I have been thinking about grace a lot this week.
Before I get to that, though, I want to thank you for sticking with me through my posts of the past couple of weeks. I am deeply grieved for our country and the church, and writing has helped me make some sense of my feelings of anger and disappointment. So thank you.
Now, to grace.
I have often used the term, "There but for the grace of God go I." Usually, if I am honest, I mean it in a way that implies, "Thank you God that I am not like him/her/them." If I am honest.
And that is not grace.
There were three men I almost married. One would have been a serial cheater. Another was an insecure workaholic. The third was just insecure. I am so thankful that I didn't marry until I met Jay - and we are celebrating our 31st wedding anniversary this week! None of those others would have made me happy, and I would not have made them happy. There but for the grace of God....
Some years ago my sister sent a letter asking for money to finance her mission trip to Thailand. Her plan was to work with former sex workers infected with HIV . At first I wasn't very charitable, and thought that if she wanted to go to Thailand she should pay for it herself. Then it occurred to me that if Susan (and all the other missionaries in the world) was going I didn't have to, and I had all kinds of reasons not to go, including but not limited to full-time job, small kids, no interest - you get the idea. So we made a contribution, and I hope she was able to make a difference in the lives of these women, because one thing I know is that none of them chose the sex trade because she liked sex, and none of them deserved to die for it (this was when AIDS was essentially a death sentence). They were either trafficked or had no other options. There but for the grace of God ....
When I was in high school I spent a weekend with a friend at Purdue University. She had a friend with a car who was able to meet me at the airport in Indianapolis (I lived in Pittsburgh). The friend and car weren't available when it was time for me to leave on Sunday, so I took a bus. When I arrived back in Indianapolis, being frugal, I asked where to catch the city bus to take me to the airport. I was told to go out this door, turn left and it is at a parking lot 2 blocks down. So here I was, a 17 year old girl lugging a suitcase leaving the bus terminal. I'm guessing I looked like a runaway. A very nice man wearing a lovely hat and driving a Cadillac with white-wall tires offered me a ride. He said he would take me to the airport. I didn't believe then and I don't believe now that he ever intended to take me to the airport. I declined. The parking lot attendant was equally generous. I high-tailed it back to the bus terminal, asked for the taxi stand and was scolded for not waiting very long for the bus. All I wanted was to get to the airport - I was comfortable in airports. Did I mention that my dad worked in the airline industry? I was terrified to think what could have happened - and there but for the grace of God ....
But as I said, that isn't really grace. That may be grace - but why me and not others? I'm no better than they are. More likely it is just me trying to make sense of things and chalking good luck and laziness (I didn't go to Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter), and maybe a little common sense, to God.
I've been listening to the podcast Turning to the Mystics with James Finley. Julian of Norwich is one of my heroines, and the mystics fascinate me, so I was really excited to discover this podcast. I've been listening to the series on St. Teresa of Avila. Her book, Inside Castle, is the topic being discussed and I've added it to my reading list. Since I haven't yet read the book I can't always distinguish between Teresa's words and Dr. Finley's, and I'm sorry for that, but anything in quotes and everything attributed to Teresa I heard on the podcast. I will also say right now that I will not do justice to St. Teresa or to Dr. Finley's reflections.
Teresa was a cloistered nun in Spain in the sixteenth century. As she was at prayer one day trying to determine the best way to describe the soul, she came to the metaphor of a castle. The castle was like a "diamond, or a clear crystal." The castle has seven mansions, and one passes through each mansion as one "descends" into the deepest part of oneself. It is in the deepest mansion that God resides.
St. Teresa described the soul as what our faith reveals us to be, made in the image of God. Our soul is our "God given, Godly nature. Our soul is who we are because God says so." Some of that, I think, is Teresa, and some is Dr. Finley.
Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for, as He has told us, He created us in His own image and likeness. - St. Teresa of Avila
Dr. Finley reflects that if we believe that God lives in heaven, and if God is in our soul, then the kingdom of heaven is within us. I thought about that for a little while, and the image that came to me is of a mist that flows through and among us, entwining our bodies, minds, and spirits with those of every other person. Every. Other. Person. Because if I believe that God is in me, then I have to assume that God is also in you, and in every other beloved child of God's. I have hung on to that image, and it helps me to see people differently and in a more positive, compassionate light.
