Words, single words, can have a tremendous power in me whether I want them to or not. They have a hinterland of feeling, imagery an atmosphere. They are linked to memories and associations – indeed their use comes to have a memory trail, and the triggering effects that go with that. Sometimes this seems independent of their plain meaning or general use.
Grace is like that. It’s the theological, redemptive meaning that has stuck. Yet it is independent of the received theology, or almost so. I notice that when President Obama spoke the eulogy for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston recently, he made use of the popular hymn Amazing Grace. It was written by the Englishman John Newton, an 18th century slave ship captain who eventually became a clergyman and prominent campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. As such it suited Obama’s point about how a shocking terrorist assassination can open up possibilities for learning and doing better. The first verse runs:
Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound!)
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.
Now this is a very simple and classically evangelical verse. The very simplicity of language and thought is part of its power. As it happens, I am not aligned to the specific religious narrative that stands behind it. I understand it very clearly – and I’m not aligned.
And yet … that’s not the whole story of what happens for me when I hear this verse, especially sung to the tune it acquired in the USA in the 1830’s. I cannot help being moved by ‘Grace’, and when I’m told that it makes a sweet sound, I’m completely with the hymn. In a certain mood I have no problem in thinking of myself as wretched. It isn’t exactly a moral terms, more about being alienated and out of reach to self and others. Modern English (British English anyway, in its polite form) is a softened, evasive language which generally doesn’t run to terms like ‘wretch’ – too strident and extreme; almost comical. But I know experiences that fit.
It’s also true that in the verse, an experience, described in the sweet sounding word ‘Grace’ has become available. Free and regardless of merit, it seems to have the power to change the quality and direction of a life. So the verse ends: ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see’. The brief four line verse frames the experience of Grace as a single turn-around moment, a very specific reference experience of spiritual rebirth. Life is a bit different. John Newton’s life changed in slow and gradual steps. But it changed, and eventually it changed radically.
Just as I have personal reference experiences for ‘wretch’, I also have personal reference experiences for ‘Grace’. The Cosmos includes Grace. In my universe of meaning I don’t know how to account for Grace – what it is, how it works, what it means. As an experience it begins as a powerful feeling/sensation in the belly and heart centres, more emotional than physical, that extends through and beyond my whole body. I have known it come within a formal practice, or through another trigger, but most likely it comes out of the blue. I’m clear that it isn’t ‘just’ a feeling, though it contains a strong feeling element. It’s more like an energetic, emotional and spiritual cleansing. It creates a spaciousness, and an expanded sense of being though not of personality. I’m left in a heightened state in which a lightness and clarity emerge. The world looks and feels different. I feel more compassionate towards myself and others. I am less interested in problems and events, and more resilient. There’s an element of drama and energetic arousal that gradually dies down and I find myself calm and at peace – in communion with what is. I do not have any sense of personal deity or energetic emanation from a higher realm, or of benefitting from a cosmically warranted plan of salvation or enlightenment. What I experience is a re-arrangement of my life as is, my place within it and my relationship with the whole. I am connected to the other dictionary meanings of ‘grace’ – smoothness and elegance of movement, courteous goodwill in speech, a ‘grace’ period given before favours are called in or debts have to be repaid. There’s a spirit of ease and generosity in the air.
The effects aren’t permanent. I can go down again – stiffen up, contract. But I notice that the downs and diminutions are not what they were before I became aware of Grace, or began to remember its possibility a bit more consistently. ‘Grace’ is indeed mysterious. I have not incorporated it into a coherent world view. I simply know that it’s a powerful word, matched with a powerful experience, and I’m grateful for it. My instinct is simply to stay open and to let it be.