“It isn’t easy,” said Pooh to himself. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”
Grace is not an easy concept to understand. It has connotations of favour, the free (gratis, from the Latin gratia, grace) gift of mercy and forgiveness which comes to us from God. As with most Godly things, it is essentially impossible to define it very precisely or to know its attributes. It seems to me that the really difficult part for us is to be able to accept it. So, receiving grace – is it accepting that you are forgiven? Or daring to love God with a full and open heart? Daring to know that you are loved? All of the above?
How can we get from here to there – from not knowing grace to knowing grace?
Some people seem to believe (or seem to act as if) one must earn grace: believing the right beliefs, doing the right deeds, acts of piety (and filial obedience, especially to the Church) but avoiding any hint of spiritual pride, avoiding all the multitude of sins that have been specified by the experts over the centuries, including those that very few people have ever heard of. For a select few, through an extensive course of applied piety and passing various detailed checking procedures after death, it is possible to achieve veneration, beatification, ultimately sainthood. It is said that any US citizen can aspire to become President. Perhaps any of God’s children can aspire to saint-hood, depending on what they do to earn it. The necessity is (in the ancient formula beloved of teachers) Must Try Harder. From this point of view, grace seems to be seen as a medal awarded for outstanding spiritual achievement, and posthumously.
Others would disagree: grace can not be earned, only accepted by the enlightened, but here is how you can bring about that enlightenment. Perform the following spiritual exercises so many times daily (after your macrobiotic breakfast) – yogurt and yoga; meditate the right meditations, chant the right mantras. A sort of spiritual health diet. I am not comfortable with the thought that one can manufacture acceptance of grace, any more than one can make a horse drink or explain a joke. I recall an episode in The Good Life, in which Margo, who appeared to have no sense of humour, pleaded with Tom, Barbara and Gerry, “But why is it funny?” That is a question which can not be answered. I don’t have much respect for painting by numbers, either.
It seems to me that grace is a favour, endlessly extended. All we have to do is take it, as a gift. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most of us, most of the time, are suspicious and imagine that there must be some catch, or some condition to fulfil. “Me? How can God love me? What have I done to deserve that? Looking at my track record, I can’t see that I deserve God’s love. Surely other people are worthy of this gift, long before I am. I’m not a very Good person.”
Such thinking introduces the notion of competition. Some people will tell you that grace, or salvation, are not for everyone, but only for the Chosen Few. Which you have to be born into, or brought up in, or in some other way most people are not allowed it – it is an exclusive offer. Us and Them, the sheep and the goats.
That might be the case if grace were a strictly limited commodity. If there are twenty chimpanzees and only twelve bananas, there is likely to be trouble. On the other hand, if there are lots of chimpanzees but bananas for all, there need be no fighting but only the sound of peaceful munching. If God’s love is infinite, as we are advised, then all may share in it. If it is only for a few, then it isn’t infinite at all, but limited, in short supply, and conditional. I believe that we each have a unique pathway through life. I do not see this as a CV submitted as part of our application for the top position, no. I see spirituality as a learning experience, but without a set curriculum.