable.
You can’t just order it up, though, this assistance from unseen realms. Robert Grudin’s The Grace of Great Things describes an “Ethos of Inspiration” in which he describes what actions and attitudes are needed to create a world where inspiration is more likely to show up. That ethos includes things one would expect: a passion for work, fidelity, boldness, a sense of beauty, and so on.
I’d love to steal this idea, and describe an “Ethos of Grace” (surely it has to do with being extra good, extra holy, right?) but the mystery of grace’s timing may surpass even that of inspiration. Who can tell why grace arrives just when it does? Why not years earlier? Why not after exactly one hundred prayers asking for grace in just the right way? Why not after reading just the right books, or after doing exactly the right amount of charitable work? The truth is, with grace that inspires, grace that forgives, grace that frees us not just in idea, but in lived, felt experience, no one knows about its coming and going. In much the same way as the Christ describes the Spirit of God, grace is like wind, coming and going as it pleases.
Maybe this should be a “how-to” post; how to make yourself ready for grace, how to coax the unseen world (whatever it is) to lend you a hand. In five easy steps. Leaving that aside, what matters for me just now is that the human experience we call grace (you may well call it something else) is out there, being delivered to unsuspecting folk every day. What also matters is that we are all in need of it. And while it makes sense to pursue it, we do not control it, and whether we like it or not, it calls us to continue our work in faith, the faith we were designed for.