Originally published July 31, 2013
I’ve never thought of grace as awful. I’ve thought God’s grace is difficult to understand, that personal grace can be difficult to practice, and that both kinds can be comforting and inspiring. But, never have I thought of God’s gift as awful. Because, why would God offer us anything so bad that it could potentially kill our souls?
An ancient quote by Aeschylus, considered by many scholars to be the father of Greek tragedy, has prompted me to make sense of this idea:
“He who learns must suffer,
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And, in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
I probably read the quote when I was a college student, studying world literature and philosophy. That it did not stick with me is not surprising; not many 20-year-olds have a deep understanding of the relationship between tragedy, wisdom and God’s grace. I was recently reminded of this quote when listening to the audiobook Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Set in the summer of ’61, in a rural Minnesota community, Ordinary Grace eloquently tells the story of a minister’s teenage son who, faced with the horror of several deaths, wrestles with faith and forgiveness. **
Aeschylus’s quote was made famous in modern times by Bobby Kennedy, when he delivered the news of Martin Luther King’s death to a largely black audience at a presidential campaign rally on April 4, 1968. As he was recounting Aeschylus’s words, Kennedy stumbled over the word “despite” and replaced it with “despair.” This is especially meaningful because Kennedy — relating to the despair he felt after his brother’s assassination — was encouraging his audience to turn away from hateful, destructive feelings and actions (“despite” = spite, malice), and take, instead, the high road toward wisdom. Ironically, King — speaking about his own personal trials — had once said, “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven time and time again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”
People have long struggled with the idea that God’s grace can be unmerited. We’ve been taught that God can and does “smile upon” ALL people. Good things/fortune can happen to bad people. Unfortunately, bad things — unmerited suffering — can happen to good people. Some people ask why God would let such injustice happen … something like I asked at the beginning of this post, “How could God’s grace be awful?” Turns out I wasn’t hearing and understanding the full meaning of Aeschylus’s quote — that God’s grace can be the wisdom gained from living with and somehow, over time, coming to terms with life’s awful tragedies.
While “chasing this particular pirate,” I’ve been enriched by Kennedy’s heartfelt speech (click for text and audio) and King’s poignant quote. But, I’ve also been sadly reminded of devastating periods of recent history that made me wonder about my own fortitude. I found a Huffington Post article that was posted a month after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman; a U.S. Representative from Florida urged readers to remember the message of Kennedy’s speech. In light of the recent not-guilty verdict in the Martin case and the subsequent rioting, Kennedy’s speech should be broadcast 24/7; I can’t be the only white person asking, “Would I be able to gracefully endure such injustice?”
Also, I’ve been sadly recalling the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings. If my child was killed, or if I was maimed, would I be able to turn away from bitterness and hate? Would I even want to live? I have my doubts. The personal trials and tribulations I’ve lived with and gained just a little wisdom from are seriously dwarfed by all of these and countless other awful tragedies that are happening to people all over the world, even as I write this. I can only pray that God will surround them with loving angels — heavenly and earthly angels — to comfort, encourage, guide and protect them as they journey through their unimaginable pain.
There are many people who are suffering with grief, with feelings of fear, anger and deep sadness because of — among other issues — ill health, loss of a job and/or the death of a loved one. If they are our friends and/or family, it’s often easy to know what to do to support them. And, for those we don’t know but may have some brief contact with during the day (i.e. at the grocery store, a restaurant, the post office, the bank, etc.), we can smile and be kind. Because we can never know all who are quietly suffering — just as we can never know when our simple, ordinary acts of grace can fall drop, drop, drop upon the heart and mean the difference between “despair and hope, darkness and light, sadness and joy” (from Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi).
** Ordinary Grace is not a preachy, deeply religious book. It’s a book about good people who struggle to understand the bad things that are happening around them and to them. Krueger’s descriptions of people, their feelings and the town they live in are beautifully written. As with many books I have loved, I was sad when this one was ending. I know it’s a story that will stay with me for a long time.
Photo credited to author.