Ancient words gone missing: grace

As I look around throughout the day, sniff the morning air, look out at the blossoming lights at dusk, I am still searching for some assurance (in addition to faith to which cleave strongly) that we are going to get through all this – global warming; trumpism; and the changes in our brains brought on by on-line communication, thought, and force-fed information. I frequently turn to earlier ages for some lenses though which to look. There are some ancient words which have gone missing in our time – words seldom heard, or sometimes used inaccurately. The loss of such words indicates the loss of the sentiment, the social background meme, the general anticipation of finding the quality named by the word. It is a loss of part of Life, in the same way that the death of certain species means there is less diversity in life and therefore more adaptations among those species remaining.
Grace is such a word that we seldom hear. It is a life quality we may often see, but not name or ponder. It is probably a word of unclear meaning. Let me try to define it.

Perhaps the most easily perceived meaning of grace has to do with physical comportment, as in “she walks with grace, or gracefully.” Here the word denotes a softness and smoothness of motion that seems to be effortless, without haste or anxiety, sure of the path, head held high as if looking for a far-away destination and unconcerned for things just in front of the feet which might trip, delay, or hinder. A person showing this quality is termed graceful.

But the grace I seek is an attitude or essence of character. It is a person`s clear ability to allow you room for error or offence without being troubled by it. A person with grace has enough reserve power, self-confidence, resilience, and good humour and affability, to be in your presence in such a way that you do not feel the person is judging you, feeling differently about you, feeling threatened by you, or in anyway not well disposed toward you. That person cares about you, and so is not merely tolerating your mistakes. Your mistakes are accepted along with your other qualities. That, I think, is grace.

Such a person is called gracious, and is said to have acted graciously.

In this era when religions are often experienced as harshly judgemental, exacting, and very basically right-or-wrong, it is sometimes difficult to remember that I first learned the concept of grace from my religion. Grace, rather than judgementalism, is the primary aspect of the Divine.

I often find grace in everyday life. It tends to happen in short spaces of time, is often unrecognized at the moment for what it is, and so ends before I have time to savour it. I see it sometimes in grandparents as they watch and listen to their grandchildren, or other children that age. Sometimes it is mistaken for indulgence.

Story: I often experienced it in the Air Force. At Strategic Air Command headquarters I was briefing officer to seventeen generals and their staffs, seven days a week. When you brief general officers, you often have other very important guests in the audience. I gave as many as 14 different briefings in a day. With that pace and complicated workload, it would not surprise if I flubbed a word, skipped a verbal passage, or showed signs of nervousness. But in the presence of a general and important guests that was not what was wanted. I was frequently surprised that these would be greeted with a smile, or simply be ignored, or were met with the comment, “A difficult briefing to give, captain. You did well.” Seldom did I encounter that graciousness among senior officers of less rank. But, flying on the carpet of grace when I did encounter it, I was able to adopt that same attitude toward my own staffs when there were problems. Grace was fleeting, and the pressure of the day could sometimes wipe it from my memory.
I certainly am seldom able to live out that quality when it hasn’t been shown me. Things must be going really well in a very calm way for me to feel it within myself. The fast pace, and the ever quickening pace, the competitiveness, the lack of time to think and come to terms with myself about the morality and ethics of recent actions and thoughts, the common harshness of conversation and speech, mitigate against the pause that is often the time span of grace. Being robbed of sufficient time for informed consent, I have difficulty finding grace.

I wonder whether there might be more opportunities for grace if we had fewer but fuller conversations – conversations which are not simply exchanges of information (so often the way among males), but respectfully attentive to what is being said, how it is being said, and some enquiry about what is going on in the other person’s life that brings a comment to the fore. We need pauses in time and action to experience grace. Perhaps we think of grace as primarily a Divine quality because we believe that the Divine can tune in to what is going on with us without the necessity of that pause.

As a clergy, I have spent many hours with families of people who were ill, waiting for tests or surgeries, or waiting for death to come. I sometimes found grace in the times of silence together. Of course we prayed together, but prayer in our tradition usually engages conscious concerns and wishes, and is sometimes not a quiet process. A time of grace was when we would simply experience together what there is and what there isn’t at the moment, with no sense of anxiety or pressure.

I think that if people could live slowly enough to actually look for grace, confident that we would find it every now and then and confident that we would be able to take the time to recognize it and breathe it in, and consent to it, the harshness of our conversations and speech, even in the political realm, would wane. Our days would feel less threatened. We could be calmer. It would be good, don’t you think?

One thought on “Ancient words gone missing: grace

  1. Yes, I do think it would be good! In his book ‘A World Waiting to be Born’ Scott Peck speaks of the rediscovery of civility. In the first chapter, he defines ‘civility’ in the words of Oliver Herford, who once said, ‘A gentleman is someone who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally!’ I think what you are talking about goes beyond such, and it is what we call ‘grace’ and sadly, it has gone missing. And we had better start looking for it! For without it, we are in a desperate condition!

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