More or Less was an essay I wrote for my English composition class. The assignment was to write a research paper on our worldview as a believer. Grace turned out to be a pretty obvious topic for me to write about, but it took me two tries and a conversation with my professor, Dr. Nicol Augusté before I realized it. This class has been amazing for me and I am so grateful to have been in this particular class at this particular time.
More or Less:
Exploring the Philosophy of Grace
Human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.
Deep breathe in…slow breathe out…calm silent mind…deep breathe in… I wish that dog would stop barking…slow breathe out…my nose is itchy…stop thinking…deep breathe in… slow breathe out… deep breathe in… slow breathe out… I totally got this… ugh stop thinking…
Meditation is difficult. My mind is not generally a still and gentle place. My mind is a place where ideas run hog wild, chaos rules and linear thought progression has never existed. To help remove the inherit stress in sitting still my mediation has become focused on one word that represents something I wish to cultivate in my life. I am mindful about selecting a word because I pick a new one each year and this year I have chosen grace. My worldview as a believer in the philosophy of grace stems from defining the word’s meaning, accepting change, and undertaking the apprenticeship.
I am very interested in understanding how grace has been defined in both religious and secular circles, although the two seem intertwined. Grace as a gift and grace as a behavior are two sides of the same coin. Christian theology breaks grace into two tension filled ideas of prevenient and subsequent grace. In Grace as Pardon and Power, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Jesse Couenhoven introduces the gift of God’s grace in this way: “In general, grace has been understood in two ways: as a declaration of acceptance and as a power that transforms” (63). Jackson Campbell Boswell explains this a little more simply in Milton and Prevenient Grace, “In brief, there is a grace which comes before an act of the will and a grace that comes afterwards” (83). In this frame of thought, grace is seen as the extra push we need to press forward and the change in spirit that happens during the process. In this definition, taking the time to find the balance and understand the tension between these two ideas allows us to at least contemplate the gift of grace in our lives.
A secular way to define grace is to add an additional layer that includes behaving with love and compassion toward ourselves and others. An effort to understand the people and culture in which we interact is becoming very welcomed in our globalized society. The internet is connecting us in ways that even Jules Vern could not have imagined; however, Michael E. Cavanagh tells us in Rediscovering Compassion that “in our society, compassion is often preempted by a hardness of heart driven by narcissism, competition, prejudice, and revenge” (317). The secret to finding grace in our lives may be in understanding the virtues we lack. Acting with love and compassion is more than a response. For me, this behavior is an extension of accepting the gift of grace and quite possibly, the responsibility of accepting it.
THE TROUBLE WITH GRACE
Along with defining grace, another area that inspires my belief is the inherit trouble with accepting a gift destined to cause so much change in who we are. Writings exploring the gift of grace and freewill have been pondered since Saint Augustine. In To Act or Not, Stephen M. Fallon references St. Augustine when he discusses Milton’s Concept of Divine Freedom: “To be able to do evil is a proof of free choice; to be able not to do evil is also a proof of free choice; but to be confirmed in grace to the point of no longer being able to evil is the supreme degree of liberty” (426). The idea that grace helps us with this process is a theme running through the popular hymn Amazing Grace. Where there is a gift, there is the freewill to accept it or not. The blind do not always choose to see.
In Greek mythology, the story of the Centaurs and the Lapiths is a metaphor between barbaric and uncontrolled behavior, and refined and graceful behavior. The Lapith women, although treated quite horribly by the Centaurs, are often depicted in Greek art with their heads held high with a placid or calm face. The Lapith women choose to behave with grace because giving into their emotions would have been barbaric. But this is not the only place we see grace in ancient Greece. Charites, personifications of grace, were often thought to be in service or attendance to the divinities. Here, long before Christianity, grace was also a gift of inspiration.
Maintaining a sense of grace in the face of misbehavior, specifically that of a child, or an irate customer, is not easy. Maybe we are meant to use grace to aid our spiritual growth. Charles Merritt Nielson explores the idea that there are degrees in which grace is offered in his essay titled More or Less Grace. Mixing his words with John Knox, Nielson writes, “The words ‘Spirit,’ ‘grace,’ and ‘love’ all refer to something known in experience. Certainly experience can be a matter of ‘more’ or ‘less.’” (235). Grace is both a gift and a challenge. Whether God gives out grace in degrees, or we accept grace in degrees, we, more or less have the choice to behave gracefully and gratefully.
As well as defining grace and excepting responsibility, living a philosophy comes down to the everyday practice – an apprenticeship of grace. To say I had an anger management problem as a child is a bit of an understatement. I was constantly told “I do not know what to do with you” and quite frankly I often did not know what to do with myself. Rage was the perfect emotion to lose myself in. Outbursts started like a simmering pot of chocolate that burst into a rolling boil destined to destroy itself and the pot.
The first time I mindfully accepted the gift of grace I was twenty and living on my own. On my mother’s birthday I was sitting beside her in the overflow chairs at my uncle’s visitation and I was angry. My uncle took his own life. His death was methodical and well planned, but not entirely out of character. He and I were not close. I had recently argued with family members about the state of my uncle’s home. The house had long lost the warmth associated with my grandparents and as far I could see was about to fall down. In a fit (which I was prone to have) I went straight down there and stole a bunch of family pictures out of his collection. I was so irritated with my uncle for letting the memories of my grandparents rot that the last time I saw him, a month before he died, I did not talk to him.
The thing about being a niece is that we have no real role in family affairs. As I sat at my uncle’s visitation, steaming in my own frustration, the beginnings of an emotional outburst was working its way through my system when I began to feel something else. All of the sudden I realized, I was a daughter and my father was standing in the receiving line accepting condolences – alone. I was compelled to stand with him. Grace did not enter through my heart, instead the feeling of calm softened my simmering emotions and as I stood, the feeling of support worked its way up my backbone. Being with my father that day was one of the hardest things I had ever done. As people came through the line, Dad would introduce them to me and my presence seemed to offer the opportunity to talk about something other than the real reason we were all there. Every cell in my body was at attention and present in the moment. The minister took me aside to make sure I knew it was okay to cry, but I did not feel like crying. Instead, I accepted this gift that allowed me to meet so many wonderful and caring people. A gift that created a connection with my father that would change me forever.
Accepting grace is a process; this year is about exploring how grace fits into my life and how to be more graceful in my interactions. My husband’s good friend describes me like this: “She is one of the sweetest and kindest people I know, but I would not want to get on her bad side, she has an eight hundred pound gorilla living inside her.” I love this description of me because it truly reflects how much my environment has changed. Instead of being known as stubborn and aggressive, here, I am considered creative, tenacious and assertive. Changing behavior is difficult and it took me a long time to realize how to focus my anger into something productive. I had witnessed self destruction and allowed grace to rescue me from rage, but not from myself. I still have moments that are less than graceful, but I know there is another way and that knowledge keeps me practicing.
Deep breath in… grace…
Slow breath in… grace…
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