This weekend I was listening to the chapter on the fourth mansion, (session 3). Dr. Finley says Teresa compares the soul to a basin filling with water, which is God's presence. She talks about water filling one basin which comes to us from far away through human-constructed conduits. The other basin is filled at the very source and from water that flows all the time. The source of this water is God.
This, I think, is grace. God loves us deeply, completely, and unendingly. Some of us will reach the final mansion in our castle and encounter God. Some of us won't, but that doesn't mean that God isn't there, loving us, and bestowing goodness and mercy on us. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6, NRSV). We can choose to do the work of encountering God through prayer, study, contemplation and meditation, or we can ignore God, but God is still there.
As I reflected on this, I pictured a basin, with living water, or God's love, welling up from the bottom, from somewhere deep inside me. I am at the center of my basin, just as you are at the center of yours. In my basin are my family, my friends, and other people I care about, whether I know them or not. These people are all loved by God.
Are the people who have hurt me in my basin? My first answer - nope. Are the people I perceive as evil in my basin? Nope.
If a pebble is dropped into a pond the ripples go and go until they play themselves out. But in a basin the ripples expand outward, but stop at the rim.
As I thought about it, though, I realized that this grace is not mine to give. It is God's. God's grace is available and freely given to all of us - the ripples extend out and out and out until the basin overflows, and Teresa says that if we will accept that grace, the basin expands and expands.
And so my basin expanded. There is room in the basin for those who have hurt me, and for those I perceive as evil. If the basin is God's grace, there is more than enough to fill my basin, and your basin, and every other basin that has ever been and ever will be. And so the people that I excluded - yep. They are in the basin with me. (And here I think it is important to point out that just because someone is "in the basin" doesn't mean that they need to be allowed close in our lives. Hurt is hurt, and forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting. That could be dangerous, trust takes time to rebuild, and forgiveness is a topic for another day).
This is how it is with God's love. Take a little for yourself and you'll have more to share. With this grace comes responsibility, though: to feed the hungry, care for the orphan and the widow, and to see and listen to those in the shadows. This grace leaves no room for racism, misogyny, nationalism. Only God's enduring love.
Sadly, many people reject this grace and God's love because of those responsibilities. Many people, I'm afraid, claim the grace for themselves in a greedy grab for power and prestige, but fail to recognize that it demands to be shared. Many people put God to the test, "by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear" (Acts 15:10, NRSV). The same grace that will save those who bear the yoke will save those who apply the yoke. As the Bible says in Acts, 15:11, On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
It takes practice to dive deep into ourselves to meet God in our 7th mansion, but it requires no skill at all to receive God's love. Once you do, your basin will expand. How big is your basin? Who is in your basin? Can you find compassion for those who have hurt you and accept that God's grace is available to them, too? I don't believe that only Christians receive the grace of God, because God created all of us. Can you imagine the mist that is the love of God, connecting each of us?
Are you in need of God's grace? It is within you. John 1:16: From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. God loves you with a never-ending love. Dip your hand in that living water. Splash a little on those around you. Let the mist envelope you and feel the connection to all other people - God's beloved children, too.
Thanks for reading. Stay curious, and stay healthy. And do give a listen to Turning to the Mystics. You'll find it at https://cac.org/podcast/turning-to-the-mystics/. I find the wisdom of the mystics comforting and convicting. And my apologies to St Teresa and Dr. Finley. I'm sure I missed quite a bit.
Finley, James. "Teresa of Avila, Session 3." Turning to the Mystics. https://cac.org/podcast/turning-to-the-mystics/. Online, available 9/28/2020
Finley, James. "Turning to Teresa of Avila." Turning to the Mystics. https://cac.org/podcast/turning-to-the-mystics/. Online, available 9/28/2020
St. Teresa. "How did St. Teresa Describe the Human Soul?" Simply Catholic. https://www.simplycatholic.com/our-crystal-castle/. Online, available 9/28/2020.