there is a prevenient grace...

I write these things not as new insights—for many poets, theologians, and philosophers have expounded on these truths much more incisively, eloquently, and deeply than I will ever—but as reminders for myself, and maybe others. Despite the daily evidence of these truths, I am forgetful and easily distracted! For the times that I can remember them I count as blessings, and for the moments in which I can act on them, I count as divine miracles, a bestowing of a supernatural grace.

New Camaldoli Hermitage, 10/16

Love and grace precede us.

By which I mean that the existence and efficacy of love and grace are not contingent on our actions and words, and not even on our ability to receive them. Their power, in fact, lies in their prevenience, in our inability to merit either. We receive them nonetheless.

We forget this too often because in our everyday lives, we are tethered to a very human, which means limited, conception of justice, elementary cognitive systems of what is right and wrong. We miss the point completely when we define ourselves by our weaknesses but also when we overestimate our strengths. We are blind when we are mired in darkness, but also when we over-expose ourselves to false and artificial light…

The systems and institutions we live in have their own measures of justice, of course, doling out rewards and punishments deemed worthy and necessary based on subjective measures of goodness and evil. What a fair punishment is in another part of the world may seem like an atrocity here, and what standards of freedom we uphold here may seem like a misstep in justice elsewhere. Beyond our governments, our cultures also shape our sense of propriety, and for the most part, we must live under these laws, spoken and unspoken, that organize the places that we live in. But for this very reason, it is easy to believe that we are incapable of harm, or evil, or darkness, when we stay within the bounds of the laws set upon us, whether visibly or invisibly. We forget—it’s easier to—that, as complex creatures with even more complex admixtures of good and evil in us, we are not merely one or the other but inevitably possessors of both. Sometimes it is impossible for us to distinguish one from the other. That we do not suffer the punishments of human society or profess visible signs of madness does not mean we are exempt from darkness; that we do not receive the praise of men does not mean we have no goodness in our hearts either.

For when you witness, in all its agony and dissonance and mystery, the unsettling heterogeny of the human soul—whether you see the moments of light in a swath of darkness, or echoes of light receding into the shadows—you are not seeing something separate from yourself. You cannot distance yourself from the reality of realities, supposing you are any better or any worse. He is not an aberration, and neither are you.

I am not justifying or rationalizing atrocities. My theodicy is not to condone or ignore evil; I cannot condemn, that is not my place. But I am saying all this because, amidst the sorrow and tragedy and betrayal that our lives are not without, it is much easier to try to make sense of darkness—muddling is futile though—than to seek the light. I am wrestling with questions much too great for my understanding and knowledge, but let me clarify—I am not trying to answer the question of why evil exists, or why people do evil. I am saying, that in what I know to be true, grace was bestowed on us before we knew that we needed it.

The narratives that drive us to do good or wrong are complex, for sure. Give people the benefit of this complexity. Our broken, faltering natures will always be a fact and a mystery. I do not know why we do the things that we do, but I also know, that in the irrational way we are compelled to fuck things up, we are also recipients of an irrational love, and by irrational, I mean, incomprehensible by the human mind, unexposed by reason.

In the face of utter desolation and devastation, when we are in the wilderness of ourselves, perhaps we are not to justify it or make sense of it, or to even come to terms with it, but instead, run towards what we know to be true.

For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion. So great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring afflictions of grief to the children of men.*

I think back to the moments in which someone has been gracious to me—given me something when I felt I deserved nothing. Was it my need or their gift that was the grace? Surely the grace began at its mere intention, at the giving before it was given. The grace was not consecrated because of my need for it. Neither was the grace amplified because I felt diminished, or lessened because I was no longer in need of it (the latter is impossible, I think).

            Forgive them for they know not what they do.**

It is much easier to receive grace than to give it of course, especially when the extension of such—and what is alike: mercy, forgiveness—feels like a betrayal of our selves, the pride of our principles, our precarious sense of justice. We might even feel offended by the possibility of such grace. What’s left of us might be rend asunder. We cling onto what we know; all else is unsafe and dangerous, an affront to our identities, our culture, whom we know ourselves to be.

By our sensibilities and our senselessness, we demand to know exactly what it is that we are forgiving, and whether, by our own calculating conscience, such an offense is worth the forgiveness. Can we risk such a transaction? Often we wait to be distracted from our anger or we force time to dissipate our anger before we will admit to the relevance of grace in our circumstances.

How then do we extend it? Not by our own will, and not by the abilities that we have. We do have to try to extend it though, calling upon what divine help there is. We extend it with both joy and sorrow, I suppose, which I believe, are not in diametrical opposition—for you can be joyful, that in God’s prevenient grace we have an incredible example to follow and a great gift to receive, and you can be sorrowful in the clear-eyed recognition that, in the first place, our truly broken selves require such divine grace to heal.

This happens for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden, for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers us … 
The future always finds us changed. Each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous.  
Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy. When I say that much the greater part of our existence is unknowable by us because it rests with God, who is unknowable, I acknowledge His grace in allowing us to feel that we know any slightest part of it. Therefore, we have no way to reconcile its elements because they are what we are given out of no necessity at all except God’s grace in sustaining us as creatures we can recognize as ourselves.  
So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.*** 
We are broken, but we do not have to be crestfallen, for that brokenness is not all there is. Instead, there is hope, and that hope is manifest in the prevenience of the abundant grace and love which I have seen and felt, and I hope you do too.

So have compassion. Have mercy. It is much easier to not than it is to live by these things, but we must persevere. I think it a travesty—a perversion, really—of the density and beauty of these truths, to reduce them to mere bolsters of identity and self-worth, or to decide by our own human and arbitrary means, what merits compassion and what does not. Certainly, having compassion and mercy can result in the betterment of society and of humankind as a whole, and yet we cannot depend on these measures to justify our actions, and we cannot depend on ourselves to make better what will break over and over again.

Redemption comes from outside us. To see redemption is to first see darkness, followed by a miraculous light… I do believe that our lives, as brief as they may be, as much tragedy and sorrow as they do bear, are gifts, spans of time bestowed on us in which we know love and love more, in which we receive grace and give it, in which the character of God becomes more apparent and more astounding as we parse through our own joys and sorrows. His love, his mercy, his grace, his compassion are endless and infinite, and these are the things to which our lives must cleave. I have no authority in writing all this, but there is a beginning, a greater author by whom we must, if we will live hopefully and joyfully, carry out all the unconditional love and compassion we can muster. There is a root in a Creator, and He is the reason and the first manifestation, the highest principle.

But what is it which gives a man immortality, what except the love which abides?****

* Lamentations 3:31-33
** Luke 23:34
*** Marilynne Robinson, Lila
**** Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this. It is so easy to get caught in the trap of "earned grace" which is an oxymoron if there ever was one. Genuine grace can be unsettling, but it the only thing that really frees.