Strange Grace

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When you stop to think about it, grace is actually a strange idea. We learn, from our earliest childhood, that things operate by the laws of cause and effect: if you drop something, it hits the ground; if you disobey someone in authority, there will be consequences. We learn, too, that events have causes. If the cause of a given event is not immediately obvious – it starts raining, for instance – then look harder. There’s a cloud up there somewhere.

It is tempting, for some of us at any rate, to try this with grace. We are blessed: we must have done something right somewhere. Conversely, we still make the category mistake over which Jesus corrected his disciples in John 9.1-5.

The healing of our own hearts is all grace. We so easily live, all of us, clenched in a spiritual version of the cause and effect paradigm: we feel bad, so we must have done something wrong; if we wish to feel better, we need to find the thing that will please God – or at least press the right psychological button – so that we are somehow put right again.

In his book Dying Well: Dying Faithfully, John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, points out that the medieval Ars moriendi, Latin texts on the art of dying of presumed Dominican origin,  contain the idea of despair over our past as a temptation we must face. Demons are sometimes shown tormenting the dying with lists of their misdeeds

…in a terrible parody of the words ‘Ecce homo’ (‘Behold the man!’) said about Jesus – ‘Ecce peccata tua’, (‘Behold your sins!’). Part of the subtlety of the accusations is that the demons quote scripture to demonstrate the righteousness of God, the seriousness of the individual sins and failures, and the impending judgement…

If loss of faith is loss of belief and trust, despair is the loss of hope…

In one of the Ars moriendi images, an angel visits a dying man and encourages him by pointing to figures from the Scriptures who repented and received forgiveness…

The medieval writers frequently emphasized the importance of meditating on the figure of Christ on the cross… But there seems to be a deeper mystery than merely being an external observer of Christ’s sufferings… The apostle Paul summed up his own personal hope in these words: ‘…that I may how him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3.10, emphasis added). In some indescribable way we can have the privilege of entering into and identifying with the sufferings of Christ on the cross…

Scott J. Hafemann writes:

In our day of self-help and age of technology and technique, it is important to keep in mind that God is both the initiator and object of this [inner] reconciliation. Our propensity is to view the gospel as our opportunity to reconcile God to us by showing him how much we love him, rather than seeing it as God’s act in Christ by which he reconciles us to himself by demonstrating his own love for us. The gospel is not our chance to get right with God, but God’s declaration that he has already made us right with him. The gospel does not call us to do something for God that he might save us; it announces what God has done to save us that we might trust him.

(The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians)

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross of course is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Restless Heart

Lord, you are great!
And worthy of our praise!
Your strength and your wisdom
Are beyond measure.

We long to praise you,
though we are burdened by our mortality.
We are conscious of sin,
we long to praise you.
For you have so made us that we long for you,
and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you…

Lord, I shall seek you by calling to you,
In calling to you I shall believe, for your Word has come to us.
My faith will call out to you, my Lord.
Faith is your gift to me, through Jesus…

Confessions: St Augustine tr. Benignus O’Rourke OSA

We cannot help it – we are strangers and pilgrims by our very nature (1 Peter 2.11 AV) – a people called out from among those who live only among material longings, to long for God. How this happens is probably a mystery. Certainly it is grace. We are called; and yet that invitation is for all, even for those who do not answer (Revelation 3.20). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

What does it mean to be holy? Who is called to be holy? We are often led to think that holiness is a goal reserved for a few elect. St Paul, instead, speaks of God’s great plan and says: “even as he (God) chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). And he was speaking about all of us. At the centre of the divine plan is Christ in whom God shows his Face, in accord with the favour of his will. The Mystery hidden in the centuries is revealed in its fullness in the Word made flesh. And Paul then says: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19)…

We cannot settle down in a broken world. This is what lies at the heart, I think, of the Bodhisattva Vows of Mahayana Buddhism – a compassion that will not abandon the suffering of created things.

As strangers, we cannot be at home among the pain and injustice that are an inescapable part of this time-bound world into which we were born. As pilgrims, we wander in search of the mercy of God. Like Augustine, we call to God, though our longing itself is through grace. Our weakness, our lack, our longing, is the place where grace finds us: “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12.9 NIV)

Thus I have found myself called back again and again to the Jesus Prayer. Laurence Freeman once wrote that “sinners make the best contemplatives.” The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, “a sinner.” To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit (Matthew 5.3) is essential to living in that mercy.

As I wrote a while ago, our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

In the end, our only destination is mercy. Like Ironside’s Door, it may look different from either side: we cry to God for his mercy – but having received it, we realise it was freely given all along.