Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.
Grace is tied to our image of God and what it means to be human. When I was in my early teens, the parish worker in our church helped me develop a loving image of God because of the way she related to me. She treated me as a person of worth, listened to me as though I had something to contribute, and nurtured me. I was unaware that I was receivng a precious gift of Divine grace. Church was my oasis away from the biting criticism I received at home. My mother’s worries about “what’s wrong with Linda?” left me feeling flawed, but not sinful. I worked hard to prove Mom wrong. If I thought about sin at all, I relegated it to dastardly behavior, something a “good girl” like me, even though flawed, could not be guilty of.
My best friend from high school and I both became teachers. She shared with me shortly after we began our careers that she feared she was committing the sin of pride because she felt good about herself as a teacher. I gave her a puzzled look. She added, “You know, like we learned in Sunday school.”
I didn’t remember learning that. I couldn’t fathom that my friend was sinful for recognizing her gifts as a teacher, so I decided to do a little research. I learned that the passages of scripture speaking to the sin of pride refer to arrogance, conceit, and haughtiness, not something characterizing my friend. I told her what I’d found, stating, “It’s okay for you to feel good about yourself as a teacher.” I had just taken my first foray into serving as a spiritual guide.
I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scotch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.
During my dark night of the soul, my experience was of being abandoned by a judgmental God. I wondered if God saw something wrong in me as my mother had. I wondered if I’d done something offensive and my difficult life was punishment for my sin. During a discussion about turning one’s will and life over to the care of God, I found myself in tears. The words that came from my mouth surprised me. “I don’t think God cares about me.” It made no sense to me at an intellectual level, but at the emotional level, I suffered. Today I realize that childhood experiences imprinted deeply in my psyche produced this state of mind, overriding my intellect. My extended dark night played havoc with my thinking.
Well-meaning people would say, “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” I thought that image of God odd…giving us pain as a test of our strength. Imagining a God inflicting pain on purpose only made my suffering worse.
Describing grace as an undeserved gift from God also did not help. Wrestling to understand the absence of grace in my life, blind to any extension of God’s grace, deaf to any mention of grace, all I heard in church were messages of sin, unworthiness, judgment, and the need to repent. Even though my progressive denomination did not accentuate the need for redemption as some churches do, any hint stabbed at my heart.
Integration: It’s a Process
Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking.
In my theological education, I learned about an ancient creation-centered wisdom tradition that preceded the church’s emphasis on our sinful need for redemption. This tradition, all but lost in Christianity today, emphasizes our original blessing as co-creators with a Creator God who calls us to a LIFE of loving action fostering dignity for all. For me, that is inspiring. How favorably we must be regarded in the eyes of our Creator to be given such a high calling and awesome responsibility.
Matthew Fox, a Dominican scholar, is a prolific writer about creation-centered spirituality. He recognizes that it may have been necessary for humanity to concentrate during a certain period on our fallenness, but he believes the time has come to let that preoccupation give way to attention to Divine grace. I agree with him and think the preoccupation of which he speaks, along with the critical imprint from my childhood, contributed to my awakening to grace being so long.
Being introduced to the richness of the original languages in the Bible, a richness not conveyed in English, had an impact. Enlightened by scholars who study these ancient languages, I began to hear sin differently. The Hebrew word for sin is chattah and the Greek is hamartia. Both are archery terms for missing a target. Sin means missing the mark. I love that and find it empowering. If the mark is missed, there is always another opportunity to hit it.
The Greek word for conversion is metanoia, literally meaning “going another way” or “changing your mind.” The positive framework presented in the original languages is far more inspiring to me than being dragged down by a negative, disempowering focus on departing from my hopeless inferior sinful state. I came to see us humans as having been endowed by our Creator with the capacity to change our way of thinking and acting. I think we actualize ourselves as co-creators when we challenge ourselves to act out of higher levels of being. Of course, I often miss the mark, but in every moment I have the opportunity to change. Being given a second, third, or whatever it takes chance is comforting. In my experience, uncovering the Divine nature within me is a form of prayer, equally as important as praying to an external God for help. Empowered to fulfill a high calling to partner with my Creator in continuing acts of creation, today I see myself and all co-creators as deserving of grace, even when we miss the mark over and over again. I don’t think it’s about deserving or not deserving. I think it is about awakening.
During my dark night of confusion, I often said, “I need God with skin on.” My pain prevented me from recognizing the many friends who walked with me through this experience as the Divine messengers they were. I am eternally grateful for those who responded to their awesome call to be co-creators by reaching out to me, helping me “change my mind” about God. Consoled by their care, I moved from experiencing God as Judge to embracing God as Cosmic Comforter, one who suffers with us through our dark night experiences.
Even after that powerful experience of grace in 1999, it took time for me to integrate grace into my psyche. As I mentioned in my first blog post, the writing of my memoir transformed the way I look at my life…awakening me to seeing my difficult life as the context for my spiritual journey, finally achieving the integration I began consciously seeking in 1984. Today, in my better moments, I am challenged and empowered to find the gift available in every painful moment, recognizing Divine grace in everything. I am in awe of the mystery and The Mystery.
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace –
Only that it meets us where we are
But does not leave us where it found us.