In moments of stress, all humans look to help from outside themselves. The pagan looks around for some wood to touch. Alfie, in ‘My Fair Lady’, says: With a little bit o’ luck, with a little bit o’ luck…
Mindful that Man proposes, but God disposes, devout Christians used to pepper their speech with DV (Deo volente) or D G (Deo Gratias), recognising God as the ultimate arbiter of events.
The Islamic equivalent is obligatory at moments that seem odd to a Westerner. Gulf Air announces ‘thanks God we have landed at Abu Dhabi airport‘, which rather begs the question of whether the pilot is due any share of the credit as well.
I prefer another Arab saying: Trust in God, but tie your camel first..
Islamic fatalism nearly led to the deaths of our family in the 1950s when we were being driven in the foothills of the Himalayas. The brakes failed, the driver threw up his hands and recited the Qu’ranic prayer before death, committing us into the hands of Allah. Luckily for us, my father (a true Anglican) preferred to take his fate into his own hands. He grabbed the wheel and swerved into the hillside, thus postponing for us all the no doubt interesting moment when we meet our Maker. You will understand why, in the circumstances, I am glad to be an Anglican.
What is the grace of God? There are hundreds of pages on the internet attempting a definition. ‘Unmerited pardon’, as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:18-24) is a favourite but the grace of God is wider than this and the Greek word charis cannot always be used in the sense of forgiveness. Perhaps the essential thing is that we can all recognise it when we see it.
One aspect of grace is strength given to us by God. This is the basis of many fables – think of the ring in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Popeye’s spinach, and the greeting in Star Wars, May the Force be with you!: I return, as so often, to the Christian allegory of Narnia:
Lucy buried her head in Aslan’s mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.”“Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed. But come. We have no time to lose.”
During Joan of Arc’s trial, she was asked if she knew herself to be in God’s grace. By asking her this, her inquisitors hoped to draw out an answer that they could use against her. The Catholic Church teaches that because God’s grace is a gift from God, and because humans cannot know the mind of God, then we cannot know if we are in a state of grace. Joan’s accusers thought that, because she was an uneducated peasant, she would reply yes or no, thereby falling into their trap. But Joan’s answer was this:
If I am not, God put me there, and if I am, God keep me there!
Expressing only the desire to be closer to God, this was essentially a perfect answer.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally celebrated as Mothering Sunday, with its accompanying readings. If you look at the second reading for Lent 4, however, you will find Ephesians 2.1-10
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Two other sages:
For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them. St Augustine of Hippo
Evelyn Underhill summed up:
Grace is God himself, his loving energy at work within his church and within our souls.
In ‘The Shell’, Amy Carmichael has a vivid metaphor:
Upon the sandy shore an empty shell, beyond the shell infinity of sea;
O Saviour, I am like that empty shell, thou art the Sea to me.
A sweeping wave rides up the shore, and lo, each dim recess the coiled shell within
Is searched, is filled, is filled to overflow by water crystalline.
Not to the shell is any glory then: all glory give we to the glorious sea.
And not to me is any glory when thou overflowest me.
Sweep over me thy shell, as low I lie. I yield me to the purpose of thy will,
Sweep up, O conquering waves, and purify and with thy fullness fill.
The poem ‘Grace’ by George Herbert is one of his deceptively simple ones that repays reading several times to get all the nuances of meaning:
My stock lies dead and no increase doth my dull husbandry improve:
O let thy graces without cease drop from above!
If still the sun should hide his face, thy house would but a dungeon prove,
Thy works, night’s captives: O let grace drop from above!
The dew doth ev’ry morning fall; and shall the dew outstrip thy dove?
The dew for which grass cannot call, drop from above…
O come! for thou dost know the way. Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say, ‘Drop from above.’
The author of ‘Out of Africa’, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), wrote in ‘Anecdotes of Destiny':
We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!
Finally, Laurence Housman, from ‘Brother Sun':
‘O hearken, for this is wonder!
Light looked down and beheld Darkness.
‘Thither will I go’, said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld War.
‘Thither will I go’, said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld Hatred.
‘Thither will I go’, said Love.
So came Light and shone.
So came Peace and gave rest.
So came Love and brought Life.
And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us.’
The illustration of the sky is by Audrey Hogan via 12Baskets and of the shell is by Elena Moiseeva, via Shutterstock.